In 2021, more of us are in touch with how we feel than ever before. We know depression is real. We know anxiety can creep up at the most inconvenient times. And we know, sometimes, we just need to take a duvet day, go for a run or spend a few minutes writing down our thoughts. All of which has – by and large – led to happier and healthier men.
But the battle isn't over, and staying on top of all our mental clutter can be a struggle, especially when it comes to opening up to a partner. You might not know where to start, you might be worried they'll run away, or you might not want to add to their own stress.
Still, life is full of challenges, and relationships are no different, says Danny Greeves, author of Six Steps To Self-Confidence. "It's normal for one or both individuals in a relationship to have difficult periods. Being open about mental health provides the all-important context which allows us to see things clearly and make rational decisions."
In other words, if you're able to talk about feeling burnt out at work, those occasional snappy comments or abrupt answers suddenly don't seem so out of the blue. "The comments are more about the situation rather than the relationship. A simple apology, and they're forgotten," Greeves adds.
Ultimately, prioritising your own mental health is the opposite of selfish. You don't always have to be the best you, but if you don't give yourself a fighting chance of feeling good, how will you show up for your partner when they need you? Which is why we asked three experts to talk us through the process.
Do We Really Need To Talk?
We get it, talking about your head can be daunting. Especially if it's in a new relationship, or you've been in the relationship for a while but have only recently started feeling 'off'. But guess what? We're all human.
"Mental health is something that we all have, and so the effects of both good and bad mental health will impact how you and your partner navigate the relationship," explains Emma Azzopardi, a psychotherapist at Physis Consultancy.
It's useful to remember that whatever's on your mind, it doesn't have to define you or your relationship. By being open about it, you can find ways to manage it or move past it much more easily.
"The vast majority of people who experience mental health issues do recover," adds Lou Campbell, a psychotherapist and programmes director at Wellbeing Partners. "Recovery means 'being able to manage well again', and we are far more likely to recover quickly and effectively with the support of loved ones. This means letting people we trust know how we are."
Why Is It So Hard?
A lot of the messages we pick up as boys tell us that 'real men' sort out their own problems. As a result, it takes a different kind of strength (and not to mention, a lot of practice) to override these thoughts.
"An inner conflict often emerges from those early ingrained behaviour patterns and our desire to be open and honest. In these situations, past behaviour usually wins out and communication in the relationship suffers," says Greeves.
Although we are getting better at talking about mental health, many people still feel stigma and shame, particularly men. "Comments such as 'I don't want to be a burden' or 'I should be able to sort this out myself' are commonplace," adds Campbell.
Opening up can only happen when you feel safe and comfortable with your partner, as Azzopardi explains. "It is important not to put pressure on ourselves to disclose anything until we feel comfortable and trusting within the relationship. It needs to feel safe to open up."
When Is The Right Moment?
As with a lot of things in life, choosing your moment is critical. It's probably best not to blurt it out in the middle of the weekly food shop, for example. Unless, of course, you feel so overwhelmed that you have to.
"Imagine that you were going to let your partner know that you had a shoulder injury. How would you start the conversation?" asks Campbell. "What sort of things would you say? What questions would you anticipate?"
Even though conversations around mental health are more sensitive, it is useful to remember that mental health is a part of our overall health. The closer we can get to discussing mental health within the context of overall health, the less difficult and awkward conversations become.
"Emotions come in waves; we can either stay afloat and surf or get washed up and swept away," says Greeves. "When we get into the routine of sharing how we think and feel about minor, day-to-day issues, we keep afloat because the waves are small and manageable."
In simpler terms, get used to talking about how you feel daily, and over time opening up about the bigger things will start to seem way easier.
What Do I Say?
Just like it helps to know which muscles you want to work out when heading to the gym, having a plan before a conversation about mental health can maximise the gains. Campbell suggests focusing on three key points.
- "Be clear about why you're having the conversation – 'Lately I feel like I've been struggling with my mental health'."
- "Reassure your partner that it's not their fault – 'It's not about you or anything you've done, this is about me and my mental state'."
- "Tell them what you need – 'What I think would be helpful is if I can talk about how I'm feeling. I don't feel like I need advice, I just need to get it off my chest for now'."
It can be a shock to learn that your partner has been going through a rough patch, and sometimes our loved ones need a bit of time to process this information before they can give us the support we need
"If that happens, there's no need to apologise for being unwell, just like you wouldn't apologise or feel guilty if you were physically unwell or injured."
Don't feel rushed to get everything out in one go. Greeves suggests a monthly check-in where you spend time together, engage in something you both enjoy, and have the space to be open and honest about your wellbeing.
How To Avoid Codependency
A common reason men don't talk about their mental health in a relationship is that they think they have to be strong for their partner. But remember, we all have mental health – good and bad – so it's likely your partner also struggles from time to time.
While talking is great, relying only on each other isn't healthy and can lead to codependency. You need to support each other while also individually taking responsibility for the stuff going on inside your own head.
"Support doesn't mean that you need 'fixing' or rescuing. That isn't anyone else's job but ours," says Azzopardi.
"I would strongly encourage anyone with mental health issues to seek support from a counsellor, psychotherapist, cognitive behavioural therapist or another mental health professional so that the partner is not the only source of support," adds Campbell.
Keep In Mind
- Being open about your feelings can improve the relationship and give you more energy to dedicate to being a better partner.
- Forget any outdated ideas that you need to be 'strong' for your partner. Opening up takes a whole different kind of strength.
- Get used to discussing how you feel about small things a few times a day so that you feel comfortable before tackling bigger conversations.
- Explain that your feelings aren't necessarily about the other person, and give your partner time to absorb it all before expecting a response.
- Keep talking about how you both feel. Taking mindful walks together or teaming up on wellness techniques like yoga or a relaxing bath can help keep communication open.