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Taking accountability for your own well-being and mental health could mean the end of a relationship

Written by Kay Wicker


On World Mental Health Day, BLK’s relationship expert sits down with theGrio to discuss healthy communication, how mental health impacts relationships, and how to know when it’s time to leave.


Ciara Wilson recently said she knew it was time to end things with Future in 2014 when she felt like her “taste buds” had changed. Tia Mowry said she knew she was ready for a divorce last year when she began to show herself greater self-love and realized what she deserved. Sources close to Jodie Turner-Smith claim the actress ended her three-year marriage to husband Joshua Jackson when she realized their dynamic had become “unhealthy.”


Each of these is an example of what BLK’s relationship expert Marissa Nelson would describe as someone taking accountability for what they need. It’s a crucial step in managing mental health while in a relationship, says the Washington, D.C., and Maryland-based certified relationship and family therapist. However, sometimes doing so could prompt a partner to end things.


On World Mental Health Day, theGrio sat down with Nelson to discuss how mental health can impact a relationship, whether that means evolving the dynamic or ending it altogether.


“I think it’s a bit complicated,” Nelson said when asked how to identify when it’s time to end a relationship.


She said there tends to be an internal conflict that could include taking stock of arguments, how you repair afterward, and whether or not you still feel “emotionally safe” in the dynamic.


“We’re in connection because we want to experience love. We want to experience closeness. We want to experience security and safety emotionally,” Nelson said. “If we are starting to not feel emotionally safe — if our words are being used against us, if we are not being seen, or don’t feel like we can show up authentically as we are, then perhaps we start to evaluate whether this is the relationship for you and whether this is the time for you to leave.”


Thinking these things through correlates with mental health because, as Nelson said, “relationships are not happening in isolation of mental health.”


She noted that when two individuals come together, each brings different life experiences, including their family of origin, traumas, communication style, and much more. Nelson said all these things can impact how a person experiences the world and themselves. A person’s unique set of traumas can be unintentionally triggered by their partner. A late response to a text could be no big deal to one person but could kickstart another person’s flight-or-fight response, for instance.


“All of these different factors influence your mental health, and sometimes the success of a relationship or even the demise of the relationship or the inner workings,” she said.


Nelson added that the state of a relationship can impact a person’s self-esteem, which can, in turn, lead to poor mental health.


Ultimately, she said, “Everybody needs to take responsibility for their own health and well-being.”


Nelson, who has counseled hundreds of couples and leads the relationship retreat IntimacyMoons, said it’s prevalent for individuals who have not done that work to arrive at a relationship seeking validation or affirmation.


While she noted that objectively, you do want a partner who speaks kindly to you, builds you up, and makes you feel good about yourself, she also noted there are ways this dynamic can be unhealthy.


“I’m talking about when you don’t feel good about yourself,” she explained. “When you are still working through self-esteem issues and worthiness. So the relationship becomes this playground where now your partner is in charge of your well-being. They are responsible for affirming you. They have to take emotional ownership over your moods and how you’re feeling, and they have to adjust accordingly so that you don’t feel a certain way.”


Nelson urges that relationships have a better foundation if both parties have built themselves independently.


“Both people can take the pressure off of each other with their own work. Then both of you can come to the relationship feeling seen, feeling understood, and truly connecting authentically and openly,” she said.


Sometimes, this work can happen together or with the help of a relationship counselor. Other times, as Mowry and Wilson indicated, it leads one to move on from a relationship to get what they’ve discovered they need. When one half of a partnership is working to strengthen their mental health, communication, and approach, but the other isn’t, Nelson advised trying to understand.


“[Understand] that we all have limitations, us included. We’re not going to show up 100% all of the time,” she said. “We’re going to be doing the best that we can.”


She added, “We only have the power to influence, but we do not have the power to change someone.”


In other words, if you’re headed in a different direction than your partner in terms of growth, find a way to respect their journey while respecting yours.


“I think that we’re all on this journey,” Nelson said. “I think that we all should, especially as people of color, give ourselves a lot more grace than we do. We need to push away this myth of perfection and having to show up in the way in which our family would have wanted us to show up, but in the way in which we believe we ought to be, and just really lean into and get to know who you are and to show up authentically as yourself.”


Doing this work may sound like it just benefits the person, but it ultimately leads to better connection, she said. “Because mental health is about connection,” Nelson explained. “A lot of these mental health disorders are diseases of isolation. They, by nature, make us go in our heads and within ourselves, and we do not connect. We do not reach out because we’re working through it in our heads. Get out of your heads, and live, connect, breathe.”



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