Intimacy is the single most important and most terrifying part of a romantic relationship. A relationship can make the stigma of mental illness especially painful. In a relationship, it can make anyone feel like a moving target. So, how does someone have a mental disorder and make a relationship work?
Mental illness can cause a great deal of problems in a relationship. I have ADHD, Inattentive Type; this has been a cause for much conflict in my marriage. I have struggled to offer my wife undivided attention, I have failed do tasks I have promised to complete, or I have forgotten important dates. I felt like I could do “nothing” right. My wife was often hurt and I was often frustrated. But, what I have found helpful in removing stigma from my marriage are the following:
1. Research your disorder
Receiving a mental disorder diagnosis can be painful, at first. But, with research, we can learn that our disorders have a medical cause. This means that we are NOT crazy! It is not in our heads, there is a physiological reason for our behavior. When we have a better understanding of our disorder as a medical issue, not a moral one, we can have greater compassion for ourselves.
As we learn more about our mental illness, we can share that information to our partners. Just a person cannot be faulted for having cancer; our partners cannot fault us for our disorder. It is not your fault that you have a disorder (everyone has one).
This does not mean that our behaviors should be excused. But, when we hurt our loved ones we have a greater awareness of the reason for our behavior. With greater awareness, we can have a greater understanding of our triggers, behaviors, and ways to cope with our disorders. We are to do our best not to hurt our partners.
2. The reason your partner loves you
Typically, if a person can genuinely say, “I love you”; they have invested a great deal of time and emotion into a relationship with you. Your partner loves you for a reason. There are parts of us, even our disorders that our partners love about us.
If you are not sure why your partner loves you, ask them. Talk to your partner about the reasons why they fell in love with you. In many relationships, partners never ask this question.
Intimacy is terrifying because of the fear of rejection, but it is worth the risk. Love is not genuine if a person cannot accept us as we are. Not matter your mental illness, you are worthy of love.
Written by: Chris Denzler, MA
Follow me at @LifePlasticity
Empathic though this viewpoint might seem – the notion that mental illnesses are medically/biologically caused and that this can help us not to consider ourselves crazy – the reality is much more complex. In fact, no biological or genetic cause (as opposed to correlate) has ever been established for any “mental illness”. By mental illness, I refer to conditions like Borderline Personality Disorder, which I was diagnosed with, bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, and so on. These differ from diseases of the brain like Alzheimer’s, dementia or epilepsy, which are clearly physically based.
While saying that “it’s biological” might seem comforting, the alternative – that the environment and relationships contribute greatly and can cause “mental illness” – can actually be more useful and encouraging for many people. This involves the idea that we (often unconsciously) make a continuing contribution to our own problems, and that our past relationships/trauma/poor parenting were instrumental in the development of our emotional problems/”mental illnesses”. This is another way of understanding that “we’re not crazy!” – because anyone under great stress, abuse, distress from the environment might have reacted in the same way.
I say this as someone who was diagnosed with and has overcome mental illness, so I’m not talking down to anyone. But to me, saying that parents contribute to mental illnesses is not intended to blame parents at all. My parents contributed heavily to my emotional breakdowns, but they did so out of their own problems, because of their own poor parenting, and because of many stresses our family was experiencing. So the reality is much more complex than “blaming” parents as “bad”, and such social/psychological factors were much more important for me than biological factors.
There are several writers who discuss these issues very cogently. One would be John Read, whose books (e.g. Models of Madness) look at studies showing how heavily trauma, neglect, abuse, and poor parenting do in fact contribute to mental illnesses. His viewpoint is very empathic and certainly does not blame parents, rather, it seeks to involve them as allies in the recovery process. Another source would be Jay Joseph (e.g. The Gene Illusion) which shows that the supposed evidence showing that mental illnesses are genetic is actually extremely weak. This relates both to the unreliability and invalidity of our current mental illness categories, and to the fact that twin studies are fraught with methodological problems. One more example would be Stuart Kirk and David Cohen (e.g. Mad Science) which examines how little actual science is behind the claims of psychiatry of mental illness’s biological basis. Their writing makes clear that saying “emotional-relational problems are expressed in our biology” is very different from asserting that such problems – “mental illnesses” – are caused by our biology..
Again, I don’t put mental illnesses in quotes because I don’t think their symptoms or anyone’s suffering are real. I know that they are real. The quotes are meant to signify that “mental illnesses” might often – not always – be better understood as psychologically-understandable problems in functioning and relating successfully as a human being, rather than as biological diseases. To me this viewpoint is more encouraging and human than saying “it’s an illness.”