In a society that often idealizes effortless romantic connections, it is important to reframe our perspectives on the reality of authentic relationships. Relationships, at their core, are complex partnerships of individuals who each have independent needs, wants, and desires. Navigating relationships is inherently challenging and even more so when both partners struggle with mental health challenges. This has undoubtedly been true in my own partnership. Despite the various (and there were many!) challenges we have faced together, I am grateful for the joy and beauty that comes alongside the nuance of showing up for each other, and ourselves, intentionally.

MENTAL HEALTH PREVALENCE AND IMPACT ON RELATIONSHIPS/INTIMACY

It is important to understand how to effectively cope with mental health challenges within relationships due to its prevalence in today’s population. It is estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) that 1 in 4 people worldwide will be impacted by mental health struggles at some point throughout their lives. This statistic highlights the importance of addressing dual mental health, as many relationships will encounter these common challenges.

Additionally, science has shown that mental health has a notable impact on intimacy and sex drive. Many common mental health challenges, such as depression and anxiety, can disrupt hormone balance, affect neurotransmitter function, and cause physical symptoms that can lead to decreased libido and sexual satisfaction. On the other hand, healthy thought patterns and a general mental state often contribute to improved sexual functioning, positive mood, increased self-esteem, and a sense of healthy well-being. It is important to note that the impact of mental health on intimacy and sex drive is complex for each individual–there is no “one size fits all.”

SUGGESTIONS TO INCORPORATE WITHIN YOUR RELATIONSHIP

While every relationship is unique, the steps below provide a general guide to coping with mental health challenges within relationships.

Prioritize individual self-care

Self-care, or things you do to keep yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally well, is an essential component of a healthy relationship. As I often remind my clients, you cannot pour from an empty cup. It is normal to feel confused about what “self-care” strategies are, and/or overwhelmed on how to incorporate them into our already busy schedules. Self-care looks different for everyone and simply needs to include engaging with anything that brings you joy (reading, sitting in silence, going on walks, taking a hot shower/bath, journaling, calling a friend, etc.). Each person’s self-care activities are unique to them–be mindful not to judge yourself for what works, or does not work, for you. Trying out different things until something clicks for you can be a great place to start. Remembering to take care of yourself individually will leave you much more equipped to support yourself, as well as your partner.

Increase insight and awareness of your mental health strategies

It is difficult to know what you need from your partner if you do not know what you need from yourself. Increasing awareness of your own mental health challenges, along with corresponding coping strategies, allows for you to better support yourself, and therefore your partner. This insight can decrease misunderstandings of each other’s mental health symptoms, while also fostering empathy. Knowledge is empowering!

Make time to create memories of joy with your partner

When an individual is struggling with negative emotions, increasing time spent on pleasurable activities has a significant impact on mood. Relationships are no different! Pleasure triggers the release of neurotransmitters and hormones associated with joy and reward (dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins). This chemical change increases mood, reduces stress, creates feelings of well-being, and leads to enhanced cognitive functioning. Not to mention, having fun with your partner is immensely beneficial to long-term relationship satisfaction.

Communicate open and honestly (with yourselves and each other)

According to the American Psychological Association, 72% of adults in the United States identify communication as the top factor for a successful partnership. Open and honest communication is essential when one or both partners are living with mental health concerns. Maintaining honesty, along with comfort discussing mental health needs, is necessary to achieve genuine growth, individually and within relationships.

Be patient and flexible

Disagreements and frustration are bound to arise within relationships. However, it is important to avoid entering the space of contempt, criticism, defensiveness, or stonewalling, commonly known as the “Gottman Four Horsemen.” Contempt, treating others with disrespect using sarcasm or condescending language, often shows up as eye rolls, sneers, or verbal insults. Criticism can include blaming one’s partner for problems in the relationship. A common example of criticism is “you always do this.” Defensiveness is a more specific type of blame that often escalates conflict without sharing any responsibility for the situation. For example, one partner might get defensive as an attempt to protect themselves from blame and ultimately avoid all accountability. Lastly, stonewalling occurs when one partner avoids an issue or conversation that has been causing difficulty within the relationship. This often features one partner tuning out or ignoring the other during discussions. These four communication patterns prevent productive discussions and perpetuate frustration and resentment between partners. Cultivating patience and flexibility during discussions can create a safe environment for both partners to express their needs, desires, and offer support.

Establish a support system outside of your partner

Having a healthy support system outside of your romantic relationship provides balance and resilience to one’s life. While it is healthy for your partner to be your closest confidante, relying solely on them can place pressure on the relationship. Having connections with friends and family not only enriches your life with unique perspectives, but also offers an outlet for venting, seeking advice, and personal growth. By maintaining an individual identity, as well as healthy relationships with loved ones, your relationship can thrive with the strength of individuality and the security of external support.

Seek professional help as needed

Sometimes, even in the presence of deep love and sincere efforts, consulting a mental health professional can be the key to unlocking transformative growth. Reaching out for individual or couples counseling, or a combination of both, is an incredible sign of strength, vulnerability, and commitment. According to the NIMH, only 43.3% of adults living with mental illness received treatment in 2020. Professional support can provide coping strategies, enhanced communication skills, and a space to process daily stressors. Embracing mental health support is a courageous and impactful decision that can lead to greater emotional resilience and foster happier, healthier connections.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES
  1. Mindful Relationship Habits by S.J. Scott and Barrie Davenport
  2. Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson
  3. Attached by Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S.F. Heller, M.A.
  4. The High-Conflict Couple by Alan E. Fruzzetti, PhD
  5. Sex, Love, and Mental Illness by Stephanie J. Buehler