I read an article recently about the secret to making a marriage last, based on the research of John Gottman. While the article found many of his findings exceedingly obvious, the theory of mutual kindness struck a chord. When we are in a secure relationship of any kind, whether it’s a friendship, a romantic relationship or a family bond, it is easy to start taking it for granted, and to stop making the tiny overtures of friendship we make with people we don’t know so well. The research suggested that whenever someone makes a tiny comment about their day or something they’ve noticed, they’re sending out a tiny message for reassurance and comfort. And if those gestures are knocked back more often than not – “you’ve told me that before” “I don’t think that’s true” or just a “hmm” and barely a glance up from the phone/tablet/TV/computer – then the bond can begin to fail.
I was thinking about this in the context of relationships with people who suffer from mental health problems – depression and anxiety, and particularly the latter as it is what I’m struggling with the most these days. It struck me that this advice relates even more to these more difficult relationships, and in a number of ways affecting both parties.
First of all, if you are having an anxious or depressed day, it can make it much easier for you to take your mood out on the person who is closest to you. You know they are not going to leave but at the same time it terrifies you that they might, especially when you are low or feeling like a burden. This fear and discomfort with yourself makes you more likely to lash out, especially if you’ve had to spend a day pretending to be perfectly well so you can carry out your job. If you have been fake smiling or hiding anxiety attacks behind water cooler chat all day, the pent-up pressure getting released may make the evening at home difficult. You want to relax but sometimes you’ve forgotten how. You want to have a nice evening in but you’re exhausted and just want to lie down and cry. The knowledge that you’re wasting the precious free time does not make it any easier.
I found myself in this mood recently and the only thing that helped was a kind of forced reset. You know when you can only turn off a computer by holding down the power key? I did that. I forced off all electronic appliances, poured a glass of wine and parked myself on the sofa with an Agatha Christie. No electronics within reach, all notifications off. It helped, but any kind of half reset I don’t think would have had the same effect. For partners, it can be very wearing to be on the receiving end of this kind of mood. It is isolating, frustrating and sometimes hurtful. I can’t offer much advice except to try to be patient and, for me, it’s probably best to give me some space. I want company but know I’ll be bad at it in that mood. And while it could also be useful for a partner to suggest a total relaxation shutdown, ultimately it needs to come from the person who is upset. If you suffer from mental illness you need to learn your own moods and how to cope with them, to get support from people around you without pushing them away. Easier said than done, so, in the words of a best friend: communication, all the time, until you can read each other’s minds (or near enough).
The issue described at the beginning also works the other way round in these relationships. If someone with depression or anxiety reaches out, especially about how they are feeling, even in a very small way, it can be very difficult for them. In the words of Dr Brene Brown, we are making ourselves vulnerable by opening up about something that makes us feel ashamed. People get anxious about all sorts of things: job interviews, flying by plane, public speaking, driving, going out to social events, going out to places they don’t know, talking to people on the phone, going to the shops, going out of the house, going outside a set of rooms. If you suffer from anxiety, when you’re in one of those triggering situations – I, for example, get anxious about driving – then your physiological reaction to doing that thing may be the same or even more extreme than someone going to a very important interview, or sitting an exam, things that make most people at least a little anxious. Because for most people, these things like making a phone call, or going to a party, are “normal” and not stressful at all, we feel ashamed that we get so worked up about something so “small”. So with any reaching out about these things, the need for mutual kindness is ramped up to a hundred because of the shame behind the feeling. If our partner or friend or family member then replies with something that is cutting the feeling down, making it sound silly or irrational, if they respond with a deep sigh or an eye roll or even with a platitude like, “oh don’t worry, it will be fine” we feel a hundred times more shut down and irrelevant than someone might under “normal” circumstances, if they shared something they thought was funny or interesting and were met with stony ambivalence or disdain.
For partners and friends it can be very difficult to know how to respond. The best thing to do is to acknowledge the fullness of the feeling that person is having – try to imagine it from their point of view, take it seriously and don’t just shrug it off or treat it with frustration. Think of how you would want to be met if you were talking about something you find particularly frightening and difficult – this is that thing for that person. I used an example the other day – I’d booked myself a horse riding lesson, which I was really excited about, but nerves about the drive there and parking in the small and awkwardly shaped car park were making me very nauseous. My partner said, “but I thought you wanted to go riding?” because for a normal person, the excitement of going riding would outweigh the nerves of a ten-minute drive. I explained that, for me, it was the same as if he was going for a job he really wanted, or even had the job and today was the first day, and he was quite nervous about it, and then if I said, “but I thought you wanted this job?” Somehow you need to find a way to understand that what seems so small to you, is not small to the other person.
The person suffering with anxiety or depression has to be careful to do the same thing. I often find one of the best ways to get me out of a low or anxious mood is actually if my partner needs me for something – I tend to start focussing on them and my own problems seem smaller because I’m not looking at them so closely. But it can be difficult sometimes, if you’re caught up in your own head and are used to being the one to receive support, to remember to turn around and give it to your friends and family and partner too. Especially if you are afraid that part of their issue is their worry over you. Of course they need other people to lean on too but it can help, when you’re in a good place, to talk over the effects and issues together. Talking about the difficult times and what you both want and need in those situations is essential. It’s a give and take process – and mutual kindness and empathy is absolutely key.
When you’re both feeling down, as my partner and I have been a bit this week after the US election, it’s even more important for us both to practise mutual kindness. I feel like we’ve both feeling a bit defensive, hurt and beaten down, like little creatures evicted from our safe shells, trying to find some comfort and warmth. We all need to turn in towards each other, be honest and stay vulnerable, to keep our closest circles a happy corner in which to regroup in these difficult times.