Dating can bring joy and passion or make you feel lonely and misunderstood. When you add emotional disturbances into the mix, things can get even more complicated—if you let them. But you’re hardly alone in your confusion. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in any given year, roughly one in four adults experiences mental illness (1). Of these, many are enjoying loving, stable relationships. Many others don’t even know they have any sort of problem.
Mental health problems can be thought of as medical conditions that are treated with medication and therapy. It doesn’t have to limit your social life, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t look for “Mr. Right” or “Mrs. Right.” To help you navigate the dating scene successfully while struggling with some form of a mental health issue, here are 10 key tips to consider:
1. Recognize that dating is stressful.
Like any stressful situation, dating can exacerbate existing issues or stretch your coping methods to the limits—with or without a mental health problem. The uncertainty of fledgling relationships doesn’t help, either; any negative thoughts can start a downward spiral or inadvertently sabotage the relationship.
So how do you present yourself in a positive light and deepen your relationship? Try speaking to a therapist about your concerns. He or she can offer a neutral sounding board, help you catch potential problems before they come up, and work with you to expand your coping methods.
2. Don’t let your mental health define you.
Bear in mind that mental health is only one aspect of a rich character—just like personality, background, or profession. You shouldn’t be any more ashamed of your personal problems than you would be about your job, race, or home. And remember that people don’t have to be exactly like you to offer empathy or support. As you search for a compatible mate, don’t limit yourself; having a problem with your mental health doesn’t mean that you have to date someone who also has one.
Instead, look for someone who matches well with all of your aspects, who makes you feel good, and who helps you become a better person. A lot of couples mix different religions, backgrounds, political views, and even medical conditions. If it works for them, it can work for you, too.
3. If your doctor recommends medication or counselling, follow through as directed.
When things are going well, it’s easy to think that you might not need medicine or therapy anymore. It’s good to feel more confident, but remember that life always has ups and downs—and if you don’t take care of yourself adequately during the “up” phase, you could trigger or worsen a “down” phase.
Besides, your physician is the best person to decide whether you should continue or stop taking medication. He or she has the medical training, experience, and outside perspective to help you manage your condition effectively. Even if your doctor agrees that you don’t need the medicine, you might have to gradually decrease the dosage over a few weeks to avoid unpleasant side effects caused by stopping suddenly.
Think of it this way: When you’re on a date, you probably want to present yourself in the best possible light, right? So you wouldn’t want to belch or talk about the uncle who was arrested last week. In the same way, taking your medication and working with a qualified counsellor helps you stay healthy and balanced. This harmony will come across during your dates, and it can help you get to know the other person more intimately and accurately.
4. Write a list of desired attributes in your future mate.
Do you want a significant other who is funny? Down-to-earth? Organized? Outgoing? Write out a list or description of your ideal partner. This exercise will help your mind focus on what you’re looking for in a mate and bring your subconscious mind on board with finding the right person.
You may or may not find someone who fits your description exactly, but it’ll be close. Either way, it will help you evaluate potential dates more quickly and accurately because you know what you want.
5. Be open-minded to your date’s own issues.
Everyone brings personal issues into a relationship. Yours may be mental health, but your date might be dealing with a family issue, a poor upbringing, or even his or her own medical condition.
The good news is that your experiences have given you a better understanding of what it’s like to go through challenges, and you’ll be a better position to empathize with your date. Remember, too, that if you want your date to accept your issues, you should do the same for him or her as well.
6. Discuss your mental illness only if you’re interested in pursuing a serious relationship.
It’s a dilemma: When should you reveal your mental illness? The first date should be fun and light so you can find common ground, but you probably don’t want to wait so long that a medical event suddenly thrusts your problems into the spotlight.
As you contemplate a future with your significant other, please remember: Don’t feel ashamed of your mental health problem, medication, or counselling. It’s no different from needing medicine for diabetes or having a drug allergy; they’re just different types of struggles that everyone has.
So when is the best time to educate your date about your health? Since most people need about three dates to decide whether to pursue a more serious relationship, this issue should come up during the second or third date—just like other issues that can cause compatibility issues, such as political views or religion. If your mental health condition turns out to be a deal breaker, that’s okay. It’s easier for both parties to leave a relationship with dignity before the third or fourth date; after that, you’re likely to become more invested in each other.
And if your significant other is willing to learn more about your condition and how he or she can help you, then you can expand your support network and feel reassured that you’re not withholding any large secrets.
7. Be open and honest.
Don’t try to downplay or hide your problems, no matter how tempting it may seem. Otherwise, it could come across as a shock to someone who’s unprepared for the reality of your struggles.
Being straightforward about your condition conveys shows that you respect and value your date. And sharing that you’re seeking treatment indicates that you are taking care of yourself. In essence, you’re revealing a part of yourself that not everyone knows, and you’re extending an offer to become one of your most trusted confidants. When you treat your date as an intelligent, equal partner, you’re actually giving him or her quite an honour.
8. Remember that your date’s response could change.
Unfortunately, when it comes to these kinds of problems, you can’t always take someone’s reaction at face value. Whenever you explain your condition to others—whether it’s on a date, with a friend, or with a co-worker—they need time to learn and understand what you’re going through and how it could affect them.
It’s one thing to hear you describe a panic attack, but they might freak out the first time they see you in the middle of one. It’s also possible that after initially talking with you, they may learn more information (or misinformation) that changes their perception of your situation.
What does this mean for you? When you discuss mental illness for the first time with your date, remember that even if he or she seems to accept it without a problem, that might change over time. If it does, it’s not your fault. It’s better for you both to be honest about your feelings and limitations to avoid getting hurt later on when you’re more invested in the relationship.
9. Consider becoming friends first, before you go on an official date.
Forming a new friendship is often simpler than dating someone new. You’re not trying to find someone to fill expectations or a specific role—you’re just trying to connect with someone you like being around.
Thus, it may be wise to get to know each other as friends before considering a romantic attachment. This creates a more secure environment for you to learn each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. If you don’t mesh well as friends, then you certainly won’t work as a couple. It’s easier to let a friendship fade with dignity than to break off a romantic relationship.
On the other hand, if you find that you have a new best friend, then you may be ready to try dating each other. After all, the strength of a marriage or other relationship depends on the strength of the underlying trust and friendship. If you two are already best friends, then you have a strong foundation for forging a deeper bond. Plus, by this point, he or she will already be familiar and comfortable with your mental health struggles.
10. Just be yourself!
Relax. You are an important person of value and worth, and dating you is a privilege that shouldn’t be taken lightly. You bring strengths and weaknesses into every potential relationship, and so does your date. What matters is how you feel with this person and how well your personalities mesh.
Most of all, follow your gut. Oftentimes, what you interpret as instinct may be your subconscious mind trying to tell you something—such as whether you should join the dating scene now or wait. Follow your instincts! Your mind is a highly intelligent organ that wants you to be happy and healthy.
And you deserve to be happy and healthy. Go get ’em!
1.Mental Illness Facts and Numbers (2013). National Alliance on Mental Illness.