What makes people happy? Well, it’s not money. And it’s not fame or popularity. It’s actually quite simple. It’s the people in our lives. And for many people, it’s really about one person in particular—their romantic partner. Romantic relationships are often described as one of the most significant relationships for adults. And there’s good reason for that.
Think about what healthy relationships do for us. They provide support—from an extra pair of hands around the house, to financial assistance, to a shoulder to cry on when life turns upside down. More importantly perhaps, romantic relationships also provide opportunity for connection and intimacy, the experience of being understood and cared for; they also bring feelings of joy, excitement, and fun, to name a few. In other words, romantic relationships enrich our lives in countless ways.
But what about when we’re struggling personally, such as with feelings of depression, anxiety, or some other concern? Is there a way for us to use our relationship to improve our individual psychological health? You probably guessed it, but the answer is a resounding yes!
Why bring your partner into therapy? Well, let’s first acknowledge how hard it is to make the necessary changes in order to overcome depression, anxiety, or any other personal concern that warrants therapy. Your therapist will ask you to do certain things that you’ve probably been avoiding—scheduling important daily activities, challenging negative thought patterns, or approaching painful memories. You might feel overwhelmed with the changes that you need to make. Or you might have a setback and question your ability to make sustainable changes.
These feelings are completely normal. Your therapist can help you talk through these feelings in the therapy room. The most difficult moments, however, are often not in the therapy room, but in real life. It’s the Friday evening party you told yourself you would attend, but then feel a strong surge of anxiety thirty minutes before you leave home. Or the Wednesday evening decision to numb out in front of the TV after work with take-out yet again, instead of making a healthy dinner and spending time reading the new book you got last Christmas.
These are the times where having a supportive partner who understands what you need in that moment to achieve your therapeutic goals can be invaluable. Having a supportive partner, who listens and understands your perspective, who will be your cheerleader in times of trial and triumph, is something most people aspire to have. But, in these moments, it is often not enough. Supportive partners may unintentionally do things that decrease the effectiveness of therapy. “Feel too anxious to go to the party tonight, hun? Don’t worry, I’ll tell everyone you’re not feeling well.” Although this sounds well-intentioned, it does not help you move any closer to getting over your anxiety. In other words, it actually serves as a roadblock to you feeling better, sooner.
However, when there are relationship challenges present, it can make attending to your own psychological health much more difficult. Not only is it difficult for partners to support each other under these conditions (even if they knew how), but the presence of relationship distress—that is, significant dissatisfaction with the relationship—is itself a life stressor. Working on relationship issues, alongside improving your own mental health, can be quite an effective, and efficient, way to improve your overall well-being. The relationship improvements—fewer arguments, feeling more understood, experiencing greater connection—can, on their own, improve psychological well-being.
When you and your partner are functioning well, each person is in a better place to actually listen, and learn, how to support each other around mental health issues. It’s probably true that both of you could improve the way you support each other around stress, even if your partner is not dealing with a diagnosable mental health condition.
Do you feel you’re in a supportive relationship, able to communicate regularly and effectively with your partner (in other words, you don’t spend too much time arguing), and willing to let your partner see you in a vulnerable place?
If you answered yes to these questions, it sounds like you and your partner already have a strong relationship foundation, which will be a great asset to have as you embark on changes to improve your mental health.
If you answered no to some or all of the questions, chances are, you and your partner could benefit from some relationship TLC.
In either case, it’s possible to have you and your partner attend therapy together to primarily focus on your mental health. So instead of you going to therapy alone to treat your depression, for example, your partner would attend all of the sessions with you. This is called a “couple-based intervention,” meaning that both partners are an active part of the treatment. Therapists who have expertise in working with couples and who know how to treat the individual problem for which you’re seeking care (e.g., anxiety, depression) could take this approach.
There’s a good amount of scientific evidence that supports this couple-based approach to treatment. In addition to being just as effective (if not more effective, for some disorders), couples often get the added benefit of increased relationship satisfaction. Working closely as a couple and supporting each other during a challenging time often makes couples feel closer and more connected.
It’s not always possible to find a therapist who works with couples and who has expertise with the clinical issue you’re struggling with. If you’re already in individual therapy, you can talk to your therapist about inviting your partner to come to a session or two. In these sessions, you and your therapist can explain to your partner the focus of your treatment and agree upon how your partner can best support you in that process. Your partner will get the information they need to be informed about how best to support you, and you can troubleshoot some challenges with a professional, instead of doing it totally on your own.
If you’re also struggling in your relationship, and can’t find a therapist who can take a couple-based approach to improving your psychological health (as described above), you might consider seeking couple therapy with your partner on the side, to reduce the relationship stress, and then have your partner come to one or two of your individual sessions. This will help put your relationship in a better place, for both of you, and ultimately get you to feeling better.
The health of romantic relationships and psychological well-being are intimately connected so consider bringing your partner in for support.2