How does it feel when you have to leave – or be left by – your partner for the sake of your mental health? Mark Brown speaks with three people about what they’ve learnt over a lifetime of navigating mental illness and relationships
Very few relationships are effortless. Like so many things that are supposed be universal and natural, we get little opportunity to learn how our romantic relationships should be. Just like children being taught to swim in slightly less enlightened times, we are thrown into the water and expected to bob back to the surface.
Relationships are complicated, especially when navigating uncharted waters; even more so when you’re already trying to stay afloat in the stormy sea of living with mental health difficulty.
Tom* is in his thirties and still raw from his relationship ending just over a month ago. Life has been a cycle of depression and anxiety for as long as he can remember, “with depression in the cold months and mania beginning in spring.”
This means that for most of his twenties, Tom “didn’t pursue romantic engagement at all.”
Six years ago, Tom got together with a friend he’d known since he was fifteen. “I’d always had romantic feelings for her but never pursued them. We’d lived together, and over the years as close friends we’d gotten to know each other’s quirks and failings.”
Yet two years ago, Tom experienced extreme disassociation – an uneasy disconnect from the world and reality. “Even the most mundane actions like deciding to turn on the television or go to the toilet became huge ponderous tasks,” he says.
“I would spend days thinking about responding to texts, seconds would stretch on before I was able to respond to simple questions… Existence was unbearable and suicide was always on the edge of my thoughts.”
Naturally, this was distressing for Tom’s partner – who helped him seek treatment. Although his mood did improve, Tom says his poor mental health resulted in the breakdown of his relationship.
“She told me our relationship was broken and she no longer felt an emotional bond or a fundamental sense of trust in me,” he says now. “The relationship as she wanted it couldn’t be sustained. We had been planning to buy a house and have children. But children kept on getting pushed back.
“In breaking up with me, my girlfriend admitted that she couldn’t trust somebody with my mental health problems as a father. In hindsight my girlfriend says she had to emotionally disconnect to survive, but never reconnected afterwards.
“We parted painfully but amicably. I lost perspective on what it was like to be ‘back to normal’ and my recovery was simply too slow.” Tom now feels no resentment or guilt, but is occasionally pessimistic about the future.
“I feel by turns mildly and then overwhelmingly saddened by a burden I can’t help believe is to some essential degree inevitable, and a barrier to ‘real’ romantic engagement and friendship as most people understand those things.”
Relationships leave us with nowhere to hide. In some ways it is easier to talk about our mental health as an abstract, distant thing like the weather or conditions in the stock markets rather than as something that plays out with those we love, something that happens in our conversations and text messages and our beds and living rooms. Who we are in our romantic relationships is often closest to the person we really are, underneath all of our bluster and self-presentation.
When Jane was seven, her dad went into hospital for a routine procedure and never came home. “[My mother] wasn’t really able to handle my grief and neither was I,” Jane, who is now in her thirties, says.
Always an outsider at school, Jane was bullied but things changed when she hit puberty. “You get that rush like ‘wow, somebody likes me’,” she says of the new-found attention.
“I would seek validation through sex and relationships. It was hook ups for the sake of it to get that rush and get that feeling of being attractive,” she says. “It’s like a false sense of self-esteem and then you end up the next day feeling pretty shit about it because it’s something not founded on solid ground and it disappears.
“The last relationship I had was with a very insecure male academic. He was in his early 40s and I see now it was unhealthy because I was completely willing to give up everything about myself and dedicate myself to him. A person with whom you’re in a healthy relationship wouldn’t want you to do that.”
Jane was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder seven years ago. “You get told ‘so you have problems with forming and maintaining relationships’ and you’re like ‘oh, right yes, I suppose yes I do’.”
Jane is half way through a block of Cognitive Analytic Therapy sessions, a kind of therapy based upon forming a trusting, explorative and collaborative relationship with a therapist, which is helping her think through how her past has affected her relationships.
“I can look back very objectively, not in a way where I’m shaming myself for making bad decisions, and say ‘You were doing the best that you can with the knowledge that you had at that time’.”
Jane points out that for such a natural part of life, relationships aren’t something we are actually taught much about. We all just bumble our way through them.
If we’ve never felt safe, it can be hard to work out how to be vulnerable with another person. If we haven’t had stable and loving relationships in the past, we often don’t really know how they should work. Relationships are meant to be natural, which is why they’re surrounded by so much mystery and confusion.
“Even when people say ‘well, how do you know you’ve met That Person?’ all you get is that enigmatic response of ‘when you know you know’,” which isn’t helpful when you actually don’t know, and where your past experiences make you rush into relationships looking for someone to solve your problems,” Jane says. She is learning to take impulsivity out of the equation “literally until I work out where I’m at and what my boundaries are.” She is now taking a dating hiatus.
Cassandra is an advocate from the US. She’s in her thirties now, and has spent a lifetime navigating relationships while experiencing mental health difficulties. When we initially got in touch with each other she told me the question of whether mental health difficulty wrecks relationships “sort of made my stomach turn. Every one of my romantic relationships suffered because of the state of my mental health.”
Cassandra was raised – like many of us – in a family where feelings weren’t spoken about: “’We don’t talk about our feelings here, we don’t talk about important things - we just ignore it and brush it under the rug and it’ll go away.”
“I didn’t get a handle on my mental health until the last few years,” she told me, “so there were times when my partner would be overwhelmed by my depression and anxiety and would basically feel like I was a burden and I was bringing them down.
“There was a relationship that I had when I was younger where I was having PTSD symptoms I didn’t know were PTSD symptoms and my partner finally just got fed up and said ‘this is impacting me and I don’t want to do this anymore’. I was definitely overburdening him with how I was feeling and thinking. I didn’t have healthy boundaries so I was giving too much to him to handle.
“At the time I felt betrayed but looking back I see that he did the right thing, maybe not in the nicest way, but definitely did the right thing, he was protecting himself, putting up a boundary.”
Cassandra is currently in a relationship with someone who also experiences mental health difficulties, and talked to me about the importance of communication and of boundaries.
“I’ve been able to get to the point where I can realise ‘oh, that thought right there, that’s not a healthy thought, maybe we should work on that thought’ and being able to acknowledge that the impulses behind the thoughts are not necessarily healthy.
“I’ll tell my partner ‘hey I’m having a fear of abandonment or jealousy’ or whatever. I can acknowledge where it’s coming from and actually talk about it. That make the feeling less intense and,” she laughs, “it keeps me from impulsively destroying my relationship.”
Without boundaries, Cassandra says, it can be difficult to work out what is fair to ask someone to do for you or which of your emotions it’s reasonable for them to carry on your behalf. Having mental health difficulties can be a lonely experience, so it’s natural to hope that someone will come and take our hurt and confusion away. But it isn’t healthy.
Cassandra remembers: “When I was younger, late teens early twenties… I definitely wanted to give the control of my mental health to someone else thinking that they would be able to care for me and make it better. I was incredibly vulnerable and I didn’t know that I was attracting people who preyed upon vulnerability. I didn’t know how to protect myself.”
Having a partner who also experiences mental health difficulties has been eye-opening for Cassandra. “I find myself very frustrated at times and then realise ‘oh, hey! This must have been how my partners earlier in my life were feeling!’
“That sense of ‘I don’t know what to do here, nothing is working, and I can’t be around this person they bring me down’… sometimes it gets me very frustrated and I don’t want to deal with it, but I’m able to take a step back and say ‘have some empathy, this is how I lived my life for twenty three years.’”
As Cassandra says, a relationship is “a work in progress”, “especially when both people have mental health issues you both have to be willing to actively work on it together.”
Mental health difficulties, like love, leave us exposed and cut to the core of who we think we are and who we can be for other people. Both Jane and Cassandra said that that talking to others helped them to see how their relationships could be different now and in the future. To do so honestly means speaking about fear and insecurity as much as it involves speaking about love and joy.
Relationships aren’t about making people do things, they’re about finding ways to be with other people that work for everyone involved. There are no rules, no shortcuts, no maps, no abstract blueprint that guarantees success. Mental health difficulties can wreck relationships, but not every relationship that involves someone with a mental health problem has to be a wreck. No matter how embarrassing it might be, it is never too late to learn how to swim.
Relate offer a range of services for support with relationships, including online chat with counsellors at www.relate.org.uk
The NHS has a list of sources of help and advice if your mental health is causing you difficulties. If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article please contact the Samaritans helpline on 116 123.
*Names have been changed