By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This is Episode 38 and this week I’m talking about relationships – I’ll be discussing how our intimate relationships can affect our mental health and wellbeing, and how to build and maintain better relationships regardless of whether you’re single or attached. Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article/transcript version. Let’s talk!
Content warning: This includes includes references to sex as well as potentially triggering discussions related to emotional and/or physical abuse.
FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
- Healthy relationships can have a positive effect on your mental health and wellbeing, just as unhealthy relationships can have a negative effect.
- A healthy relationship is one where all parties demonstrate mutual respect, communicate, support one another, are fair, are honest, trust each other, treat one another as equals, enjoy one another’s company, and where each person has their own identity.
- You do not need a relationship to be whole. A healthy relationship is one that compliments your life, not one that completes it.
- Instead of trying to fill a void inside you with someone else, work on your self-esteem in terms of both doing the work yourself as well as working with a counsellor/therapist. Doing so will give you a greater chance of establishing and maintaining a successful relationship now and in the future because it will be based more on an even dynamic of power rather than a misbalanced dynamic if you’re trying to fill a void.
- Healthy relationships take regular effort — they don’t just happen.
Love. So much has been said, written and sung about the subject that you would be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing left to say… but just take one look at the music charts this week and you’ll see that probably 90% or more of what’s on there is about love and relationships in some shape or form. Why is that? Because it’s a fundamental and important part of the human experience for many people – falling in love can be wonderful; staying in love and building something deeper together can be even better… and most of us know the experience of heartbreak firsthand, so unfortunately many of us also know what happens when things don’t work out.
I was going to write something pithy and insightful here about relationships, however there’s an excellent quote from an article by the UK’s Mental Health Foundation (link below) which I think sets the tone perfectly for this week’s episode:
“Relationships are one of the most important aspects of our lives, yet we can often forget just how crucial our connections with other people are for our physical and mental health and wellbeing. People who are more socially connected to family, friends, or their community are happier, physically healthier and live longer, with fewer mental health problems than people who are less well connected. It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. Living in conflict or within a toxic relationship is more damaging than being alone.”Mental Health Foundation (UK)
Today I will be talking about healthy relationships that support good mental health, tips for dating which will also help to maintain good mental health, how to deal with relationship issues, as well as advice for what to do if you’re in a relationship and are experiencing mental health challenges. Although I’ll mainly be talking about romantic relationships I will note that a lot of these points today apply to family relationships as well (and I covered ‘Family’ back in Episode 19), however I am primarily talking about our intimate relationships here in terms of your partner or spouse, as well as the earlier stages of relationships such as dating.
Full disclosure here: I’ve been in a relationship for more than 24 years, so when we get to the dating bit I’m not going to pretend that I have any idea what that’s like anymore because the last time I went on a date I was 19! But there are still plenty of things about dating that remain the same whether you’re meeting on Tinder or back in the olden days on the 4:15pm express horse and buggy from Sydney to Melbourne (lol! It’s not quite that bad, but probably not far off…!).
How our intimate relationships can affect our mental health and wellbeing
Romantic relationships are entirely personal — some people like to be single, some people like to date but remain unattached, some people like to be in relationships. There’s no right or wrong, but for many of us we can be drawn to relationships because the feeling of connection with another person can be both intoxicating and rewarding. Healthy relationships can have a positive effect on your mental health and wellbeing, just as unhealthy relationships can have a negative effect.
Quoting that same article by Mental Health Foundation (UK) mentioned earlier:
“Being in a stable relationship is linked to both physical and mental health benefits, including lower morbidity and mortality. However, while being in a relationship can have positive benefits for health, it is important to recognise that unhappy relationships are more destructive than being single. Research has found that poor-quality or unhappy relationships have a higher negative influence on physical and mental health than not being in a relationship.”Mental Health Foundation (UK)
That same article quotes a 2012 book called Triumphs of Experience, in which results were published from the longest-running study on human development in history which was started by Harvard University in 1938. The study found that “happiness and health aren’t a result of wealth, fame or working hard, but come instead from our relationships.” This use of the term ‘relationships’ refers to all types of relationships, but it serves to reinforce the point that healthy relationships can have a positive effect on our overall life satisfaction.
Unhealthy relationships can have a detrimental effect on your mental health and wellbeing. Relationships that are codependent, manipulative, unsupportive, dishonest, plagued by jealousy etc. can do a lot of damage and if left unchecked they can potentially escalate into abuse, either emotional or physical (or both).
A healthy relationship is one where all parties demonstrate mutual respect, communicate, support one another, are fair, are honest, trust each other, treat one another as equals, enjoy one another’s company, and where each person has their own identity.
You do not need a relationship to be whole. A healthy relationship is one that compliments your life, not one that completes it. You need to be happy with who you are first and foremost before you can hope to establish and maintain a healthy relationship with another person, because you will never be truly satisfied unless you can love yourself. Instead of trying to fill a void inside you with someone else, work on your self-esteem (something I’ll be covering in an episode of its own in a few weeks) in terms of both doing the work yourself as well as working with a counsellor/therapist. Doing so will give you a greater chance of establishing and maintaining a successful relationship now and in the future because it will be based more on an even dynamic of power rather than a misbalanced dynamic if you’re trying to fill a void.
So with all of that in mind, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode…
How to build and maintain better relationships (regardless of whether you’re single or attached)
Before we dive in, I want to say one big “how not to”… I usually focus more on the ‘how-to’ instead of what not to do, but let me crystal clear: NEVER try to base a relationship purely on the physical (i.e. Sex). There has to be more than just great sex to have a connection, and eventually somebody will get hurt. If you’re with someone who is less-than-ideal (or even a complete arsehole) and you think can change them — you cannot. You cannot change another person, so don’t convince yourself that you can. Yes, you can influence them over time and maybe that will work to some degree but chances are that it will make the other person resent you and the relationship will sour. If you don’t like someone for who they are, then you need to either accept the situation or walk away.
With that said, now let’s focus on the ‘how-to’ part (which is more positive!)…
- Quality is more important than anything — having a real connection with one another, being completely honest and having mutual respect, having the ability to talk about anything and everything, having fun together and making each other laugh, enjoying one another’s company while also having your own interests, supporting one another to be the best you can both be, helping one another through the challenging times… these are what really matters in the long-run
- Sex and intimacy are important but they aren’t everything, and things change over time — so, to put it bluntly, when the shagging slows down you better have something to talk about or you’re in trouble!
- Healthy relationships involve a number of important aspects:
- Communication, communication, communication
- Having clear boundaries — e.g. Open vs monogamous; there should be absolutely no surprises
- Respecting one another (including privacy)
- Doing no harm
- Giving more than you take
- Being present
- Giving one another time (in other words, taking time to connect regularly and making the relationship a priority)
- Leaning on one another’s strengths and supporting one another’s development areas/weaknesses (e.g. I’m good at administration stuff while I’m terrible with DIY… I tried assembling a basic cabinet from Ikea and almost had a meltdown after two hours; however my partner is the opposite, so we split things up based on our individual strengths and by doing so we support one another as well as getting things done for our home)
- Asking for what you need — don’t expect your partner to be a mind-reader because they are not and it is unfair to expect them to be one
- Respecting one another’s privacy — there’s a fine line between sharing things with other people and oversharing, and call me old-fashioned but I think that some of the more personal and intimate things that you learn about your partner should remain between you and them, and I’m not just talking about sex here (for example, I choose to do this work and talk about personal stuff, including my mental health, but my partner hasn’t chosen this type of work so I make sure to keep details of our relationship private); I think it’s a way to respect your partner’s boundaries and to recognise that some things should be personal and kept just to those people in the relationship
- Addressing issues early — deal with minor issues before they become major issues
- No surprises — if you have open and honest communication then there should be should no surprises, especially if things aren’t working out
- Healthy relationships take regular effort — they don’t just happen
- If you’re angry or upset, don’t just react: pause, reflect and work out why you’re feeling that way first (you might find Episode 12: Reflection to be helpful here, plus in Episode 7: Baggage I talked about the Five Whys technique which can help you to dig deeper into what is going on and why); once you understand why you’re angry or upset, then you can respond by addressing the root cause calmly and rationally
- Relationships, like life, involve constant learning and self-improvement, so take the time and put the effort in to do the work
- Relationships evolve over time and so do we… you are not the same person you were a year ago or a decade ago (something I just discussed in Episode 37: Growth, which is worth checking out) so that means it’s essential to have open communication with your partner to ensure your goals and values remain aligned… failure to communicate leads to disconnection, which can lead to animosity and eventually even the breakdown of the relationship
- Let’s talk about jealousy for a minute. Jealousy is a manifestation of insecurity; suspicion, doubt and mistrust have no place in a healthy relationship. Insecurity is something I talked about at length in Episode 35 and in relationships it comes back to two key things: (1) the importance of open and honest communication with your partner and (2) the importance of open and honest communication with yourself. If you’re feeling jealous, you need to take time to identify why — again, it’s about digging deep to understand the root cause so that you can address it. It’s also about calmly and rationally discussing your feelings with your partner. If you don’t feel that you can do that calmly or rationally, then you need to figure out why and it might be best to seek some support from a professional. Whatever you choose to do, make healthy decisions.
- If things aren’t working, then make the effort to try to fix it — as I’ve said a thousand times this episode, get external help because you will find it more effective than trying to muddle through things on your own armed with just a book about relationships and hope… don’t just give up and walk away without making at least some effort to meet in the middle (unless it’s a safety issue — which I’ll discuss in a minute). The adult thing to do is to try to address issues and repair what can be repaired (but at the same time, don’t let people manipulate you or take advantage of you).
- Be courteous if it’s really not working and you decide to end the relationship. Do the right thing and explain to the other person why you’ve made the decision you’ve made — look, nobody really likes confrontation but it’s the fair and decent thing to do. Always be kind and treat people as you would want to be treated.
- What if infidelity occurs? If you have established specific boundaries and your partner goes outside those boundaries, then you need to address it calmly and rationally. I know that can be hard, because it’s a very emotional situation, but the first thing is to understand what has happened and why. This is where it’s really important to engage a professional — when you’re close to someone emotionally and when you then feel betrayed, it can be virtually impossible to remain objective enough to work through what has happened in a rational way, so get help from a couples counsellor/therapist. Let me be very clear here: if your partner strays, that is your partner’s decision — not the third party’s. I have never understood why people fly into a rage and want to go after the other person to make them pay for what has happened when it’s the person in the relationship who is accountable for what has been done. Direct your hurt and anger at the right place: your partner.
- And if you’re the one who commits the infidelity? Own up to it immediately, and accept that it may lead to the end of the relationship. What your partner chooses to do next is up to them, and you may not like the decisions they make, but it is infinitely better to have the truth out there rather than trying to keep secrets; the truth will eventually come out no matter what.
- And what about if there is abuse? Get out now. End of sentence. Nothing changes if nothing changes and your safety and mental health are far more important than anything else… I have watched my mother being beaten by my father, and that shit will leave an indelible mark for life. Violence in a relationship is never acceptable.
Let’s discuss some additional tips for dating…
- Be authentically yourself from the start… maybe don’t leave the bathroom door open but if somebody doesn’t like you for you then it’s better to know early (and if that happens then remember it’s not about you, it’s about them and their preferences) — and vice versa…
- Communication is essential — be a good listener, and be open and honest.
- Follow your instincts — if something is setting off alarm bells, dig a little deeper but trust your gut.
- Dating is vulnerable stuff; putting yourself out there can be really difficult, so be gentle with yourself and take your time. Remember that you do not need to have a relationship to be whole — a healthy relationship doesn’t complete you, it complements you. Don’t let rejection get to you — it’s not personal, it’s about the other person (and it’s actually a gift because if someone rejects you then that isn’t someone you want to be with anyway!)
- If you find yourself struggling, get support (especially if you find it’s impacting on your mental health and wellbeing). Sometimes you might even feel like you need to take a break, so if that happens… take a break!
- Because this is a show about mental health, let me also say that if you are actively dating and you’re dealing with mental health challenges, then you’ve probably also had to think about when is an appropriate time to disclose your condition? I think a general rule of thumb is that if it’s becoming anything more serious than hooking up or just going out on a few dates, then it’s best to be open. The first date or two might be a bit early (that’s up to you though!) but certainly after a few dates it’s time to start disclosing; if things are getting a bit more serious and the ‘getting to know you’ stage is picking up, then it’s a good time to talk openly about your experiences so there are no surprises for either of you.
And so now for the final part of this how-to section; let’s discuss some tips that are specific to those of you who might be dealing with mental health challenges. If you do have mental health issues then it can definitely affect your relationship, so there are some key things to consider:
- Tell the other person what is going on, because the foundation of any healthy relationship is honesty
- Be completely open about what you’re experiencing and talk to the other person as early as possible
- Include your partner in what is going on in terms of your treatment, setbacks etc. so that they have full knowledge — again, a healthy relationship is one where there are no surprises
- Be aware that medication can often have a big effect on your libido, so again it’s important to have open and honest communication with your partner so they understand what is happening and why (and if it does happen… well, let’s just say that I’ve been there and I know it’s awful, but to be blunt, don’t just stop taking the meds because that can make things much worse than having reduced or non-existent libido; things will get better eventually)
- Give your partner opportunities to be involved in your journey; for example, if your partner is happy to attend counselling with you and you’re comfortable with that then include them
- Be aware that your partner may not fully understand what is happening to you, so be patient and kind; if they are supportive, then they will be there for you
- If your partner is struggling but is willing to learn/adapt, then put them in touch with support services (they may even find it useful to speak with a counsellor/therapist on their own) so that they can find tools and resources that work for them and which help them to identify ways forward
- If you’re experiencing relationship difficulties, couples counselling might be beneficial — again, address things early
- If a relationship breaks down during mental illness: look, it happens and if it does then it’s not personal, it’s likely that the other person doesn’t have the tools or the ability at this point in time to provide the kind of support that’s needed. You should look after yourself and seek support (both from loved ones and especially from a counsellor/therapist), and take time out for self-care (check out Episode 6 for more about self-care)
There are a few articles I came across while researching this episode that might also be useful, and I thought it might be helpful to include the links in the transcript if you’d like a little additional reading on this week’s subject. They are:
- Romantic Relationships (National Alliance on Mental Illness – USA) — a useful introduction to some of the main considerations when discussing romantic relationships and living with a mental health condition. Find it at: https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Living-with-a-Mental-Health-Condition/Romantic-Relationships
- Dating with Anxiety: How Learning to Cope Helped Me Find Love Again (Psycom) — a first-person article which is a personal experience of dating with anxiety and OCD. Find it at: https://www.psycom.net/negotiating-relationships-living-with-anxiety-ocd-panic-disorder/
- How to Cope When Your Partner Has a Mental Illness (Verywell Mind) — a resource for partners. Find it at: https://www.verywellmind.com/coping-with-a-mentally-ill-spouse-2302988
Summary and Close-Out
When it comes to relationships, what it all boils down to is this: you don’t need a relationship to be whole, but a healthy relationship can have a positive effect on your overall wellbeing. Whether you’re single or attached, learning to be satisfied with who you are is a fundamental aspect of being with someone else — a healthy relationship should compliment your life, not complete it. Like all things in life, good relationships involve being kind, doing no harm, and giving more than you take. It’s about communicating openly and honestly, and sharing a life together. The wrong person will make you beg for affection and attention; the right person will offer you those things, and much more, willingly and enthusiastically.
That’s nearly it for this week. Each week I like to share a quote about this week’s topic and encourage you to take a few moments to reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:
“Love is supposed to lift you up, not hold you down. It is supposed to push you forward, not hold you back.”Unknown
Next week, I’ll be talking about coronavirus. I’m not going to lie; part of me held off on the idea of doing an episode specifically about the effects of coronavirus on mental health because it’s been an exhausting few months and it’s virtually impossible to ignore the topic even if you wanted to! But the reality is that we are living in extraordinary times and the pandemic is having a direct effect on all of us, so it’s time to take a long hard look at the topic. I’ll be talking about the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on our mental health and I’ll be looking at things that you can do to build your resilience and improve your overall wellbeing.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK, Ireland & Europe, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada.
You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth.
If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice and tell someone you know about the show (because word of mouth really helps new people to discover the program).
Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.