Your partner or spouse's mental breakdown and your relationship
If your partner appears to be suffering from a nervous breakdown, I'm not surprised you're looking for information on how to handle that. I can so understand you're at a loss, and don't know what to believe, how to react and what to do for the best.
During my work as a psychotherapist for 24 years, I've supported hundreds of people through a nervous breakdown. I understand how challenging it can be for all concerned. It's therefore my aim to help you support your partner - and survive this difficult time yourself.
Let me start by reassuring you right away: this challenging period of your lives will end!
With regards to how you may be feeling whilst your partner is clearly so out of sorts, it’s totally understandable for you to...
- feel completely baffled by what's going on;
- become really worried about what it can mean for the immediate and possibly the long-term future of your relationship or marriage;
- feel powerless, because no matter what you do or say, you can't seem to help or make it better;
- feel frustrated and impatient at times, perhaps even to the point of losing your rag (understandable - you're human - but do try to avoid it);
- not understand what’s happened at all because everything seemed okay last week or the last time you spoke;
- not understand a sudden downturn, because it seemed that he/she was getting better;
- feel at a loss as nothing you do or say appears to make any difference.
So, let's look at what might be going on...
Knowing what to expect when your partner is having a nervous breakdown
First of all, it’s important that you familiarise yourself with what happens to you when you're going through a nervous breakdown.
If after reading the above it’s clear that your partner is having a breakdown...
- Be prepared to get things wrong at times, however hard you try. Aim to take it in your stride - just keep breathing slowly.
- It will sometimes be difficult to have a rational conversation with your partner. Due to the sway of hormones, the logical, analytical part of their brain just isn't functioning well. And they aren’t aware of it!
- Your partner is unlikely to be able to tell you what they want or what you can do for them. Particularly not early on. Why? Because they’re in a highly emotional state and simply just burnt out. If they've suffered a complete burn-out they’ll be unable to cope with even the smallest task.
- When they're off sick at home and you're working your butt off, it can feel galling to come home and still have to do the shopping, the cleaning, the admin, sort the kids and cook a meal. But know that for your partner right now, simply going to the shop is a major undertaking. Cooking can seem like a monumental task. They’re not being lazy - they just don’t have the physical and mental capacity to fulfil their responsibilities at the moment.
Talk about that breakdown together
Have a conversation with your partner (you know - the kind where you've switched off your mobile and made sure you're not going to be disturbed). Early on, in particular, be prepared for some really heavy discussions. There'll be much darkness, irritability and negativity. Knowing this in advance can help you to mentally prepare yourself for it and remain calm throughout.
This is what your partner needs to hear:
- That you wanted to understand better what they're going through so you’ve read the above mentioned article
- That you’re sorry to know that they're having such a hard time. That, other than what you’ve read, you're finding it hard to imagine what it must be like for them. Could they tell you a little more about how they’re feeling?
- That you're going to be there for them (I'll explain further down what that entails)
When you’ve talked, have a cuddle - if they're open to that. Don't take it personally if they can't. Know that all their sensory organs are working overtime and that any stimulus can just feel like an overload. A comforting cuddle might suddenly have become a frightening prospect. But know that it's unlikely to be your fault. It can simply be one of the many consequences of an emotional breakdown.
And I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to you to know that there are some things you should avoid saying at all costs:
6 Things you should not say
"Pull yourself together"
"Go and do something: change your job, have a word with your boss, tell them this, that and the other, go on holiday, stay with your friend"
"Aren’t we having a great time"
"My colleague/mother/the neighbour suggested you should try…"
"A bit less of the drama please, it can't be that bad"
“I feel sad because I can’t help you” (that's making it about you. On top of everything else, this would just make them worry about what they're doing to you)
10 Things your wife, husband or partner needs to hear often
"I'm here for you. With me, you’re safe. If you need to, you can fall apart without ever feeling like you're being judged."
"I know you're not going mad. You’re ill right now."
"I’ll remind you of all your beautiful characteristics that are still there, beneath that layer of suffering, such as your … (be sure that you've reminded yourself!)"
"I love you. It doesn’t matter that your face is blotchy from your tears, your forehead is furrowed by worry, your mind is troubled and your days are dark. I still love you."
"I can see you feel awful now, but remember that you were able to do this or that yesterday. It's okay to take baby-steps forward. I'll remind you of your progress whenever you need to hear it."
"Expect your progress to be up and down. We’ll ride it out together."
"Hormone levels dictate how you feel, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t feel anything good today."
"You will recover. This won't last (keep a mental note of each and every small step forward)."
"You don’t need to worry about me: I'm okay. And I know you'll recover."
"I know your recovery may mean that we need to make some changes. That’s okay - we'll deal with it."
(With regards to number 5, your partner is unlikely to be able to see things in context. Therefore they may not notice when they’re more able to do things, or when they have fewer panic attacks, or have a generally reasonable day. So, help them out by reminding them whenever they need a boost - which they will, often!)
Advice on how you can help speed up your partner's recovery
Why not? Isn't that a bit over-the-top?
Well, with this list, I'm preparing you for the worst case scenario. It may be that your partner is capable of coping with more than I’m suggesting. But, a nervous breakdown affects every sufferer differently. At the most severe end of the scale, it can involve a complete collapse where even getting up from the sofa requires a major effort.
In essence, if they’ve had a breakdown, your partner is mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. Nothing is functioning as it should, e.g. their immune system, hormonal balance, digestive system etc. And when everything’s off kilter, it makes even the simplest of tasks hard to achieve.
So that’s the list of things you shouldn’t do. But what should you do?
It’s important that your partner takes responsibility for their recovery. You can support them through it, but ultimately they need to take action themselves if they want to get better. You can’t do it for them, or fix them, and neither should you try. Instead...
5 ways to lighten the load with practical support
1. Make a complete list of chores together
(if you've never done that before). Determine who did what up to now, and who will take responsibility for each task at the moment. This list can (and should) be reconsidered, of course, as your partner recovers.
2. If you have children, be prepared to take on more of the responsibility
of caring for them. And talk to your children. Take into account their developmental stage and ability to understand the language you use to explain what's happening. Don't make your partner’s breakdown a secret, something to roll your eyes about or something to be ashamed of. Their mum/dad is ill. They will recover, but they’ll need help along the way. Help the children to feel useful by giving them specific, age-appropriate tasks.
3. Talk to your boss about getting some time off,
if and when needed. It's best to be prepared in advance in case you're suddenly confronted with a crisis.
4. Muster other people's support
with your partner's agreement. Be realistic and open about what you can and can’t do.
5. Keep your promises!
Don’t let your partner down by going back on your word (unless there’s a life or death reason for it). Your partner needs to feel that they can trust and rely on you, now more than ever.
Here's an overview of what your partner can do to recover
Watch this video - if you haven't already at the start of this article (desktop only) for an overview of how to recover from a nervous breakdown...
How to survive your partner's breakdown
Clearly you're going through a difficult time too, particularly if the two of you were already having relationship problems.
So, there are two key strategies that can simultaneously help you, your partner and your relationship:
- Own your role and take responsibility for getting your side of things sorted
- Make sure you look after yourself too
Your partner may well appear very distant and incapable of displaying any feelings of love and tenderness.
If he or she is on medication then this, I'm afraid, can be one of the side-effects.
It's very likely, too, to be due to their emotional state - they're simply walking on a knife edge.
So don’t take it personally. Know that they haven’t fallen out of love with you. It’s just that they’re not physically or emotionally capable of showing you their love right now.
Talking about your relationship together may not be possible at the moment. Your partner is probably finding it hard to think straight. Being asked questions can easily feel too much like an interrogation. Questions also require thinking space, which is something they’re unlikely to have much of right now.
It’s important that you look out for any fleeting moments of positivity, tenderness or connection from your partner. They won’t necessarily be big gestures, but just a look, a word or a touch can go a long way towards helping you feel like you do still matter.
Because, you really do still matter!
And for that reason, here are some more ways you can help yourself survive your partner’s breakdown:
When can you expect things to be back to normal?
I know this is all really tough to deal with, but please trust me when I say it's temporary. By that, I mean that there is an end to it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in sight just yet.
Recovery from a nervous breakdown can take anything from 3 months to the best part of a year - or maybe even longer. I’m afraid it’s impossible to predict recovery time, because there are so many things at play including...
- any pre-existing mental or physical health problems;
- the long-term consequences of any childhood adversity;
- the level of support available (this is where you can play a big role);
- medication (which, ironically, can increase recovery time!);
- how long the breakdown has been brewing and the reasons it happened.
What the crisis can mean for your relationship
Your partner’s breakdown doesn’t have to spell doom or disaster for your relationship. Sure, it’ll be really challenging for a while - but this crisis will pass.
You can tackle the problems together, both in your own ways. And, once you’ve overcome this together, there’s nothing you won’t be able to beat in the future!
Accept that you’ll both respond, think and feel differently. Accept each other for who you are and how you cope with this situation. And become heroes together! Triumph over adversity, and strengthen your relationship as a result.
Facing the ending of your relationship?
If the breakdown happened as part of a relationship crisis it could also spell the end of your partnership. If you're contemplating the ending of your relationship, or indeed your partner is, I highly recommend you connect with an online, licensed therapist, or consult a professional local to you.
Although I can’t tell you how much longer this breakdown will last, I can tell you that there will come a point when your partner has recovered. So, if you’re in it for the long haul, be prepared to encounter challenges and upsets along the way. Be prepared to support your partner, but be sure to look after your own health too (remember to take time out when you need to).
Be prepared for one step forward and a couple of steps backwards. Notice and celebrate each positive step forward, no matter how small or infrequent. You'll find the steps forward become bigger and happen more often over time.
When your partner’s well again, consciously make time to celebrate, together, the strength of your relationship. Be grateful, together, for what you both have, and what you’ve achieved - independently and as a couple. And know that, now you've survived this period together, you're better equipped to face anything else that life may throw at you.