Remember that your partner’s mental illness is not a choice, weakness, moral failing or consequence of poor willpower

Local statistics indicate that one in three South Africans will suffer from a psychological disorder at some time during their life, with depression being the most common. While relationships are not always a smooth ride, and it takes effort to make them work, a relationship with someone struggling with a mental disorder can be even more difficult.

Jo’burg-based clinical psychologist Brad Kallenbach says that research and education are important when dealing with a partner who is mentally ill.

Education is key

The most important thing you can do for your partner is not to judge them.

“Remember that your partner’s mental illness is not a choice, weakness, moral failing or consequence of poor willpower,” explains Brad.

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“It’s an illness. This means its causes are both biological and environmental.” He suggests researching your partner’s condition, educating yourself about it, and finding out what it means for those who have it. This will help you understand why they say certain things and react in a particular way to situations. It’ll also help you to understand that sometimes their reactions, such as shutting you out for no reason, are not your fault. Try not to take things personally.


Using the ‘soft start-up’ approach

As with all couples, disagreements and arguments are inevitable, but should these be approached differently when your partner suffers from anxiety? During these discussions, Brad suggests that couples communicate in a way that’s more of a dialogue, and use the ‘soft start-up’ approach. “Couples’ communication research shows that most conversations that begin harshly will end so. You can ‘soften the start-up’ of a difficult discussion by addressing your partner with a term of endearment, using a small gesture of physical touch or affection, being aware of the tone of voice, and being sensitive to the timing of the discussion,” he says.

The most important thing you can do for your partner is not to judge them


These are dependent on the type of illness your partner might be dealing with, and each relationship varies according to the severity of the disorder.

Challenges include:

  • Unpredictability in mood and behaviour.
  • Being on the receiving end of communication or behaviour that might feel attacking and hurtful.
  • Having to witness your partner suffer through emotional pain or self-destructive behaviour.
  • Dealing with the frustration of trying to encourage your partner to give up an avoidance behaviour, or push through resistance to trying something new as a result of anxiety or low self-efficacy.
  • Dealing with your own emotions in the face of a partner’s mental illness.


  1. Pay attention to and use ‘repair attempts’, namely, the small efforts you or your partner make during the heat of an argument to reduce the intensity. For example, if your partner places their hand in yours while arguing, or refers to you by a term of endearment, know that this is their subconscious
    way of trying to reconnect with you.
  2. Let your partner understand your intentions, that, even though you might disagree about something, you still care for them. Just because you argue and disagree about something, that doesn’t mean you will abandon them. This builds a safe space to argue.


  1. Criticise your partner. You can complain about behaviour, but criticism involves a character attack.
  2. Show contempt with eye-rolling or sarcastic humour.
  3. Get defensive and be aware of ‘stone-walling’ (tuning out, purposefully looking into the corner of the room, or doing something to show you’re not paying attention to what your partner is saying).

Talk about the triggers

It’s important to recognise the type of incidents that might lead to your partner’s panic attacks. If they suffer from anxiety, chat about triggers. Make notes of the kind of environment and situation you’re in whenever they feel uncomfortable. Being aware of the causes will help you to be cognisant of situations that should be avoided or the kind of reaction you can expect if faced with unavoidable circumstances.

From gridlock to dialogue

If you’re struggling to communicate, therapy may alleviate stress in the relationship.

  • Therapy offers perspectives that may be difficult for you or your partner to see and allow you to shift from a state of gridlock to dialogue.
  • The therapist may be able to offer insight, dispel any myths about the illness, and suggest powerful strategies to manage symptoms.
  • It allows for partners to explore what this illness means for their relationship, to re-evaluate the relationship and enhance the bond between them.

If you’re struggling to communicate, therapy may alleviate stress in the relationship

How to show your support

Megan Hosking, psychiatric intake clinician at Akeso Clinics, suggests ways of showing support for your partner include regularly asking how they’re doing and feeling, and what they need from you in the relationship.

“Support can vary, so it’s best to have an open and honest discussion with your partner about the expectations in your relationship, and your active role in their ongoing journey,” explains Megan.

Ask them what they need from you: is it space, empathy, encouragement, protection, reassurance? It’s also vital to know more about the treatment they’re going through, any medication they’re on (and always making sure they remember to take it) and the places to reach out to, should they need additional help. It’s crucial that they don’t feel like the problems in your relationship are as a result of their illness, so find ways of showing them that you care and want to help them through their condition. “It’s important to let your spouse know you’re there for and love them ‘in sickness and in health’.

“This reassurance will go a long way towards strengthening their determination to manage the illness, whereas a negative reaction from you can potentially exacerbate symptoms of the mental illness and bring on additional feelings of hopelessness,” Brad adds.

Take care of yourself too

Living with someone who has a mental condition can take its toll on you too. If possible, speak to your partner’s therapist, who will have better insight into the type of situation you’re facing. “If you feel worn down by the relationship, tired and drained, or anxious and worried, these could all be signs that the relationship is causing stress in your life,” Megan explains. Every now and again, and using the right communication tools, remind your partner that the situation is also not easy for you and that sometimes you might lose your patience or have difficulty coping.

Claudia’s story

Claudia Sartor, 31, is a former attorney who changed careers when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2015. Currently completing her Honours in Clinical Psychology, she is also a mental health advocate, and volunteers with the South African Federation for Mental Health.

“Before I was diagnosed, I struggled with anxiety and depression for five years; I had the same symptoms as a teenager after my parents’ divorce. The bipolar-type symptoms began after the deaths of my grandfather in 2011 and father in 2012. My husband and I have been married for two and a half years and have been together for 16, so he has always been there during major life events. I was hospitalised in 2012 and 2015, and he was present throughout – always aware of the mental health roller-coaster. Before the diagnosis, our relationship wasn’t necessarily affected per se, but what did become difficult for us was my feeling of being a burden, and his feeling of helplessness.

“Now that we’re aware of my condition, it’s taught us to stick together through the good and bad days. In a relationship with someone with a mental health illness, I’d advise people to be involved in their partner’s treatment and recovery process. My husband met both my psychologist and psychiatrist.”

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