Over a coffee, my parents mentioned that they'd seen an old family acquaintance. It appeared to them that she was continuing to battle with the mental health issues that we knew had plagued her for some time. The first time they'd seen her with her new husband, she was happier and healthier than ever before. She seemed to be thriving. Then old demons returned and her state of mind deteriorated further than before.
'He seems such a decent guy', my mum observed about the husband. The implications of this statement are understandable. Love and connection are such fundamental elements of our wellbeing that it makes sense to assume that a nurturing relationship would support and enhance robust mental health. So why in this situation would we go from surviving, from coping, to clearly struggling?
This is a question that I've wrestled with myself. I'm in a happy, healthy relationship with a partner who loves me. He accepts me just as I am: no strings, no qualifications, no hoop jumping. With him, I feel safer than I ever have before. Having known him socially for years, I trusted him before we got together. He too is a decent guy.
Surely this is a context in which I should blossom? In many ways, I have. Yet long-standing mental health issues have resurfaced, and this episode has been far worse than previous ones. As my partner's uncle jokingly noted, a drastic decline coincided with our decision to get married - so much so that we ended up cancelling our wedding plans.
Why did this happen? What is the connection, if indeed there is one? I've mused long and hard about possible reasons. For a time I assumed that it was some kind of sub-conscious sabotaging of my own happiness, reflecting a deep seated belief that I was a bad person who didn't deserve good things.
A psychologist I worked with offered an alternative explanation that I instantly recognised as true for me, and I believe for others as well. In the safety of a caring relationship, I felt able to open up. I was no longer trying to keep my heart tightly closed. However opening up to one feeling, love, allowed other emotions to surface too. It's vulnerability expert Brené Brown's argument that 'We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions', only in reverse. Thawing the positive also thaws the negative.
At the same time as causing us to engage with a whole gamut of feelings, these relationships may be the first time that we can be honest about difficult experiences. Again the word safety is crucial. We feel that it's okay to risk vulnerability. Or perhaps we have little choice. Healthy loving relationships can be challenging if they are different to what we are used to. They clash with our expectations and past histories, and this mismatch generates its own mental distress. Perhaps we realise that it is now acceptable to express our needs and wants, only we find that we just cannot do it. We don't know how.
As our new relationships grow, we may begin to appreciate how dysfunctional or outright harmful previous relationships were. Possibly we comprehend this for the first time; possibly it is something we've long known or suspected.
Likewise, as our new relationships grow, we not only see but also feel what healthy love is actually like. Small wonder we are overwhelmed, trying to handle strong emotions about what went before alongside equally strong, albeit contrasting, emotions for what is now. We need help and support, personal and professional, to process all this. Then we can thrive as we deserve to with the people we love - and who love us.