How to keep your relationship strong in times of crisis

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Similarly, Fiona Millar remembers blaming herself for her partner Alastair Campbell’s fluctuating moods. The former press secretary for the Blair government, now a writer and mental-health campaigner, last year he published a book, Living Better: How I Learned To Survive Depression. Fiona contributed a chapter, in which she recalls a holiday in France with their young children. ‘I went to get him some lunch, but when I brought back a ham baguette, he exploded. This wasn’t what he wanted! Why didn’t I know he hated ham?’ He didn’t speak to her for three days.

‘The inevitable reaction when someone is not speaking to you is, “What have I done wrong? I should be better,”’ she says now. ‘But the best thing you can do is cut the blame. I say that like it’s easy, and it’s not. I only realised it for the last 10 years of 40 years of being together, but when that penny did drop, it was quite a significant moment.’

Realising that the situation is not your – or your partner’s – fault is an important first step. Then come the difficult conversations. ‘Some people feel like they can’t face bringing up the elephant in the room,’ Howells says. ‘But not talking is the thing that undermines a relationship.’ Tass says initiating the hardest conversations with Nick has given her an inner peace, including ‘discussing that when I die, I want him to get married again. I feel my role is more preparing him than preparing myself.’

It doesn’t have to be life or death to make it a tricky conversation. Whatever the topic, finding ‘space and safety to open the box’ is important, says Howells. ‘Sometimes it’s a good idea to send a warning shot, such as a text to say, “Look, I need to talk to you about what’s happening to us; I miss us, and I want us to fix it.” Later on you can start a conversation, such as, “I can see that you’ve gone quiet, I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but I want to listen to you and find out more.”’

It is important, though, to watch out for the inner nag. Fiona says when Alastair was in a dark mood, ‘Your natural reaction is to say, are you OK? What can I do to help? But you do realise that, actually, it’s quite irritating. If someone has depression, a cup of tea or a trip to the cinema isn’t going to help.’

Howells understands why one person can end up nagging, but it rarely works. ‘Ideally you want to say, “I know you must be hurting and I’m desperately frightened; I just want to do what I can, but I don’t know where to start.”’ The best thing is to back off and seek outside help.

If you can’t find a charity supporting your specific issue, look for a peer group. Both Fiona and Suzanne have established groups for partners and parents respectively. One night, sitting by her daughter’s bedside at 3am on suicide watch, Suzanne made herself a promise: ‘If we got through this, I’d make sure there was something in place for other families.’

Since setting up support group Parenting Mental Health, Suzanne has also written a book, Never Let Go, detailing the kind of technique she developed with Issy, some of which came from the new way she and her husband started to relate to each other. ‘We realised we both brought something unique to our relationship and started to appreciate each other’s strengths again. It helped us to not only support Issy, but also gave us a deeper understanding of each other.’

Issy is now doing well, albeit with ups and downs. For all they’ve been through, Suzanne says the experience has had a positive side too. It’s ‘opened up conversations we wouldn’t have had. Adversities really are opportunities if you can be open to self-reflection.’

Where to turn when crisis hits

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