Telling your partner about your mental health diagnosis is a big step in a relationship that is often filled with anxiety, uncertainty and fear. I have first-hand experience telling the person I saw myself spending the rest of my life with that I have a serious mental illness and will be on anti-psychotic medication for the rest of my life.
Here’s what I learned in the process of disclosing my schizophrenia diagnosis to the man who is now my husband. I hope that my experience – and what I wish I had known – can help others who are making this important, brave decision.
Choosing to disclose is a positive—and even exciting—step
If you’re willing to share this type of information with someone, it’s a sign that that person is special. Your willingness to disclose probably means you want to be real and transparent with them – to achieve greater intimacy for the purposes of a long-term relationship.
If I could go back, I would tell myself that sharing this information in the first place is actually a privilege and an honor for your partner. Whoever you choose to tell is lucky to know this information. A good partner will understand the importance of you thinking highly enough of them to reveal sensitive information that makes you vulnerable. So the right person will see your disclosure as a good thing. And your vulnerability speaks volumes about the strength of your relationship.
Tremor is a normal but important filter
It’s understandable that you might not want to disclose because you don’t know how your partner will react. Even if you don’t know how they’ll react, that doesn’t mean they’re not the right person—you just might not know for sure what they know or think about mental illness. Maybe they don’t have any first-hand experience with mental illness and may unwittingly see your diagnosis through the lens of stigma. It’s normal to worry that their limited experience may cause them to see you differently. Personally, I was afraid for the first time that my partner would find out that I wasn’t “perfect” or worse, that I had a “problem”.
I understand why disclosing this information is so difficult. Maybe your relationship is the best thing that’s happened to you in a long time and you don’t want to take the risk. Of course, it would be painful to find out that your partner does not accept you and your diagnosis. Rejection can make us feel like our past and current mental health is preventing us from finding the love and happiness we seek. We don’t want anyone looking at us and worrying that we might be unreliable or repeat ourselves.
However, it is better to find out early if your partner would reject you, as you do not want to waste your time with someone who will not accept your illness. Your time is just as valuable as your partner’s, and you won’t truly know if your partner is the right person for you until they get to know and accept you completely – including your diagnosis.
Transparency can be a relief and strengthen the relationship
The truth is: until your illness defines or identifies you, the act of hiding information about yourself is emotionally draining. Hiding information about yourself takes away energy that could instead be directed toward growing your relationship. In addition to the exhaustion of hiding a diagnosis, you’ll likely feel unnecessary anxiety about whether your partner will find out before you decide to tell them.
From my experience, hiding this information can slow down or hinder your connection. By resisting sharing my diagnosis, I unwittingly put the brakes on my relationship; I held back, afraid of being rejected by my history of mental illness.
I disclosed gradually over two years because I wanted my partner to really get to know me – and he could see how well I was doing despite the challenging diagnosis. While this method certainly resulted in a successful relationship, I still wish I had disclosed earlier.
The right person will respect your journey
Ultimately, the right partner will admire your courage to face your illness and your tenacity to seek treatment. They’ll know your limitations and imperfections—and they’ll love those parts of you, too.
In the process of revealing my diagnosis and developing my relationship with my partner, I realized that my lack of a perfect past became a gift. I know I am loved, regardless of societal stigma, hospitalizations, and labels. I feel so blessed to experience a kind of unconditional love that surrounds me regardless of setbacks – and I’d rather have that than be thought of as ‘perfect’. I know now that my husband fully knows me and accepts me for who I am, and my disclosure has given him the opportunity to show how much he loves and believes in me.
Sarah Ryan is a writer covering mental illness topics such as stigma, recovery and hope. She is a survivor of schizophrenia and is a regular contributor to the NAMI Wake County blog and facilitator of a NAMI Connection support group in North Carolina. She is now a wife, mother and proud owner of two Pitbull rescues.