Love is hard enough as it is, but being in love with someone with a mental illness can present unique challenges to a relationship. How do you balance taking care of someone else with taking care of yourself? How can you juggle the roles of partner and therapist, lover and caretaker? When does it become too much, and how can you end a relationship without feeling as though you’re risking someone’s health and well-being by doing so?
If you’ve had to ask yourself these questions, it’s possible that your partner’s mental illness is perpetuating a cycle of abuse, or at the very least creating fertile ground for it, because guess what? These aren’t questions that people in relationships with stable individuals have to consider.
I should know — I’ve been there. My former husband had a long history of mental illness that began before we ever tied the knot. As the years passed, his inability (and at times, unwillingness) to manage his Bipolar Disorder and Depression eventually culminated in physical violence and death threats against me, himself, and our child. Years later, with hindsight, it’s easy to see that things didn’t spiral out of control as they seemed to at the time. Rather, it was a slow unraveling.
Over time, his mental illness and my attempts to help him manage it created behavioral patterns that were neither sustainable nor healthy — for either of us.
Only a licensed mental health professional can properly evaluate your individual situation, but if one or more of the following scenarios apply to you, it’s worth examining whether you’re in an abusive relationship.
You find yourself in a therapist role.
Everyone needs help sometimes, but if more than half of your interactions with your partner would fall under the role of a therapist (whether that’s reminders to take medications, checking in regarding their side effects, or talking them down from a ledge — metaphorically or literally), you’re operating outside the duties of girlfriend or boyfriend.
Maybe you don’t mind playing the role of a “good listener” who offers reassurances and advice, even if you’re having to play that role every single day. But chances are, you’re not a therapist. It isn’t your job to be doling out counseling services, and, frankly, you’re not qualified. Trying to help a volatile person deal with complex psychiatric issues can be dangerous — for you and for them.
You never get to talk about yourself.
Because your partner is struggling, the majority of your conversations are centered around them and their suffering. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for talking about you. Maybe your bad day feels unimportant compared to whatever they’re going through. Maybe talking about your good day feels too much like “rubbing it in.” But the bottom line is that you’re not getting to share about yourself with the person who you love, and the one who’s supposed to love you, too.
Their struggles can be perfectly valid and their suffering objectively terrible, but it doesn’t make your own life any less important or worthy of discussion. You matter, and in a healthy relationship, that’s reflected in conversations where your partner is asking about how you’re doing as much as you’re checking in with them.
You cancel plans to stay with them.
Your partner isn’t feeling up to socialization, but instead of heading off without them, you stay back, too. Maybe they asked you to. Maybe they didn’t request it explicitly, but you knew you’d be made to feel guilty for going if you went. Maybe neither of those necessarily apply, but you stayed home anyways because you convinced yourself you weren’t in the mood to go out, either.
Regardless, avoiding social outings in order to be with your partner ultimately leads to isolation, one of the key ingredients in a recipe for abuse. The more invitations you decline, the less you’re likely to be offered in the future, and friendships decay. As your social circle shrinks to just your partner, you have fewer people to turn to for help and support. For some abusers, that’s exactly what they want.
You’re glued to your phone.
When you do go out, you’re constantly attending to your phone. Why? Because your partner might need you. It seems like they’re almost always in crisis mode, or near-crisis mode, and you’ve got to be standing by to swing into action if needed. Whether that means sending reassuring texts, stepping out to talk them through an issue over the phone, or bailing on a group outing early, it means you’re not being present in the moment with your friends, your other loved ones, or even just yourself.
You’re afraid to leave them alone.
Maybe the reason you avoid going out without your partner is because you’re afraid that something terrible will happen to them if they’re left alone. Maybe you’re worried they’ll self-harm or abuse substances (a form of self-harm) and you won’t be there to prevent or treat it. Their physical safety has somehow become your responsibility, and that’s not how a healthy romantic relationship works.
Suicidal feelings are a threat, not a confession.
Having suicidal feelings doesn’t make someone a bad person, and everyone deserves to get help. But if your partner’s suicidal feelings become a threat, rather than a confession, that’s abuse.
When approached with evidence of infidelity, my partner’s response would often be, “If you leave me, I’ll kill myself.” This would apply to any number of lesser situations, as well. I’m upset about a cruel remark he made? “Well, I’ll just kill myself, since I’m such a bad person.” I’d like to go spend time with friends? “I might as well just kill myself, then, since I’m clearly not important to you.”
I remember he would stand in the threshold of our front door, hand on the doorknob, explaining which exact parking garage roof he was going to go jump off of (and “everyone would know it’s your fault”), if I didn’t do X,Y or Z. The objective was to control me — my movements, my actions, even my feelings, as if I didn’t feel the way he wanted me to about any given thing (including our relationship), well, that was a reason to kill himself, too.
You move the goalposts.
I can vividly recall the assurances I gave myself as I continued to remain in a relationship that had become, in ways that were increasingly obvious, abusive.
“He may have put me down, but at least he didn’t yell at me,” became “he may have yelled at me, but at least he didn’t hit me,” which became “he may have hit me, but at least he didn’t hurt our child.”
Instead of drawing a line in the sand and then sticking to it, for each new abusive behavior introduced in the relationship, I created a new threshold of tolerance — a new “line” that would be the breaking point if crossed. I moved the goalposts.
You can do this over and over again but eventually, you’ll run out of field.
They’re not seeking help.
It’s okay and it’s normal to struggle with mental illness. Yet in the words of Marcus Parks (one of my favorite podcasters, who talks often about his own struggles with schizophrenia), “Your mental illness isn’t your fault, but it is your responsibility.”
Ultimately, you can’t “fix” your partner’s mental illness in the same way you can’t perform open heart surgery on them in order to conduct a coronary artery bypass graft. You’re not qualified. You can’t “cure” their depression by being a better significant other, by saying enough of the right things, or by conceding to every demand no matter the personal sacrifice it entails.
Ultimately, it’s up to them to take control of their own situation and seek professional help. You can guide them, you can present them with resources and you can offer moral support alongside professional treatment, but that’s the extent of both your capabilities and your responsibility.
If your partner isn’t willing to take it from there, both of you become at risk for creating a cycle of abuse that’s dangerous for all involved.
Abuse can come in many forms and from any type of person — regardless of gender or sexual orientation. If you feel that you may be in an abusive relationship, seek help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can help victims and survivors of domestic violence. Call 1–800–799–7233 or chat with an advocate on their website.