Our guest, Gemma Luton shares her thoughts and considerations with regard to embarking upon a relationship if you, or your potential partner, lives with a mental health issue or illness.
Love is a volatile emotion at the best of times and for someone with mental health issues, it can be a seriously intense experience. However, I’d never say that someone with a mental illness should avoid or seek out love – whatever the nature of that illness may be. For a start, there’d be no point. Love is similar, in many ways, to a kind of mental illness; romantic love is likened to a chemical storm as:
- it cannot be quelled by logic or reason
- it leads the ‘sufferer’ to do strange things
- it alters thought patterns
- it often seems to emerge out of the blue
So, no amount of telling someone to avoid love, is going to make a blind bit of difference should they fall in love! Furthermore, every experience of love, and every experience of mental illness is different. For some, falling in love with the right person can, quite literally, be a lifesaving experience – while for others, having their brains plunged into the volatile neurological bath that is love, makes a bad situation an awful lot worse. There is no hard and fast rule here.
It would be moot for me to advise one to either avoid, or seek, love. However, what I can advise – to someone with a mental illness on the cusp of a relationship, and their partner, – is learn a little more about the journey that you are about to embark on. I’d say it’s important to understand how love can impact upon the person living with a mental illness, and how the illness may impact upon the relationship. Here are three points to consider:
1. Don’t expect love to heal you.
There is a curious, quasi-religious sanctity built up around the idea of romantic love in today’s world. Countless movies, novels, and feel-good media stories present romantic love as a kind of magical panacea which can heal and transform all that it touches. As it happens, this view is not as old as we’d like to think – while people have always thought that generalised ‘love’ for one’s friends, family, and so on was a good thing – romantic love has, in previous centuries been viewed with rather more caution. And there’s good reason for this.
Romantic love, in the brain, acts a lot like an addictive substance – with all the delusions, behavioural changes, and loss of perspective that this entails. Romantic love is potent and feels like it truly is transforming you – but so does LSD. If you enter into a relationship expecting to be healed (or to heal) through the ‘power of love’, you may be in for a disappointment. While it’s true that good, supportive relationships can have an incredible effect on one’s mental health, don’t sit back and expect this to happen magically just because you love each other.
Effort and self-awareness is required, on both sides, if the relationship is going to be of the healing and transformative variety.
2. Love the person, not the illness.
Some people have a strong urge to nurture and heal and this type of person is often drawn to individuals who may be in a vulnerable situation. They feel for them, want to care for them, and want to make them better. These feelings can become very intense, and are often reciprocated and that’s no bad thing; real, true, good relationships can grow out of these kinds of feelings. However, an individual must love the other for who they are – not for their ‘role’ as ‘patient’ or ‘nurse’.
To begin with, a person with a mental illness (who depends upon their partner for their care) should be aware that this can place a huge burden upon their partner – and their partner needs to also be aware of this. While a partner may give excellent care and not feel it to be a burden, it is important to acknowledge what they are doing, and not begrudge them the space and time they need, to care for themselves.
Simultaneously, partners caring for someone with a mental health issue must neither become too attached to their caring role nor frustrated when they fail to ‘heal’ the one they love. For these provisos to be met, it’s important for them to get to know each other, and love each other, for more than their illness or their ability to care and provide.
3. Remember, mental illness is not an excuse.
When affected by mental illness, it is wise to remember that this can contribute to a person feeling, and acting, in a way that they would not normally do so. Very often, the person feels both ashamed of the way they feel, and the way that these feelings affect their behaviour. When considering a relationship, the couple needs to understand that their relationship will likely be affected by unwanted behaviours, when they manifest, and that they both may find it very distressing. Patience, kindness, and love is needed especially at those difficult times.
However, while mental illness can be used to explain a certain behaviour, it can never be used to excuse it. The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent (except, sadly, towards themselves). However, phenomena like arguing, withdrawing, and impulsivity may rear its ugly head at times. When this happens, and one partner feels wronged or upset by it, mental illness is no excuse.
Knowing such behaviour is the result of a mental health issue can help the wronged partner to understand what has happened, and why it happened – but it should not be used to brush the incident under the carpet. These situations need to be acknowledged, for what they are, and worked through. Recriminations are perhaps not necessary, but forgiveness does require an acknowledgement of wrongdoing or unacceptable behaviour; any unacceptable behaviour within a relationship, is still unacceptable – no matter the cause. This is important to ensure the continued success of the relationship, and to avoid making the illness ‘bigger’, within the relationship, than the person(s) it is affecting.