Hearts? Minds? They are equally complex. When you combine relationship issues with mental health struggles, the accompanying confusion can feel impossible to navigate. Where is the line between being a supportive partner, and neglecting your own needs? How can you ask for help without feeling like a burden? Are you doomed as a mentally ill person to spend your life alone in order to avoid projecting your trauma onto others? Questions abound, but here’s the gospel truth: You, along with every other person on this God-forsaken planet, are completely worthy of a partnership that lifts you up and encourages you to be the best version of yourself. Bad news? It’s going to be hard as hell. You have to be hyper-aware of how you are affecting those you’re close to and vice-versa. You will have to walk away from people when it feels like you have no one else, and you will have to put your squishy, vulnerable heart out on display over and over and over. It will require demolishing walls that were put there to protect you in the past. Most importantly, you must learn to value the relationship you have with yourself above all else.
If right now you’re wondering what makes me qualified to lecture you about unhealthy dating practices, well, you and me both. Most, if not all, of my relationships met their end because of an inability to cope with the stress of juggling my own mental health along with somebody else’s. At first, I’m sure that I was mostly the one at fault. I couldn’t bear the thought of being alone, so I strung people along, or I jumped in with both feet before I was really ready to do the work that was required. Once I felt like I was getting a grasp on the depths of my own mental caverns, I was eager to be a supportive partner to someone that needed help excavating theirs. I was good at making people feel loved, but I wasn’t very good at discerning who was the most deserving of that love. I wasn’t asking myself if the other person was “ready,” because the thought of being alone was still too much to handle. Alone equals unlovable, equals undesirable, and what was my reason for living if not to be pined after? Please, please, somebody prove to me that I’m not as worthless as I fear I am! I was actually becoming addicted to this feeling of longing. Disappointment felt like the purest form of intimacy. I sabotaged myself by choosing partners not for who could hold me up, but for who would be the hardest to hold on to.
I ended up pushing these people away. Did I want a challenge, or was I the one with the intimacy issues? I told myself that I had a savior complex, but maybe I just didn’t think I deserved a partner that had their shit together. How could someone like that understand someone like me? If they did understand, why would they stay? Better to only let people in that I could already sense would disappoint me in some way. Then, at least there was some sort of control over what came next. What a waste of time! Now that I’ve managed to stay single, I understand what an achievement it is. It’s not as impressive as it feels to swing someone who half-wants you but is unwilling to improve. Those are weak people, and choosing them over yourself makes you a weak person too. There’s nothing wrong with being weak, though. We’re all weak before hard decisions and tough commitments break down our mental pathways and build them up healthier and stronger. So here I am, single and thrilled about it, ready to pass on what I’ve learned throughout a decade of conflating love with having another body in the room.
Red flags can be overlooked when bad behavior is explained away by lapses in judgment symptomatic of a mental illness. Is your partner willing to talk about how they hurt you, or do they expect you to kick your feelings under the refrigerator? Sure, sometimes it is up to you to challenge your own irrational fears about how your partner perceives you and quiet the paranoid voice in your head, but if you’ve done that and something about their behavior still doesn’t sit right with you, your partner should want to know about the hurt they’ve caused. Communication is the most important part of any relationship, especially when one or both of you is coping with a mental illness. If they make a comment that upsets you, don’t respond from a place of emotion. Walk away, take some calming breaths, ask yourself why you are reacting this way, and come back to them ready to calmly explain how and why you feel what you do. If they are unable to sit down and have a conversation about what makes you tick, it is time to leave. If they’re going to hold your relationship hostage rather than address their own shortcomings, so be it.
If the red flags are more sinister than half-hearted comments, it is supremely important that you have people outside of your relationship that you can talk to openly and honestly. If this person doesn’t want you to reach out to others for advice because they are embarrassed about their behavior, I’m sorry to have to say that it doesn’t work that way. They chose to hurt you, and you have the responsibility to put up barriers between yourself and their afflictions. It is not your responsibility to behave how they want to prevent further betrayal. Ask yourself why emotional manipulation or aggression feels like love to you. If it’s because it's familiar, where does that stem from? Have you ever considered what you’d really want out of intimacy if you didn’t feel like you had to accept what was given to you? If you can’t see what they’re doing as wrong, you have to reach out to someone who can help you see it that way. We are often kinder to our friends than we are to ourselves. How can someone claim to love you and deny you that kindness? Make this a priority. If you have no one other than your partner to talk about your relationship with, don’t stop searching until you find someone. They are out there, I promise. Do not give up, you are worthy of friendship, and you are entitled to help.
If it’s you who can’t bear to acknowledge when you’ve done something wrong, it’s time to sit down with yourself and ask some seriously tough questions. Here are a few for starters:
Sure, you apologized, but do you actually understand where the other person is coming from?
What does it mean if your partner is right about your behavior?
What does this say about you as a person?
What are the defenses you’ve put up to avoid confronting those truths, and how did they form?
You may discover some truly uncomfortable things about your own behavior. You may ask yourself, “Does this make me hard to love?” and the answer might be yes. Don’t despair, if your partner values your relationship it would probably mean the entire world to them for you to voice this revelation. Earnestly ask them to help you communicate better, and be patient with you as you learn to accept your behavior not as your identity, but as choices you’ve made in the past. Forgive yourself for reacting in ways that were developed out of necessity, and learn to view those reactions as acts of self-compassion that no longer serve you. If you aren’t there yet, consider the impact this is having on your partner and if it might not be best for you to both spend some time actually working on yourselves instead of feeding into each other’s bad relationship habits.
The takeaway here is that in order to be happy in a relationship you can’t depend on another person for happiness. This doesn’t mean that you have to be happy before you can be with someone else. It means you have to be working toward a goal for your own mental health, and you have to get to a place where you understand that you will be ok with or without a romantic someone in your life. Sometimes the healthy option is to be single, and we need to embrace that. You could be single your entire life and be happy and whole. Being single doesn’t mean being alone. Learn to cultivate all different kinds of meaningful relationships, until someone comes along that checks your boxes. What is this person bringing to the table? A romantic partner should be easing your suffering, not adding to it. Stay open and receptive to love and communication, while staying true to the standards of decency that everyone should have when making decisions about something as important as who you spend your energy on. At the end of the day, having negative emotions, being sad, needing support… there is nothing wrong with any of that and you will find someone that feels completed by your mess. Taking out negative emotions on others, projecting traumas, and avoiding hard conversations means that you are not yet ready for the responsibility of having another person’s mental health tethered to your own.
Best of luck, I have every faith in you.