May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. Often, when people think about mental health, they tend to focus solely on mental illness. Mental health does, of course, include anxiety, depression and other diagnoses — but it encompasses much more than that. Positive factors, such as resiliency, curiosity, self-worth and strong supportive relationships are also part of your mental health and can help you cope with adversity and mental illness.

In the same way that we need to attend to our physical health through proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep, our mental health also requires well rounded attention. When we nurture our mental health, we:

• are better able to handle the ups and downs of life,
• recover from set-backs and changes in our lives more quickly,
• sleep better, heal quicker, and live longer.

Without strong positive mental health, we struggle to be healthy and happy.

As a Couples Therapist, I am particularly interested in how our intimate relationships play a part in our personal mental health.

Research shows us that being happily married or in a stable relationship impacts positively on mental health. High marital quality is associated with lower stress and less depression

Some studies have found that negative social interactions and relationships, especially with partners or spouses, increase the risk of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, while positive interactions reduce the risk of these issues.²

Some degree of conflict is inevitable in romantic relationships. But for many of the couples I see, the conflict extends beyond day-to-day disagreements into pervasive patterns of negative conflict. This then leaves both partners in a perpetual state of distress or disconnection.

Disconnection is not good for our mental health. Neurobiologists tell us that we are wired for connection. It seems that we humans aren’t built to be alone, isolated or lonely. We want to be seen, acknowledged and bonded to another.

When we experience a close, intimate, healthy relationship with another:

• We feel alive
• We have purpose
• Life has meaning
• We prioritize positive health behaviors
• We experience less stress
• We’re able to process our emotions
• We have increased energy
• We’re able to release tension

All of this leads to positive mental health, less disease and a longer life. So, what elements of a healthy relationship are worth striving for?

Most couples who seek Relationship Counseling state that they want to work on their communication. Typically, their dynamic has become one of mutual triggering where they find themselves having the same argument again and again. Sometimes, they are so hurt and exhausted that they have stopped bringing things up and are locked behind walls of silence and disconnection.

In my experience, it is crucial that couples focus on practices of mutual respect. Respect is foundational for each person to feel safe and loved. Here are some things to incorporate into your relationship to ease tension and deepen connection:

• Deep listening in order to understand
• Removal of negative criticism and contempt
• Taking responsibility rather than being defensive
• Validating the other’s point of view
• Expressing empathy for the other’s feelings
• Supportive words and gestures
• Honoring needs and boundaries
• Acceptance of differences
• Affectionate touch
• Eye gaze
• Humor/Laughter

In order to maximize your mental health, good relationships are key. If you need support to build yours into something more respectful, I am here to help. Through week-to-week sessions, longer Private Intensives and Weekend Couples Retreats, you have options to improve your connection and build the relationship you need, want and deserve.

¹Holt-Lunstad, J., Birmingham, W., & Jones, B.Q. (2008). Is There Something Unique about Marriage? The Relative Impact of Marital Status, Relationship Quality, and Network Social Support on Ambulatory Blood Pressure and Mental Health. Annals of Behavioural Medicine, 35, 239–244.
²Teo, A.R., Choi, H.J., & Valenstein, M. (2013). Social Relationships and Depression: Ten-Year Follow-Up from a Nationally Representative Study. PLOS One, 8(4). Retrieved from journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0062396

Author's Bio: 

Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT has been working with couples and families for over 30 years in her private practice in West Los Angeles. She is deeply passionate about helping couples improve their communication skills, deepen their connection resolve conflict and rediscover the joy of being together. She offers weekly sessions, Private and Group Intensives and Workshops for Couples. She is active in preparing engaged couples for marriage through several different formats, including The FOCCUS Premarital Inventory and Start Right, Stay Connected Workshops. Her Ebook entitled, 8 Essential Topics to Discuss Before Saying I Do, is available on her website.

Mary Kay has two Advanced Certifications, in Couples Therapy: Imago Relationship Therapy and Encounter-Centered Couples Therapy. She also has training in the Gottman Method and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy.

Mary Kay is happily married in an intimate relationship and is the mother of three grown children. She also plays an ongoing role in being a teacher and mentor to new couples therapists, students and interns as they learn and practice their art of connection.

Mary Kay is an active member of the California Association for Marriage and Family Therapists, Los Angeles Chapter of California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, IMAGO Relationship Institute, and the Southern California Imago Therapy Association, and founder of The Conversation Group in Los Angeles.