Much as some of us struggle to get well from mental illnesses like depression, Bipolar illness, and PTSD, sometimes we have a hard time keeping those troublesome symptoms to ourselves. This can make our lives miserable, and also be difficult for those whom we love. It can be hard for partners of mentally ill people to balance compassion with self-preservation, especially if the symptoms hurt or frighten the loved one.
I often see couples where one person has been traumatized by something that has happened in the past, whether it was done by the partner (as in infidelity or domestic violence), or by someone else in the person’s past. This increases the reactivity of the trauma victim. The trauma survivor can become very sensitive to noise, sound, tones of voice, or cues that remind him or her of the prior trauma. When the person gets triggered, they might yell, become angry, get scared, or act in ways that are hard for the other person to understand.
Often the person who acts differently feels bad about it afterward, once their brain has restored balance and they are no longer in the grips of overwhelming emotion. However, many times their loved one feels hurt and reluctant to trust them again, for fear of recurrence of the emotional instability and erratic behavior.
There is some grace that we allow each other in relationships, whether they are friendships, intimate/romantic relationships, or family ties. On the whole, if we know our loved one has a good heart and kind intentions, we can forgive some of the erratic or hurtful behavior. But the person with the mental issues also has a responsibility to take care of themselves as much as they can so that they can prevent hurting those they love. If a person keeps yelling at someone or treating them poorly, and says, “it’s because I’m triggered by you”, then they are not fully taking responsibility for their part in the interaction. It can be hard to forgive this kind of assertion. Yes, loved ones should educate themselves about their loved one’s mental illness and try to put the strange behavior in context. At the same time, however, the mental illness diagnosis doesn’t give a person carte blanche to act as they wish at that time.
There is nothing wrong with seeking help in coping with mental issues, and in going to groups like National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) to get education and support. Both the person with the illness and the partner/friend/family member need to care for themselves and take needed medication, therapy, or whatever will help them cope better, as well as learn to act in a way conducive to healthier relationships.