How To Sensitively Break Up With Someone Who's Living With A Mental Illness

by Jamie Kravitz

Breaking up with a significant other can be a stressful experience for everyone involved. No matter how kindly you do it, your decision is going to impact that person's life in a significant way. Breaking up with someone with a mental illness isn't necessarily any different than ending a relationship with a person who isn't living with a mental illness. But depending on how their disorder impacts their life, a difficult breakup could potentially make their symptoms temporarily worse. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to be as sensitive as possible when it comes to your soon-to-be ex's mental health.

Before you have that final tough conversation, it's worth asking yourself the following questions: How does your partner typically react to upsetting situations? Do they have a support system in place? Do you feel that you'll both be safe, post-breakup? While it's not your responsibility to deal with any fallout, you can do your best to ensure that the actual breakup goes as smoothly as possible. And just like with any challenging goodbye, it's important to treat your partner with compassion, empathy, and respect, and to communicate as clearly as possible.

Here are four other things to keep in mind before, during, and after breaking up with someone with a mental illness.

Treat your partner's illness the way you'd treat any kind of illness.
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"When we talk about 'mental illness' as a term it is essentially the same as saying 'physical illness.' In fact it's important to think about it that way," says Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. clinical psychologist and host of The Web Radio Show. He explains that just like there are many types of physical illness — some chronic and some not, some constant and some episodic — not all mental illnesses present in the same way.

"Breaking up with someone who has been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder is not unlike breaking up with someone with a physical illness," says Dr. Klapow. "To the extent that their disorder is active (["active" meaning that] they are currently depressed, manic, have OCD that is not well controlled, or are actively hallucinating due to schizophrenia, for example), then the stress of the breakup can absolutely make their symptoms worse." If you can, it is ideal to wait until the person's symptoms are more stabilized to break up with them.

Choose a relatively stable time and place to break up.
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When contemplating when and where to break up, think about how the person has been doing over the past few weeks or months. Dr. Klapow suggests asking yourself questions like, "How have they been handling day-to-day stressors?" and, "Are they currently under pressure from work, school, family, physical health problems?" As he points out, the more stable their environment is, the better off they'll be.

It's also important that they have a support network in place. Ideally, they are actively being treated by a psychiatrist and/or a psychologist, they have a primary care physician who they also see regularly, and they have family members who are aware of their condition and know how to manage it. Having other people who are available to be a part of their lives and help manage their feelings about the breakup will be a big help after it happens.

Do your best to understand their condition.

Knowing what their symptoms are and how stress affects these symptoms can help you prepare for the breakup — and the possible repercussions. Will a breakup make them more anxious or depressed? Could it trigger a substance abuse relapse or an anger outburst? "If you are dating someone with a mental illness and you are going to break up, make sure you know what the flare-ups could be," says Dr. Klapow.

When you're explaining the reasons why you want to break up with them, though, you should do it in exactly the same way that you would if the person did not have a mental illness. "Explain with compassion, explain specifically, keep it relatively short, and make it final if it is final," says Dr. Klapow.

Use compassion and empathy.
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When breaking up with anyone, compassion and empathy are key. If the person does have a mental illness, there might be an added element of concern for their safety. You should understand what the risks are and do your best to alert their support system. In the end, though, you are responsible for you. "You can only control what they do to a minimal extent," says Dr. Klapow.

He explains that letting a mutual friend or family member who you have a good relationship with know what happened is important, but that you can't directly intervene once you have chosen to step out of their lives. "Make sure there is a bridge of support and monitoring. You can be there if they reach out to you. You can let them know you are there to support them if they are struggling," he says.

After the breakup, take a step back.
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Once you break up with your partner, you don't want to send mixed messages or give them false hope by staying heavily involved in their life, Dr. Klapow says. It's also important that you don't confuse heartbreak with mental illness, he says. There's a difference between them wanting to get back together and wanting to talk about the fact that their symptoms are reaching a breaking point. It's important to recognize their true motives and remember that a breakup can be distressing regardless of whether the person has a mental illness.

"Communication with the person needs to be driven by you being very clear why you are communicating," says Dr. Klapow. "To support them with their condition, to offer help and some guidance is fine. To continue to engage as if you were together is not if that is not what you wanted."

When breaking up with someone with a mental illness, be thoughtful, understand their condition, make sure there is some safety net of support for them, and stay indirectly connected if you are concerned they are at risk for harming themselves, says Dr. Klapow. "In the end, however, breaking up with a person with a mental illness should not look dramatically different from breaking up with [any other] person. Because it is a person with a mental illness, not a mental illness that you are breaking up with."