Maintaining a Healthy Relationship

Relating to someone you love who has a mental illness can be difficult and frustrating, but there are strategies you can use to improve your communication with them. There may be a lot you don’t know about how your relative sees things when they’re symptomatic. These tips can help you build a stronger foundation for your relationship.

To get started on a better path in your relationship with your family member, first acknowledge that you can’t change them, only yourself. But the changes you make can improve your lives together. It’s critical to know as much as you can about their illness so you understand what they may be going through.

Don’t Buy Into Stigma

Be clear with yourself about who the person you care about really is. Even if we’re very close to someone with mental illness and advocate for his rights, we may also have our own preconceptions and false beliefs about mental illness. We have to learn to separate the illness from the person.

Understand Confusing Behavior

Because many of the symptoms of mental illness express themselves through social behavior, it’s natural to feel hurt by the symptoms. We tend to assume behavior is conscious and deliberate.

For example, when you invite your brother to dinner with friends and you feel embarrassed by his obsessive checking of whether he locked his car, you’re tempted to see him as someone who’s choosing to embarrass you. This may be how some friends and strangers see him, too—that’s the effect of stigma. When people around you see your relative this way, it can be hard to remember the truth: that he has an illness, and that the behavior is part of his symptoms. That doesn’t excuse cruel or violent behavior, but it’s an important reality to keep in mind.

See Opportunities for Improvement

You and your relative can still make conscious choices that improve your situation. You may agree to cooperate on communicating better, you may each work on keeping up friendships and other supportive relationships, you may each see a psychologist for talk therapy. The fact that you can control some things some of the time doesn’t negate the fact that the illness is real, not a character flaw, or anyone’s fault. Your relative’s capacity to make positive choices will depend on how severe her symptoms are at any given time.

Get Support from Other People

You know there's more to your loved one than her illness. You may value her sense of humor, her familiarity with your past, her ability to listen and her advice. When someone has a mental illness, she may feel it threatens her identity and self-respect. As with any other illness, your loved one will have periods when she's learning to cope with her illness’ challenges. During these times, she may seem self-absorbed and unable to give her usual attention and energy to others.

Both you and your relative will be better able to cope if you expand your own support network, beyond her. Strengthen your connections with other friends and family. This takes some pressure off your relative to help you as she did before she was ill. She can instead put that energy toward moving toward living well. At the same time, you may resent her less and feel strengthened by getting the social support you need.
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