how do you handle dating with mental illness?

When you have to deal with things like anxiety and depression, dating gets another layer of complication. There is good news though: the vast majority of people are willing to accept and learn about mental illness.

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May 31 2018, 9:43am

Having a mental illness can impact every part of a person’s life. Their job can become difficult; friendships can change for better or worse; even someone’s ability to look after themselves, or perform basic acts of self care, can seem impossible.

Dating is no different. From casual sex to serious, long-term relationships, mental illness can change the way we interact with others -- and the way we feel about ourselves.

With a dual diagnosis of bipolar disorder and BPD, this is something I’ve long had to navigate. Alongside all the normal questions you ask when you first start seeing someone (do I really like them? Do they really like me? How long should I leave it before I text them back? Have I been ghosted AGAIN!?), there are added factors to take into consideration. When do I tell them about my mental illness? How is it going to manifest, and how will that affect our relationship? Will they even want to be with me?

"What happens when you do meet someone new? Do you tell them straight away, or do you wait until you feel comfortable with them?"

These are questions many people with mental health problems are forced to grapple with. Tilly, 25, also has BPD, which for her manifests in “intense, erratic moods and unstable emotions, constant feelings of loneliness and fear of abandonment, and very low or changeable self image”.

“This makes dating SO hard,” she says. “I feel like my value as a person comes from someone else being with me, so I come on too strong early on and take every little thing -- a text not replied to straight away, for example -- as a sign that I’m not worth anything and am about to be dumped,” she says. “I tend to push people away early on because of this.”

Catherine, 27, has received diagnoses of depression and BPD. Now married, she had similar experiences when she was dating. “It can give you a lot of anxiety and fear of rejection. Even when it’s just casual, and I've tried very carefully to not become really attached immediately,” she said. “This all combined to make me so terrified of any kind of intimacy that I only had one night stands in which I refused to make eye contact, and ran a mile from anyone who was just marginally nice to me, because I didn’t want to give them time to realise I was mentally ill and reject me.”

So: what happens when you do meet someone new? Do you tell them straight away, or do you wait until you feel comfortable with them? There are pros and cons to both, as Rachel Davis, relationship counsellor at Relate, explains.

“With one boyfriend, I completely hid the fact that I wasn’t working and was sleeping about 18 hours a day.”

“Some people feel that it’s a big part of who they are, so to not talk about it can feel like they have a secret, which can obviously get in the way,” she says. “Others prefer to get to know each other first, and only talk about problems when the relationship is becoming serious.”

Stephen Buckley, Mind’s Head of Information suggests “choosing a time and place when you feel comfortable and ready to talk”, and to be “ready for lots of questions”. “Your partner might have lots of questions -- which is okay. It’s often just a way to help them understand how you’re feeling,” he says. “Equally, they might not say much at all! And that’s fine too.”

Not telling someone straight away can have its own problems, too, as Catherine explains. “With one boyfriend, I completely hid the fact that I wasn’t working and was sleeping about 18 hours a day,” she says. “Then after about a month I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore’, and he woke up to me sobbing.”

“Then we broke up, and he said to someone we knew: ‘I couldn’t handle the crazy’.”

Tilly’s advice is similar to Catherine's: “You need to be open from the get-go”. “I literally linked my current partner to an article I wrote about BPD, so he knew what he was getting into,” she says.

Stereotypes still abound. “Some people I’ve dated have thought that my depression was all about them, and got annoyed that you’re not just... snapping out of it,” says Catherine. “One guy I dated said ‘but you’re with me, why are you still depressed?’”

There is good news though: the vast majority of people are willing to accept and learn about mental illness. In 2017, 89% of people surveyed for Time to Change reported that they’d continue a relationship with someone with a mental health problem.

In fact, some people report their mental health problems being a positive part of their relationship: Sarah, 30, describes her partner, diagnosed with depression and anxiety as “incredibly patient and empathetic. I think that comes from a place of understanding what it’s like to go through things,” she says.

Talking is key -- Davis describes couples in counselling who have “both stopped being able to talk about mental health”, often leaving them feeling isolated.

“When people love each other, they sometimes don’t speak up -- with the best motives. They want to protect each other and not burden their partner,” she says. And it's true, so much of mental health is wrapped up in feeling like a burden to those around you. “But this means they both face their battle alone.”

This doesn’t mean, however, taking on all of each other’s problems. “Being open and honest with each other isn’t the same as being a therapist for your partner,” Davies says. “If you want to talk regularly in lots of detail then you may find something like counselling beneficial, and it can also help your partner, who might be feeling unsure what they should do for the best.”

Key to the whole process? Communication, honesty and trust. Hiding your problems won’t make them go away -- in fact, they’ll only make them worse.

“Be honest from the start. If they don't like it, or it scares them off, they're not worth your time,” Catherine says. “If you want to cry in Asda because you don’t know what to eat, fucking do it.”

“It’s an intrinsic part of you -- you don’t want to date someone who can’t deal with it.”

For information and support with mental health issues, contact Mind.