Point blank — relationships are complicated. When they go south, they can sometimes be a blame game, and it’s all too easy point fingers at our partner when you-know-what hits the fan. But can we blame mental illness on our partner? While relationships can be amazing, enriching experiences, they do have the potential to be unhealthy and harmful to your mental health, and therefore, your overall well being.
Mental illnesses are very complex, often with multiple causes, which can be biological, genetic, or environmental. For example, while you might not have been born displaying the characteristics of a certain mental illness, you can be born with a predisposition to it, and it may be lying dormant until it’s triggered by a major life event or trauma. So, how do relationships come into play and factor into mental illness? Can love be so intense that a relationship makes you mentally ill?
Talkspace’s relationship and couples expert, Angela Towne, LCSW, says, “I don’t think that healthy relationships trigger mental illness. I think that certain unhealthy relationships, such as codependent relationships or relationships that involve domestic violence, can cause secondary mental health issues such as low self esteem, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder.” She also notes that unhealthy relationships are likely to increase stressors, which can intensify symptoms, thereby making mental illness even more difficult to cope with than they already are.
Seconding this, Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, asserts, “Relationships in and of themselves do not create mental illness.” However, he adds, “When we suffer in our relationships, it can be difficult to move forward from past hurt and trauma. In some instances, past trauma can lead to PTSD, which can greatly complicate someone’s ability to feel safe and trust a new partner or relationship. Getting involved with someone intimately can bring up past hurt and complicate the relationship’s progress. The mental health concerns may absolutely be exacerbated by the emerging closeness and intimacy of the new relationship.”
Oftentimes we get so swept up in love that we are dazzled by the aspects of our relationships that make us feel good — the companionship, the compassion, the sex — that we can be blinded by the negative parts of a relationship that can make it toxic and dangerous. These are the types of romances that will negatively impact mental well being.
“I think that one sign that your relationship is toxic or bad for your mental health is how you feel. If you find that when you are with your partner(s), you often feel down or drained, then it might be time to speak to a third party for some more objective feedback,” Caraballo says. It’s also important to pay attention to more serious indications of something not being healthy. “If you are with a partner that uses intimidation, manipulation, or control (such as the ways in the Power & Control Wheel) then you should be concerned that you may be subjected to abuse and should contact a therapist immediately for support.”
Other than paying attention to how the relationship makes you feel, Towne stresses the danger of codependent relationships. She explains, “It isn’t that they cause mental illness, it is that they are unhealthy in and of themselves.” Codependent relationships are often very one-sided, and can be very draining and anxiety inducing. The codependent partner is very dependent on the other partner, and needs constant approval and attention from the other partner, among other unhealthy behaviors.
If you feel as though you may be in a codependent or other type of toxic relationship, don’t lose hope. Your mental health isn’t doomed, and your relationship may still be salvageable. Some pointers that Towne suggest include, “ensuring healthy boundaries, focusing on self care, having open communication with your partner, and to ask for support when needed.”
Caraballo adds, “If you have had significant issues around trust, safety, or stability in relationships previously, I think it’s important for people to have other sources of support outside of their partner(s). This support can come in various forms such as friends, family members, clergy, and even a therapist.” Every relationship (and people in the relationship) are different, and will require different types of assistance. If you and your partner do choose to try out couple’s therapy, Towne suggests that you “pick only one topic at a time, listen to understand your partner by checking in that you heard them correctly, validate all feelings, state clearly how you feel, why, and what you need as a solution.”
So, while a relationship can impact your mental health, it’s not quite fair or accurate to say that they can cause mental illness. Let’s stop playing the blame game and focus on creating and maintaining loving, healthy relationships. After all, nobody said love was going to be easy!