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Protecting a relationship when caring for someone

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When a loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness, the automatic concern is for their wellbeing, treatment and recovery. This is a normal and natural response.

Yet many people fail to realise the process can change the family dynamic. Schedules and priorities may change, with time required for appointments, treatment and support. 

A loved one may also change, becoming withdrawn, anxious, unpredictable, or even at times aggressive.

So among all these competing priorities, how do we protect our relationship with our loved one?

SANE asked five carers how they've retained the essence of their relationship.

Strategies to maintain the relationship

Tony's wife Jenny lives with schizophrenia, and he says it's important to continue to treat a loved-one as a partner and equal.

'If you treat them as an invalid, whilst doing it out of love and affection, there's the risk that you'll take too much control from them,' Tony says. 

'You still have to give your loved one control of their wellbeing and their life, you can't wrap them up in cotton wool and prevent them from being a human being.'

When a relationship is under stress, communication can often breakdown. But Josh, whose partner lives with borderline personality disorder, says maintaining clear lines of communication is a must. 

'Communication is everything. You should give each other support and also to give each other space when it's needed,' he says.

'Give unconditional support, allow your partner to make decisions and support them with their choice.'


Carmela Pollock runs an online community for carers called A Black Dog About the House. She says protecting a relationship must be a two way process, one that gets tougher when your partner is fighting internal battles.

'Be respectful regardless of the circumstances,' she says. 'That includes giving my partner space, time to heal and showing respect for his fight. Stigma has no place in our home, family or friendship groups.'

'Hold a space of compassion and love,' she adds. 'There are days my husband's internal negative self talk overwhelms his mind and body. I don't need to understand the why's or what's, but I am there to hold his hand and let him know that this to will pass.'

For the past 40 years Jo Buchanan has cared for her sister, nephew and son. She recommends carers find time for themselves.

'Because it's a 24/7 job, you need to organise your day and put aside time for yourself,' she says.

'If you don't put a plan like this in place, your health will suffer. You could experience burn-out or stress and you could become ill yourself. If this happens, who will look after the person you love?'

What is the biggest challenge you've faced?

When Natasha was in the grips of mania, her mother Ela found it hard to put a stop to Natasha's reckless decision-making. Ela says their solution was very hard for everyone.

'Nothing would get through to her. So, we had to do some tough love to stop her inviting people in from off the street,' Ella explains.

'We left the house and stayed in a hotel. Natasha was mortified by this, it gave her a jolt. She chose to move out and stay in a homeless shelter, which we called the "Lodge".'

'These days we laugh about it. We say, "remember there is always the "Lodge."'


Tony admits his biggest challenge has been overcoming his desire to take control and protect Jenny when she's unwell.

'It's the absolute fear when she's unwell. Being able to step back and not hover over her, or smother her, or oversee every aspect of her life,' he says.

'If she's going to manage her illness she needs to be able to do it on her own with me there as support.'

How have you coped with change in your relationship?

For Josh, the best way to cope with change is to recognise the distress both parties will experience and to accept that care will play a role in the relationship into the future.

'We have taken things very slowly,' Josh says. 

'We both had times when we nearly gave up because of distress. We wanted to protect ourselves, and each other, so we tried to push each other away.'

'The emotional connection you feel for someone you love means sometimes you can't separate carer from your relationship, it is a package deal.'


Tony says he's glad he made the decision to interrupt his career and focus on the care of his wife.

'It sounds like a real cliché, but it has strengthened our relationship,' he says.

'She describes me as her 'rock', so it's something that has brought us much closer together.'

'There are more important things than career ambition. I let a lot of things go to be here for her. There are some regrets, but we've navigated a path that works for us, it's been good.'

* Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

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