1. Be supportive
Whether it’s quitting smoking, eating healthier or exercising more often, anyone who has tried to make a lasting change knows that change can be difficult. It can be even more difficult when you don’t have people encouraging you or noticing your accomplishments. Isn’t it nice to hear “Wow! You look great!” after you’ve been trying to lose weight or have been hitting the gym regularly? Can you imagine how it would feel if no one noticed or seemed to care that your hard work was paying off? Your significant other will benefit from praise, encouragement and understanding as they make changes related to their mental health. Your loved one will also value empathy. Many of my clients have expressed frustration that their partners “don’t get it.” It’s okay, and even advantageous to acknowledge that you will never fully understand what your partner is going through…but that you can, however, fully appreciate it. Acknowledge your partner’s desire to improve him or herself, and to make some changes in his or her life. Clients have often told me that the first steps of seeking therapy –calling a therapist and attending the first appointment— are the hardest and most stressful parts of the process. Your significant other may need your encouragement to take those important first steps. Perhaps, offer to drive him or her to their first appointment and remain in the waiting room as moral support. Throughout your partner’s journey, ask your partner what you can do to support him or her on their journey of self-improvement.
2. Don’t expect things to change overnight
Often, people go to therapy expecting the therapist to have a magic wand and instantaneously “fix” him or her. Although I do have a magic princess wand a client once gifted me, sadly, it doesn’t work that kind of magic. Change must come from the person seeking therapy and real change takes time. It is likely that your partner’s unhealthy behaviors and/or thoughts began long ago and have been re-enforced over and over again, for years. Consequently, these engrained thoughts and behaviors are not going to be magically fixed with one or two visits to a therapist’s office. It is not uncommon for clients to be in therapy for six months to a year, if not longer. As your significant other makes changes, it is not unusual for him or her to have some setbacks. Try to practice patience as your loved one’s progress ebbs and flows and he or she tries to implement new skills learned from therapy sessions. Of particular importance, make time to celebrate the “small” changes and improvements that transpire throughout the process.
3. Educate yourself
An important part of therapy is learning about one’s mental health condition and about treatment options. Chances are, your loved one’s therapist will dedicate an entire session to providing this education. Offer to attend that session with your partner if he or she is agreeable. If you are unable attend, do your own research. There are many reputable websites (list of websites) available that provide education on mental health conditions. Some mental health agencies or community groups, such as NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness), provide family support groups to assist family members with understanding and coping with their loved one’s condition.
4. It’s not as simple as “mind over matter” or wanting something badly enough
Many of my clients say they would not wish the way they think or feel on their worst enemy. They report feeling out of control at times, and describe feeling tortured by their own minds; desperately trying to regain a sense of control. As unreasonable as it would be to suggest that a diabetic or cancer patient wish him or herself well, it is equally as illogical to propose for someone suffering from a mental health condition to do so. Current research indicates that mental health conditions possess a biological component, as well. Therefore, your loved one cannot simply wish him or herself healthy. Avoid statements like, “ Just do it;” “Everyone feels _______ sometimes;” “I know how you feel;” and “Stop thinking about it.” Instead, if your loved one appears to be struggling, encourage your loved one to use some of the skills he or she has learned in therapy or to call his or her therapist for support.
5. And most importantly,
Ask your partner what you can do to support him or her on the journey of empowerment, transformation and healing.