The Hurdles of Mental Health Challenges in Relationships

Emma Whitney reflects on the challenges that mental health difficulties pose in relationships and examines how this can affect our most intimate relationships

Mental illness has been part of my life since I was eight years old. One day, I began to experience a terrifying breathless feeling in my chest and things were never the same. I grew up with a weight on my back, learning to cope with it the same way I learned how to tie my shoelaces and how to do Pythagoras’ theorem. All throughout my adolescence I was a nervous and sad girl – I never knew any different. As a teenager, I mostly worried about my Leaving Cert and how I felt lonely in school. Yet I was hopeful that once I got to college, everything would be perfect and my struggles would be a thing of the past. I was very quickly proven wrong.

Undoubtedly college has been a much more enjoyable experience than secondary school. A weight had been lifted and I could walk around freely without worrying about what others thought of me. A lightbulb switched on and it became dazzlingly clear that none of this, actually mattered. What mattered was what I thought of myself. But whilst I eased into a peace with who I was as well as finding ‘my people’, my first year of university introduced a dynamic that neither I nor the weight on my back were familiar with – dating.

Straight off the bat, I found myself in a series of back-to-back relationships and situationships, each of which brought its own challenges. As someone who had only the most rudimentary of knowledge in dating I was wholly unprepared for these. It seemed as if everyone else knew what to say and do but me. Dating for the first time was a fun, shiney-new experience which brought new joys, but new worries as well. I thought that I had learned how to live with my mental health struggles and how to adequately mask them so I could power through the day, but bringing them into my now-adult relationships required even more learning.

“A situationship, characterised by emotional intensity, unrealistic expectations and an idealised view of the other person all within a short space of time, is not the ideal for those who struggle with their mental health”

A situationship, characterised by emotional intensity, unrealistic expectations and an idealised view of the other person all within a short space of time, is not the ideal for those who struggle with their mental health. A Love Island relationship on steroids. As situationships seem the default for relationships in 2024, powering through the lows and often unexpected ends of these brief relationships was something that I am continuing to grasp. At the end of my first real dating experience, I was really upset, but also deeply embarrassed. How could I be cut up over something that lasted less than three months? I pushed down my sadness and feelings as it seemed stupid to mourn a brief fling. In actuality letting the pain wash over you, allowing the tide of sadness to drift you out to sea is very healthy. We must feel our emotions to adequately process them.

Quickly bouncing back in view of the adage ‘get under to get over’ (which honestly works half of the time, and results in weird, complex emotions not being processed the other half) I entered into my first relationship, during my second semester at Halls. During the peak of the second Covid lockdown, when The Evening Walk to Tesco being the most romantic date possible, I very quickly felt trapped and in desperate need of personal space. We existed in a stifling Covid bubble that squeezed us, crushing any chance for forming the normal relationships with boundaries and space that existed in the pre-Covid era. My inability to communicate my needs for space as well as not yet knowing my attachment style (guess) resulted in many arguments and hurt feelings. I beat myself up for my mistakes, especially in this first relationship, thinking that I was the only one doing these things.

I have since learned that making such mistakes is inevitable and an important learning curve at best. Despite all the miscommunications, I’m so glad that I had this relationship to make the mistakes that I did and learn about what I am like with another person.

For the last two years I have mostly focused on the relationships I neglected during my time in college – the one with myself. In this busy dissertation and grad application season (as well as holding down a part-time job), I find myself extremely stressed at times waking up in the middle of the night panicking about deadlines and work rosters. Admittedly my mental health has been better and I experienced a particularly bad slump on my Erasmus but slowly I am building a coping skill-set that I didn’t have at 16. Medication and therapy have helped but the road to happiness is long and winding. Some days are better than others when I wake up to the noise of the people I love around the house and the sun is streaming through the curtains.

“Sensitivity is a good and beautiful thing”

It is the little moments like these that make all of the effort in minding my mental health worth it. In my final semester of four university years that have passed all-too quickly, I can say that we are not alone in our mental health struggles and that almost everyone struggles with it at one point. I used to be embarrassed about my anxiety and my sensitivity to certain stresses but now I see it as a good and as integral part of me as my sense of humour or my taste in music. Sensitivity is a good and beautiful thing. How could it be anything but when it allows you to feel so deeply and love so hard? It is not inherently a bad thing to be more emotional than average but rather it is imperative that you are able to manage it in a healthy way. The most essential relationship in life is with the self. You are the most important person in your life and this is the relationship most worth fighting for.