Love + Sex, Love, Life Stories, Wellness

Stop pretending you can fix your partner’s mental illness with “love.” That only works on TV.

There's this idea that all someone needs to “fight their demons” is a hug, a kiss, someone to hold them at night.

Here’s the thing about mental illness: it cannot be cured through love.

For all the dialogue about “loving yourself before you love others” and “putting your health first,” there’s still a distressing amount of media — particularly aimed at young women — that tells us people with mental illness can be cured with the right relationship. 

That all someone needs to “fight their demons” is a hug, a kiss, someone to hold them at night.

And then there’s the idea so loved by dramatic TV shows, movies, and popular books, that mental illness is attractive or romantic because people who suffer from different mental illnesses are “devoted,” “artistic,” or “in tune with their emotions.”

This romanticism is not only worrying but patently untrue. 

As a person with a trauma-related mental illness who’s married to someone with a very different kind of trauma-related mental illness, I can say for certain: there’s no romanticism there.

Working through our issues always gets complicated by our own struggles, which makes communication all the more important.

There’s this idea that all you need to be happy is someone who “makes things go quiet.” 

And that’s not entirely wrong. 

My partner and I have been together for five years and there have been days — countless days — when we’ve had to depend completely on each other to make it through the darkness. But we haven’t cured each other.

Oftentimes, we have to call each other out on manipulative or otherwise harmful behavior, which is incredibly important for any relationship — and it’s something we need to advocate for more often, rather than framing mental illness as a romantic aspiration.

Relationships are hard. Painful, at times. 

My spouse and I talk constantly, even when it sucks to be truthful, and we work hard to push each other through rough patches in order to come out the other side as unscathed as possible.

We’ve worked, day in and day out, to communicate and to love each other and to be kind even when our mental illnesses made us want to lash out or break down. Understanding and excusing behavior are different, though those who romanticize mental illness often conflate the two.

Mental illness can explain why a behavior pattern exists. However, mental illness does not excuse a behavior pattern or its effects.

In the five years we’ve been together, that’s been revealed as an incredibly important distinction. It’s one I wish more people would discuss.

My spouse and I have what I sometimes refer to as “competing mental illnesses.” While they sometimes need to step away from a conversation so they don’t say something unnecessarily mean, I cannot let something go until it has been resolved. 

Many of our arguments stem from the fact that I don’t always know how to afford people space. 

Others stem from my partner lashing out.

We snip and snap until we reach a point where we can either take some space and talk about it later or drop it and mutually apologize. The latter is always the end goal, but sometimes it takes us a while to reach it.

Yelling about my anxiety doesn’t excuse the fact that I sometimes ignore boundaries. Identifying my partner’s tendency to lash out when they’re upset doesn’t excuse hurtful words they say. 

To say that our mental illnesses should afford us excuses is to ignore culpability and personal responsibility, which is unfair to ourselves, to each other, and to everyone else in our lives. It’s taken me years of therapy and long, open-ended conversations with my partner to figure that out… and I know that I still have a long way to go.

As of right now, both my spouse and I are in therapy — individual therapy, with different therapists — and it helps a lot. When we moved in together three and a half years ago, it was hard as hell to adjust to life in the same space. 

For the first year and a half of our relationship, we were separated by two states, and time together was especially precious.

It still is, but it’s different now. Everything is. 

When you move in with someone, no matter how much you love them, you have to learn to deal with certain things. All the “cute” or “quirky” things they do can abruptly become annoying or disruptive, and you often find that your partner feels the same about you. To survive that is to talk about it, even if sometimes talking leads to arguing.

Arguing is, ultimately, a healthy means of hashing out conflict, but only if those arguments can be resolved. Oftentimes for us, resolution looks like apologies from both parties and communication about how we can do better by each other in the future.

When I see mental illness framed as a desirous quality — in a YA book, in an online listicle, in a relationship quiz — I cringe. 

It’s taken me years to realize that mental illness is not a crutch and that taking responsibility for my actions and words is as important for me as it is for anyone else. 

It’s equally important for me to hold my partner accountable, and to recognize when they are doing that work for themselves, just like they do for me.