Crazy Talk: Can Mentally Ill People Be In (Healthy) Relationships Together?
It’s an ableist assumption that people with mental health struggles can’t be together — it suggests that only neurotypical people are “good” at relationships.
Welcome to Crazy Talk: a mental health advice column written by yours truly, a mentally ill and queer writer reclaiming his “crazy” to educate and empower. In a world that tries to push us to the margins, I’m all about getting loud and kicking the stigma where it hurts. In this column, we explore what it’s like to live with mental illness without shame or apologies. Expect frank advice, a little self-deprecation and a good dose of humor.
First of all, to be honest, there’s a part of me that hates that this is a question at all. The fact that we live in a society that wants to tell us that mentally ill folks are innately toxic, especially when you put us together, really bums me out.
But that’s exactly why I want to address this question this week.
Last week, a question popped up in my inbox that I couldn’t resist answering. A reader, struggling with clinical depression, expressed an interest in dating someone who was similarly depressed — but was worried that a relationship between two mentally ill folks couldn’t be healthy.
Almost every single person I’ve had a relationship with has had some form of mental illness. In my experience, the bonds between mentally ill folks can be especially fierce — the empathy we have for a shared struggle is often powerful, and when you add love to the mix, it can be intense.
I’ve seen relationships between neurotypical people completely tank, and I’ve seen relationships between mentally ill folks flourish. I’ve also seen it the other way around. Someone’s mental health status alone isn’t enough to determine whether or not a relationship will succeed.
Is there open communication? Good boundaries? Shared values? Mutual respect? These are better indicators, in my opinion, of whether or not to pursue a relationship with someone.
I think it’s an ableist assumption that people with mental health struggles can’t be together — it suggests that only neurotypical people are “good” at relationships, and that without them, relationships are doomed to fail. It says that mentally ill folks are lacking in some way that only neurotypical people can supplement. Not only is that untrue, but it’s harmful to suggest that we have some kind of inherent relational deficiency.
Mental illness can make a relationship challenging, no doubt, because it makes life itself very challenging. But every relationship has challenges, and working through those challenges — whatever they may be — is part of the deal. If everyone involved is willing to work together, and does so with a deep and abiding respect for one another, I think the odds are in their favor.
One of my most stable, joyful, and reliable relationships is with someone who is similarly mentally ill. We’ve been together for five-and-a-half years and counting. Speaking from experience, then, the key for us has been something an old therapist of mine described as being “responsible to, not for.”
The distinction matters a lot. I’m not responsible for how my partner chooses to handle their mental illness — they are responsible for the choices they make and how they navigate their struggles. But I am responsible to them, in that I’m here to offer support, love and care within the boundaries we’ve set. I can walk alongside them in this journey, but I can’t walk the path for them.
One of the biggest pitfalls in relationships between mentally ill folks (from what I’ve seen) is that they, coming from a place of empathy, take on the full responsibility of trying to rescue the other person. This can look like enabling that person by becoming their therapist or sole support. They feel a deep sense of responsibility for the choices that their partner makes, and the relationship can more easily become codependent and taxing.
Make no mistake about it — neurotypical people can do this, too. But it’s especially easy for people who are deeply empathic to take this on without realizing it.
Partners that can maintain healthy boundaries — which is a good rule across the board, mentally ill or not — lay the foundation for a really fulfilling relationship. If this commitment is made explicitly and intentionally, you’re already off to a great start.
That said, not all of us are ready for a relationship. There have been times (like when I was fresh out of the hospital last year, working through intensive outpatient) that I’ve needed to focus on myself and my recovery. I deprioritized my relationships so I could commit to stabilizing. The timing wasn’t right.
But again, this isn’t strictly true of mentally ill folks; everyone, regardless of mental health status, has to look at the context of their life and decide where their priorities lie. An honest assessment of where you’re at and what you have to give is important. Everyone, at some point in their life, reaches a point when they don’t have the emotional capacity to invest in other people — that isn’t inherently bad or wrong, it simply is.
My relationships with other mentally ill folks have been, across the board, some of the most fulfilling that I’ve had. I think this is because many of us have a deepened sense of empathy and self-awareness. When we tap into this kind of emotional intelligence, we can have some pretty phenomenal relationships with one another.
Society at large wants us to focus on the ways in which mentally ill folks are bad for one another, which I think comes from the assumption that mentally ill folks themselves are somehow less-than. Putting us together, then, must make us even lesser.
But I don’t think that math adds up. I truly believe that when we make a solid commitment to our health, to ourselves, and to each other, our relationships become uniquely dynamic and even beautiful. And with that possibility, why would we ever deny ourselves?
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