Updated: May 22
Do you or your partner have a mental health challenge that impacts you both as individuals and also takes a toll on your relationship? If so, you are not alone. Many couples I work with come to marriage counseling with individual concerns such as trauma, problematic substance use, ADHD, depression, OCD, and anxiety.
When one partner struggles with their mental health, it is common for the partner who does not have those particular mental health difficulties to take on a managerial role, where they remind their spouse of appointments, help them avoid stressful situations, do more household organizational tasks, and generally serve as a kind of regulator to compensate for their partner’s difficulties. This system may work somewhat in the moment, such that the partner with the diagnosis avoids a trigger, shows up on-time, or completes a chore. However, there is significant long-term cost to both partners when one takes on a regulator role.
Regulating is taxing, frustrating, and ineffective
Regulators often feel mentally exhausted, overwhelmed, and unappreciated. You might find yourself thinking “it’s like I have another child” or “I can’t count on my partner.” You may want to stop regulating, but whenever you try, you just see your partner struggling or dropping the ball. Often regulators start to see their partners differently, thinking of them as incompetent, unreliable, or untrustworthy. And although regulating them helps keep your lives on track, your partner isn’t gaining any more skills at managing themselves.
Being regulated blocks autonomy, growth, and self-worth
Regulated partners often feel a combination of guilt, gratitude, and resentment. You may appreciate your partner’s help in your daily tasks but also wonder if you could function without them. You may feel bad about yourself because you “need” so much support, but simultaneously angry when your partner nags or criticizes you. You want the chance to try things on your own, but you also worry that if you don’t succeed immediately, your partner will see that as proof that you’re not capable. In addition to managing your own mental health, you also have to manage how your partner feels about your mental health, offering them reassurance that you are taking your meds or going to therapy. This double load of comforting your partner about your mental status while also trying to stay healthy can feel heavy to carry.
When both partners struggle
Of course, in many relationships, both partners have mental health concerns. In these situations, the regulator/regulated pattern often still exists but becomes more nuanced. One partner may function well in a particular area and serve as the regulator but struggle in a different area where they are the ones being regulated. If you are trying to reduce your substance use and your partner is grappling with PTSD, you can both simultaneously try to manage each other’s symptoms. The partner without substance use concerns may check in on the partner with substance use, asking them whether they have used, questioning where they have been, or bringing up past use. In turn, the partner without PTSD may try to prevent their partner with PTSD from experiencing any triggers (avoiding telling them things, helping them stay away from places and situations that remind them of their trauma). When both partners have a mental health difficulty, there is often a ping pong effect of mutual triggering, such that each partner’s pain points bump up against the other’s.
Individual mental health struggles are treatable. But even when both partners receive in individual therapy, your relationship patterns can still keep you stuck with symptoms and fights you don’t want. If you recognize the regulator pattern from your relationship, marriage counseling can help identify and interrupt the parts of your dynamic that don’t sustain a healthy connection.
Reach out today to support your individual and relational health without regulating each other.