Michelle Williams' fiancé sparks discussion on how not to treat your partner suffering with mental health issues
Love is a wonderful thing. It can make the world seem brighter, the flowers seem to bloom just for you and all the love songs on the radio are suddenly about the one you’re in love with.
But often the honeymoon phase of being in love masks potential problems and issues that could come up between you and your partner. It could be anything from the way they treat you to the little annoying things they do that set you off.
Sometimes it's about mental illness. Sometimes it's about race. And sometimes it's both. Singer of Destiny's Child fame, Michelle Williams, and her fiancé Chad Johnson recently addressed both these potentially thorny issues on their new show "Chad Loves Michelle", which documents their journey to marriage on OWN.
Michelle has never shied away from being vocal about her battle with mental illness and her battle with depression has been discussed on the show.
So when a promotional clip for the show's second episode aired on Sunday, it was met with outrage for the following reasons:
- In the clip, the singer reveals she said "something to him [along] the lines of ‘Well, Chad, because you are not black you would not understand why I communicate the way I do. Maybe because you didn’t grow up around a lot of black people.’ So that was very, very offensive to Chad."
Raising the question; can your non-POC partner ever fully understand the black experience enough to be an ally?
- In the video, Michelle then further reveals to their counsellor, "And this is not to justify it, but yesterday when we had the disagreement, he said ‘Did you take your meds today?’”
And it's Chad's insensitive retort that I would like to address in particular today, as someone who is in a relationship with a partner who does not have mentally health issues, while I am and sometimes that’s difficult to navigate.
So here are a few things partners can do to support each other in this situation:
Dr. Jean-Philippe Arzul, a clinical psychologist based in Cape Town, says "Psychiatric diagnosis is both useful and problematic. On the one hand, it allows a better grasp of a partner's difficulty and with that, hopefully a healthy dose of understanding and support.
“On the other hand, a partner's 'mental illness' could be used as ammunition and relationship difficulties risk being reduced to 'oh, it's just your bipolar/depression/personality disorder etc.'
“It is worthwhile remembering that we are all made up of complex psychological dynamics."
In my previous relationship, my partner understood my mental illness because he was mentally ill himself and tried to support me, but was often unable to do so because he was also exhausted. In my current relationship, my partner has no frame of reference for mental illness as he’s never had to deal with it himself or with his previous partners.
1. Talk about it
And not just when whatever illness rears its ugly head.
Talk about it whenever you’re both comfortable, in a calm setting and have time.
Talk through exactly what your partner’s mental illness is and how they were diagnosed or when they started realising their symptoms.
Ask them what kind of emotions they feel if they have an episode of some sort.
Talk to them about what you understand from your point of view and how you might want them to change that.
2. Ask what you can do
If your partner is prone to panic attacks or has severe depressive episodes or mood swings, ask them (when they’re not in this mood preferably) to tell you what they need when this happens.
Do they need hugs or to be left alone? Can they talk or can they not process words at that point?
Do they need to go for a walk on their own or do they need you to call someone they can talk to?
Find out their coping strategies and learn them for when you need them.
3. Don’t fight them
They might say silly things when they’re upset or having a particularly bad episode or if you’re not reacting the way they thought you would when they need your support.
And sometimes depressed/anxious/(insert mental illness here) people can just simply be unsympathetic because they’re not feeling their best and the only way they know how to feel better is to act out.
It’s awful but it’s the truth.
Call them out when they’re being awful but try not to fight.
If it leads to a fight, try to walk away and talk when things have calmed down. Arguing with them will just make you both feel worse and 10 to 1 they’re probably just arguing as a means of deflecting how they really feel.
4. Call them out on their nonsense
While you don’t want to fight, it’s only fair to tell your partner when they’re being awful to you for no reason and you need it to stop. Or if their behaviour has changed and they haven’t listened to you about it.
Or if you know they’re not on their meds and you’ve noticed or you think they might need therapy.
It’s okay to call them out. It’s okay to be concerned. It’s okay to do all these things because you love them and you want to show them how much they mean to you by supporting them.
Just try to be gentle at first and then, if necessary, get tough.
5. Do your research
Learn about the mental illness your partner has. If they had cancer or some other strange disease that was mostly unknown, you’d want to know more about it, right?
Just because it might not be a terminal disease that could cause death doesn’t mean that it’s not as important to know about. Read things about your partner’s depression or their mood disorder. Find out what exactly they myths and truths are about their mental illness.
Learn about the things that affect your partner so deeply so you can both understand it.
Dr Arzul also reiterates the importance of seeking professional help and doing your research: “A mental health professional could offer insight into a diagnosis and literature is always useful to gain a richer comprehension.
“For example, there are a number of books written by persons diagnosed with a mental illness in which they outline their experiences. Andrew Salmon's autobiography on depression, The Noonday Demon, comes to mind, as does Elyn Sack's The Centre Cannot Hold: My Journey through Madness, and David Adam's account of OCD titled The Man Who Couldn't Stop. Stephen Fry's documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive is a must watch for anyone in a relationship with a person diagnosed with bipolar mood disorder.”
But he also warns couples to watch themselves when it comes to mental illness: “It may also be useful for the 'healthy' partner to observe their own responses to the mental illness. For example, a loved one's depressed state could result in a withdrawal by the 'healthy' partner for fear of being drawn into a depressive whirlpool or they could become excessively doting.”
Are you or have you been in a relationship where you had to deal with mental illness? Tell us about it.