Dating is hard enough as it is. You spend the earlier parts of your relationship trying to “read” the other person; trying to make sure you’re both on the same page. Then, once you’ve passed that phase, it’s on to really getting to know the other person. You know you’re superficially compatible, but what about the important things—values, life goals, political beliefs? Let’s say you care about this person enough to consider spending the rest of your life with them. Then, there are the practical questions to consider, like are you willing to move for said person, or what is said person’s health history? What about his or her mental health history? What do you do when the person you’re falling for is struggling with a condition that’s too complex for even your partner to understand?
A 2010 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that 19.9 percent of adults in the U.S. reported having a mental health condition that year. That’s a pretty hefty chunk of the dating pool, not to mention the unreported cases and the probable addition of cases since that report was published. Mental health conditions come in far too many forms—depression, suicidal tendencies, anxiety, bipolar disorder, OCD, substance abuse, addiction, eating disorders, schizophrenia, personality disorders, autism and Asperger’s, those that don’t immediately come to mind and so many layers within each of those conditions—to try to come up with a one-size fits all approach for how to deal with dating someone who is mentally ill. Still, here are a few suggestions for how to try to make it work with a significant other who is struggling, or how to let them go.
The first thing that may come to mind when you first learn of your partner’s condition is to opt out. “I can’t handle this,” you might think to yourself. Or, “What have I gotten myself into?” you might ask yourself? The answer is, you’ve gotten yourself into a relationship that you now realize may have a few additional obstacles, but what relationship doesn’t experience its hurdles anyway? The main thing to remember is that, in most cases, your partner’s illness does not define him or her. It is just another part of his or her identity. It is another layer that you must now decide whether or not you can not only tolerate, but accept and live with.
So, you’ve decided to stay along for the ride. Buckle your seat belt. You need to understand that it won’t be easy. Some days will be effortless, and others may be draining. That really depends on the nature of the condition as well as its severity. The best way to know how best to deal with the harder days is to learn as much as you can about your partner’s condition. I am not only talking about what WebMD has to say about it. I mean you need to understand how your partner has learned to deal with his or her condition as an individual. The way in which two individuals can deal with identical conditions can be anything but identical. Knowing what works for your partner and not just what you think will work best for them will make the ride a little less bumpy. And, if your partner is just learning about the condition for the first time, too, make sure your partner knows you are with him or her for every step along the way. Holding your partner’s hand through his or her educational experience might aid in the acceptance process.
There will be days when your partner seems like a completely different person than he or she was on the first day that you met. You will see your partner at his or her highest highs and lowest lows, maybe irrational, lethargic, erratic, manic, aloof or incoherent. These are only a handful of the mixture of emotions and dispositions that may be found in just one condition, not to speak of an array. Be patient. I can guarantee to you that your partner wishes things were different, that you didn’t have to see him or her like this. You need to assure your partner that “normal” isn’t what you want, that you want him or her to be happy and healthy. That you don’t pity him or her and that you only want what’s best.
Dealing with a mental illness or disorder can be one of the most debilitating and discouraging experiences someone can endure. One begins to question one’s worth, one’s purpose and naturally, one’s sanity. As I alluded to before, pity is one of the worst responses to convey to your partner. It only makes him or her feel like more of a charity case. Instead, just continue to remind your partner of his or her best qualities. This exercise will be refreshing not only for your partner, but also for you. Although it is difficult to admit, there will be times when you question whether or not it is worth it, and it never hurts to have reminders of why you are willing to stick around.
It is not uncommon to know multiple people who are dealing with or who have dealt with conditions that are similar to what your partner is going through. Maybe that person ended up in a pretty stable place mentally, or maybe, things did not end up so well for that person. Do not try to coax your partner by saying, “oh, well so and so tried this and it really worked for him/her,” because what works for “so and so” may not be all that appealing to your partner. On the flip side, if you know someone who seems to be on a downhill spiral with their condition, don’t scare your partner by saying, “look, I just don’t want you to turn out like Tom, Dick and Harry.” Again, that puts a lot of pressure on your partner, and pressure is the last thing that’s going to make him or her feel comfortable in his or her own skin and capable of dealing with his or her condition.
You’re both adults in this situation. Your partner needs to feel like you trust him or her, just as you would want to feel trusted by your partner. Don’t make your partner feel like they need to be on a leash or like you are his or her patient. Of course, you will always be looking out for your partner, and it’s important that he or she knows that, but in order for your partner to be confident that he or she can live with the condition on his or her own, your partner needs to know that he or she doesn’t need to rely on you for every little thing.
It’s easy for all the focus to turn to what is “wrong” or “lacking” in your partner, but always remember that the relationship is two ways, and if there’s trouble in paradise, it might be something you’re doing wrong and could have little to nothing to do with your partner’s condition. Be willing to take or at least share the blame, be willing to take criticism from your partner (even though you are trying very hard because, yes, it is difficult to date someone with a mental illness) and be willing to change and to compromise. You are both giving a lot to make the relationship work, more than a lot of other couples relatively speaking, so make sure to put everything into perspective.
As much as we try sometimes a relationship is just too much and time spent apart would do everyone some good. Some mental illnesses and disorders are just too complex and debilitating for one person to handle alone. It is not uncommon for relationships to end—temporarily or permanently—so that one partner can seek the services he or she needs.
There’s still much to be said about dating someone with a mental condition, and I know I only covered the bare bones. The important thing to remember is that every mental illness—just like a physical one—requires patience, understanding, resilience and flexibility.
If you are interested in meeting with a behavioral health care provider to support mental health and wellness, try online videoconferencing through Inpathy.
A healthy relationship requires many qualities in order to blossom and grow. Virtues like respect and trust are critical in providing a solid foundation in a relationship, but empathy is essential in forming that deeper connection between you and your significant other.
One study shows that the perception of feeling understood, or being shown empathy, is a key component of satisfaction in romantic partnerships. Researchers propose that having someone understanding our feelings allows us to better acknowledge these emotions and enables us to ultimately live more satisfying lives (Cramer & Jowett, 2010).
Empathy, according to Psychology Today, is “the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective.” This can also be thought of as ‘perspective taking’, or envisioning how someone else is feeling in a given situation.
A three component model of empathy was first introduced by researchers Norma Feshbach and Shari Kuchenbecker. Accomplishing complete empathy requires all parts of the following model:
We must be able to read and recognize how our partner feels in a given situation. Consider the way your partner might emotionally handle a given situation and how they might be affected because of it. In other words, being able to pinpoint the feeling that the other person is experiencing.
Beyond just identifying another’s feelings, we must also be able to see the situation through their eyes. Use what you know about them. Understand why they are feeling this way- everyone sees a situation differently. Everyone has a different perspective, and long-term relationships allow us to see how our partner may respond to different situations.
Essentially, we must be able to emotionally connect with our partners and react quickly and positively. To actually feel what they are feeling, and share their pain or happiness. This goes beyond the first two points and is the most critical. We must emotionally connect and share the same feelings experienced by your significant other. Fulfilling this point involves actually experiencing the emotion with them, and feeling exactly what they are feeling.
It is easy to get caught up in our own mindset, or become distracted by day to day life, and thus fail to see things in any other way. It’s also common to become frustrated when we do not understand our partner’s feelings and perspective. If you don’t catch yourself, this frustration can distance yourself from that emotional connection and severely damage your relationship. Furthermore, if we fall victim to a selfish mindset we will fail to empathize with our partners.
With just the right dose of empathy, the emotional connection between you and your significant other can greatly improve your relationship and bond.
Cramer, D., & Jowett, S. (2010). Perceived empathy, accurate empathy and relationship satisfaction in heterosexual couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27, 327–349. doi:10.1177/0265407509348384