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You, Me, and MDD - Dating & Mental Health

About a third of the population will meet criteria for a mental illness at some point in their lives. This means that even if you yourself do not experience mental illness, someone in your life either has or will. In many cases, it may even be your partner. When you google “dating someone with a mental illness”, the first suggestion to appear under “People also ask” is “Is it worth dating someone with mental illness?” So, is it worth dating someone with a mental illness?

When you think about the third of people aforementioned, the question seems rather silly. Is it fair to chalk off billions of people from a potential dating pool? Furthermore, it can be hurtful to be someone working to grow in their mental health journey and see that this question is so popular. People with mental illnesses are as worthy of love as those without. What’s important for partners to consider is not the “worthiness” of the relationship, but rather the areas of the relationship that may need special attention because of one’s mental health. Today, we’re going to cover some important areas to consider when dating someone with a mental illness. Maybe this applies to you, or maybe these are aspects that can be helpful to share with your own partner. Either way, let’s begin by busting some misconceptions.

Love Doesn’t Heal All Wounds

Despite depictions in media such as The Silver Linings Playbook where love cures the mental illnesses of the two protagonists, romantic relationships are not a treatment for mental illness. While a healthy relationship should supply us with more positive experiences than negative, it’s never the duty of our partners to “fix” us or play the role of therapist. In fact, expecting our relationships alone to improve mental health can lead to a world of disappointment for all involved parties. Many mental illnesses are chronic, meaning someone may continue to experience symptoms over long periods of time or symptoms might come and go throughout their life. No amount of kissing and waxing poetic will rid someone of bipolar disorder.

On the flip side, mental illness is not contagious. Although it can be stressful at times supporting a loved one, you are no more at risk of developing an illness of your own from your partner than you are with stressors in any other area of your life. Dating someone who experiences mental illness will not trigger the same conditions in you. Misery may love company, but it can’t change one’s own predispositions and chemical makeup. 

With those common misconceptions out of the way, let’s explore what we can actually do to help our partners:

Kindness is Key

It can be frustrating when someone else’s emotions or reactions don’t make sense to us. When a partner experiences psychological distress, what they’re going through may not be something that you fully understand. You may not always be able to empathize with their feelings, and that is okay; what’s most important is to show kindness and understanding. This starts with learning more about their condition. What are the feelings that come up to them when they’re distressed? What are things that trigger symptoms related to their condition? In times where they are not distressed, ask them questions that can help you understand how their illness presents itself. Increasing your understanding can assist you in avoiding snap judgments or high frustration. 

Along with displaying understanding, find ways to show support. This can also be a conversation with your partner: ask them what is most helpful when they’re feeling distressed. Do they prefer to be left alone? Is it helpful to have someone around? When does it help to talk about the concern versus engage in something distracting? Knowing your partner’s love languages (https://www.sagetherapychicago.com/post/understanding-the-five-love-languages ) can be a helpful starting point. For example, a partner who responds most to physical affection might benefit more from a hug or holding hands when they’re feeling overwhelmed. 

Practice Flexibility

One approach might not always be the most helpful. Some days your partner may want a shoulder to cry on, and some days they might want to be left alone. When it’s hard to track the patterns in your partner’s presentation, it’s critical to maintain flexibility in how you support them. Be willing to try new things, have new conversations, and change plans when necessary. Just as you should have establishing conversations to understand the general do’s and don’ts for supporting your partner, engage with regular check-ins as your partner’s needs will change over time. 

Consider Your Approach

The way that we approach our partners can have an impact on their current state. For example, shouting at your partner when they’re already upset will be far less effective than approaching them with a gentle tone. While that may be a more obvious example, mindfulness of our own body language and tone of voice can be critical in the effectiveness of our support. Your partner may also have an increased sensitivity to certain stimuli while they’re distressed - maybe sudden noises increase anxiety or panic. 

The words you use, especially, have power in influencing a partner. Sometimes we may say things that are well intentioned but ultimately lead to a negative impact on the person we’re supporting. “Toxic positivity” can be a prime example of well intentioned messages that do more harm than good for someone experiencing mental distress.Toxic positivity refers to messages and attitudes that dismiss negative thoughts and feelings without addressing them. For example, when a partner is sad, it can be tempting to say things like “just like on the bright side!”, “try being more positive” or “you’re so strong, you can handle this” - however, phrases like this do little to actually relieve sadness. As opposed to aiming for positivity, take on language that acknowledges where your partner’s at: “I see how difficult this is for you”, “this must be so frustrating”, “I can see why something like that disappointed you”. 

Know When to Pass the Baton 

As discussed at the start, love does not cure all wounds. While you can do a lot to be a support system for your partner, you also need to respect your own limitations and boundaries. You may not always be able to give your partner the support they need, and that is okay. That’s not a sign of being a bad partner or that the relationship is suffering. Honesty contributes to relationship health. Encourage your partner to seek out other resources available, including professional treatment when applicable. If you are feeling overwhelmed, you may also want to consider the different resources available. 

In the end, it’s vital to understand that while your partner is not defined by their condition, it is a part of their lived experience. Just as it should not be a focal point, it’s not helpful to ignore it or attempt to downplay it. Don’t go into the relationship expecting it to easily “pass” - growing towards mental wellness is a long road, one that requires patience and understanding at many intersections. 

Learn More

If you’re interested in learning more about how mental illness impacts relationships, check out the following resources:

“What You Need to Know About Dating While Mentally Ill: A Guide By Mentally Ill Women”

by Sophia Stephens 

“Dating and Mental Illness: For Better or For Worse”

by Eliora Mae Baker

Supporting a Friend or Family Member with Mental Health Problems