Talking to a partner about mental health issues can be difficult and scary. Especially if they have never had any sort of experience with anyone with mental health issues.
It is an incredibly vulnerable conversation to have. But opening yourself up to being vulnerable with your partner can increase intimacy and trust in your relationship! And it is always a good thing when we tell our partners more about ourselves because it gives them the wonderful opportunity not only to know us better but to love us better.
If you’re thinking about talking to your partner about your anxiety or depression here are 5 things to keep in mind:
Wait until you’re ready
There is no one right time to talk to a partner about mental health issues. It’s a sensitive topic and requires a lot of trust and vulnerability. This means that until you’re ready to be open and vulnerable with them–until you trust them to honor that openness and vulnerability–you probably won’t be ready to have these conversations. Talking about it before you’re ready can make you feel nervous, defensive, and can actually make the conversation less helpful than just waiting until you’re ready. Give yourself permission to wait until that trust is there, and remind yourself you are doing something brave by sharing. And remember that you are giving your partner the opportunity to know and care for you better, which is always something to be celebrated!
Tell them about your experience specifically
You don’t need to teach your partner everything about anxiety or depression. You (likely) aren’t a psychologist, and as much as learning about depression and anxiety may have helped you understand your own experience, it may overwhelm your partner if it starts to feel like a class they are going to be tested on.
Instead, stick to your specific experience. Let them know how anxiety or depression (or both) affect your life, what it means for you, what accommodations you’ve had to make, how that might come up in your relationship with them, etc. They can support you better if they know about your specific experiences, rather than a generic overview of what depression and anxiety are.
Provide them with resources
That’s not to say they shouldn’t keep learning! But it is not your job to teach them everything about mental illness, just because you struggle with one (or more). If there are books or websites or other resources that helped you to understand your own experience, pass them along to your partner. Let them know you’re happy to answer questions about your own experience and how it will affect your relationship with them. But encourage them to do their own research instead of depending on you for everything if they want to learn more.
Write down what you want to talk about
When talking about something that involves so much vulnerability, it can be overwhelming. It can make us feel anxious, embarrassed, and want to hurry through it just to get it over with.
Because of this, preparing a little beforehand can help to organize your thoughts and make sure you and your partner talk about everything you think is important. It doesn’t have to be word by word–don’t write an essay here! You can just make bullet points of things you find important and valuable to talk about. Start making the list from the moment you decide you want to talk to your partner. When something new pops into your head, that you think would add to the conversation, quickly add it to the list so you don’t forget. You can even let your partner read the list as you talk, by saying “these are the things I want to be sure to talk about, can you help keep me on track if this gets difficult?”
As we covered above, it’s important to keep the conversation specific to you and your experiences. This conversation is about opening up another part of yourself to your partner, not about educating them about mental health in general. But what does that actually mean? Specific things you should consider addressing can be:
- Your symptoms: what does anxiety/depression look like for you? How does it show up in your life?
- Things that help: when you are in a depressive state or having high anxiety, what coping mechanisms help you? Are there ones your partner can learn to help you?
- Things that are triggering, or areas where you’ll need extra support: let them know about things that make your anxiety/depression worse. This way they can either help you navigate life without these things, or offer you extra support when needed
- What you need from them: is this conversation just to inform them? Let them know. Tell them you don’t need anything different from them, you just want them to understand your experience. If you do need something from them, tell them what it is! Give them the opportunity to be the best partner they can be.
If you need more support in navigating these conversations, our couples counselors can help.
-Brice N. Sanner, LMFT