What Does Communication Look Like?: Navigating Close Relationships Through Hard Times


Written by Alexandria Pizzola.

We aren’t intended to do life alone. Our communities and support systems form out of the inevitable close personal relationships we cultivate (in all of the silly forms they take) when we dare to connect with others. While navigating our friends, families, romantic relationships, and even acquaintances is not always easy, adding the layer of a mental health challenge can make us feel a bit lost in the woods.

Regardless of whether we are struggling or playing a support role in our relationships, when it comes to keeping these relationships and our individual selves healthy, we don’t always know what to do. It’s common knowledge that close relationships often come down to communication, but when we are navigating mental health challenges in this context, what does that communication really look like?

Below are five important questions to use as a guide through that communication process.

1. What do I need? What does the other person need?

This is one of the biggest pieces of navigating mental health challenges within our close relationships: if we cannot identify and articulate what we need, we cannot ask for and receive the help that we deserve.

The people we let into our lives want to help us, but they don’t always know how. Humans aren’t mind readers, and though those we are close with may know us very well, we can’t expect them to know what we need in every given moment. Working to parse out that information in our heads and getting down to exactly what it is that we need helps us, and it helps those who are supporting us. It’s a win-win.

2. What can we both realistically expect?

Realistic expectations of those we engage with are important because they allow us to authentically know what we can and cannot expect of one another.

Expectations are best set in conversation because they are not one-sided. Without conversation and clearly set ideas, we tend to make assumptions of the other person that do not always make sense in the context of who they are or the role that they play in our lives.

When it comes to facing our mental health challenges in the context of our relationships, expectations surrounding time and attention are two facets especially worth exploring.

3. What boundaries are appropriate here?

When it comes to mental health challenges, boundaries, like expectations, are tremendously helpful tools to keep our relationships healthy. Compassion fatigue is real, and supporting another person can be rewarding but emotionally exhausting. We support those we are close with because we care, but neglecting to clearly establish boundaries around our ability to help can cause our care to waver and allow resentment to set in.

Boundaries are not tools for manipulation if they are clearly and respectfully set. They go hand in hand with expectations and allow those we are doing life with clearly understand what they can and cannot expect from us.

4. Am I trying to fix this?

In our culture, we are very focused on fixing, and we often put unnecessary pressure on ourselves to solve or resolve not only our own problems, but the problems of those we are close with.

The truth is – maybe they don’t need fixing.

We are driven by compassion, yes, but I encourage you to fight the urge to fix when it comes to those you are close with. That is not why we’re here. We’re here to care, of course, and there are hundreds of ways to demonstrate that. Not fixing the challenges that someone else is facing does not mean that we are not useful, it means that we are realistic.

5. Do I need a break?

Sometimes, communication looks like taking a break – regardless of the role you play in this exchange. Take a break from the conversation, take a break from the roles, take a break from the moment. There’s only so much we can do at one time, and we can always come back to a conversation. This isn’t quitting, this is taking care of ourselves.

Sometimes the break will be short – a quick intermission for a glass of water – and other times it may take a while. Even still, if we’re speaking candidly with those we are close with and ourselves, we may find that, in this instance, we are not the right person to help or we are not looking to the right person for help.

We write the scripts of our lives as we go along. Our close relationships contribute to who we are and who we are becoming and impact us on every level. It is in our best interest to cultivate them and allow them to grow as we do, and to do that, sometimes the best thing to do is step back, take a breath, and talk.

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