Throughout the course of individual therapy, it is so common for relationship issues to be addressed, even if the relationship isn’t necessarily undergoing a major stressor or challenging stage.
As an individual therapist, I frequently hear “my partner is so <insert hard emotional state here> and I just don’t know what to do to help them feel better.”
Or perhaps it’s a statement that carries more of a burden of responsibility. “But shouldn’t I go ahead and <insert action item here> to help them get better?”
Certainly these conversations come up with our couples’ therapist in his sessions.
It’s hard work to figure out the line between taking responsibility for your partner’s mental health and supporting your partner’s mental health, without burdening yourself with the action items and outcomes around that.
It’s interesting to hear people’s logic behind why they think they “should” do something….and can often reveal some places we can address building healthier boundaries; increasing effective communication skills; clarifying their own needs; definitely resolving some people-pleasing tendencies; and the like.
But it still begs a question: How is it a partner's responsibility to pay attention to their significant other's mental health?
And here’s my answer:
I’d caution people from assuming responsibility for the mental health of others. That can lead to codependency and enmeshment, which are unhealthy ways of being in a relationship and can create a lot of problematic interactions and lead to a lot of harm.
That said, if you have healthy boundaries around mental and emotional health and knows how to support your partner’s mental health…that is awesome! Your role there can sometimes be about detecting signs of stress or anxiety or depression a little earlier than what individuals can typically do on their own. Also, you might be able to help your partner anticipate challenges and prepare them to have a coping strategy ready. You can reflect back to your significant other patterns and triggers that are adaptive or maladaptive.
But the key word here is support: you should be in a supporting/supportive role--an additional bolster, not someone who takes on the action steps for caring for your partner’s mental health first and foremost.
So how do you do that exactly? Read on!
4 Ways to Check In on Your Partner’s Mental Health
1. Create a space for mental health conversations to exist at all. Just as you would ask “how did your day go?” and expect to hear about happenings at the water cooler (or tech issues in this pandemic age!), start to create a relationship where “how are you feeling?” is just as common of a conversation. This will make it smoother to have conversations when mental health isn’t at its prime.
2. Be honest in reflections of your partners’ behaviors and words. It’s okay to say “I notice you seem to be sleeping less lately. What’s going on for you?” or “I know you’ve had a lot going on at work lately. I can tell you’re out of sorts. Anything I can do to help?” Reflecting back behavior in a transparent (but still gentle!) way can lay the groundwork for expressing concern about poorer mental health but can also make it more likely your partner will engage with you about what’s going. It may also help them build awareness of how they are when they are stressed, or sad, or something else and allow them to take positive steps from there.
Plus, there is often a feeling of “wow, I feel so seen” on the part of the person receiving these observations, particularly when done through effective and empathetic communication, that can have such a positive impact on the relationship overall.