In the six years of having my autoimmune disease, I've learned what I need from a person in order to view them as a potential long-term partner.
There are a lot of guides out there about dating people with mental illness, but so many of them are written by people who don’t have a mental illness themselves. As someone who has dated a lot and who is mentally ill, I’ve put together my own guide with key things to keep in mind both in my current relationship and any future relationships. I’ve dealt with both depression and an anxiety disorder for nearly a decade, and many of the people I end up dating are mentally ill as well, so it’s important for me to be mindful of the issues from both sides.
Despite the societal stigma against mental illness, dating someone who has mental illness isn’t necessarily all that much different from dating someone who doesn’t. We have a wide range of personalities, relationship needs, and baggage, just like people without mental illness. However, here are a few things that are helpful to keep in mind.
(Disclaimer: This list is designed for folks who are dating someone who has mental illness, either something they knew about when they started dating or something that came up after they began dating. While some of this may apply to married relationships or relationships with kids, I personally don’t have any experience with either so I’m not going to give advice directly relating to those, since they introduce many more complications and considerations.)
1. Communicate with your partner about their illness
Nothing can replace straightforward communication. Let your partner describe their illness in their own words, to whatever extent they’re comfortable sharing. Ask them what challenges they commonly run across, and how you can help.
When having this conversation, make sure you’re being clear that you’re asking to help support them, and that if they aren’t comfortable having this conversation right now, that’s okay. You can help make it more of a two-way street by offering some challenges you have, or things you are particularly sensitive about. The goal is to let them share what they’re comfortable sharing to help you two have a stronger relationship, not to pry every detail about their mental illness out of them.
For example, if your partner is prone to anxiety attacks, they may want to avoid going on dates in places likely to provoke such attacks, or they may ask you to do something when they have an attack (such as reassuring them, or just sitting with them until it passes).
One of my past partners didn’t like touch or physical affection when he got upset. I didn’t realize this until after I already messed up by trying to hug him when he was frustrated. It led to an awkward situation, but after we discussed it the next day, we were able to avoid me worsening the situation like that again. It only required a slight shift in my behavior, and made a big difference to him.
More recently, when I started dating Q, I explained to xem that my anxiety is largely tied to my fear of abandonment and isolation. For me, when I’m upset, being reassured that people care about me helps calm me down. This doesn’t mean that Q is obligated to reassure me every time I become upset, but when Q is in a situation where xe wants to help calm me down and make me feel better, xe knows the best tactic to take.
2. Read up on their mental illness mindfully...
Learning more about your partner’s mental illness without putting the onus on them can also help you better understand them and their needs. It’s not a substitute for talking to them, but it’s a good complement.
That said, when reading up on a mental illness, keep in mind that a lot of sources are coming from the perspective of folks who don’t have mental illness, and as such they sometimes overblow the severity of mental illness or make inaccurate generalizations. Reading can provide a valuable introduction to mental illness, but even the same illness may manifest in different ways in different individuals, so it’s not a substitute for your partner’s lived experience.
For example, a friend of mine is dating someone with borderline personality disorder (BPD). All of the resources they could find about dating someone with BPD were written with this unspoken assumption that BPD is an awful, debilitating illness that makes healthy relationships impossible.
While BPD can have a lot of negative impact on one’s life and relationships, that’s not always the case. My friend’s partner had their challenges, but was functional, communicative, and empathetic, and the two of them overall had a good relationship.
On the other hand, reading accounts by people with the same mental mental illness as your partner can be very insightful. You can learn more about their perspective on the world and the challenges they may face, and what they may need in a relationship.
3. … But remember that they aren’t just their illness
People with mental illness are people first. They have interests, strengths, and weaknesses, and aren’t defined solely by their illness.
Trust your partner first and foremost, both about themselves and about their mental health. Different people with the same mental illness may have different needs, and almost certainly have some different experiences.
If you’ve been dating a while and you recently found out your partner has mental illness, you might feel uncertain or surprised. If you do, try to remind yourself of what you like about them and all the strong parts of your relationship. The good things won’t change just because your partner has mental illness. In many cases, getting a diagnosis is a good thing, not a bad thing; identifying mental illness can help people manage their illness and improve their quality of life
4. Set boundaries and take care of yourself
Healthy boundaries are important in all relationships, but especially so when you’re in a romantic relationship. As a society, we have a lot of assumptions about boundaries in relationships but rarely discuss them. I always advocate for straightforward discussions about boundaries, but it’s particularly vital for a healthy relationship when one person (or both) has mental illness.
In my personal experience, I sometimes need or want more support out of a romantic relationship than my partner may be willing or able to give. In my current relationship with Q, we’ve set some ground rules that have improved our relationship immensely. I can occasionally ask for Q to come over unexpectedly to give me emotional support, but with the understanding that 1) it’s something I do infrequently (every few months or so) and 2) Q is not obligated to say yes.
Ultimately, my emotional needs are my responsibility. While I want a partner who is supportive and will occasionally come take care of me when I’ve had a rough day, it’s also not reasonable for me to expect my romantic partner to always be there to take care of me. On occasion, it might be okay to ask my partner to cancel plans to spend time with me because I’m having a particularly rough mental health day. However, if that becomes something regular or frequent, it’s my responsibility to find other ways to handle it. Q can be one of my supports, but xe shouldn’t have to be my entire support structure.
Even if you’re dating someone with mental illness, you need to remember that you aren’t your partner’s therapist. While expecting some emotional support and comfort in a relationship is reasonable, even healthy, you shouldn’t be the sole provider of such support and comfort. You can be there for your partner without letting it take over your life—and if it does start to take over your life, you’ll need to have the difficult but important conversation of setting boundaries.
Not everyone is in a place where they’re emotionally ready to be in a healthy relationship (something which applies to both people with and people without mental illness). If someone is being abusive, you do not owe them a relationship and you should prioritize getting out safely, regardless of whether they have mental illness or not. Ultimately, you need to take care of yourself. You’re in a relationship; you aren’t their therapist or caretaker—and you shouldn’t have to be.
While mental illness can make relationships tough, everyone comes into a relationship with some sort of baggage. If you communicate well with your partner and do your part to learn about mental illness, respect your partner, and establish boundaries, mental illness alone doesn’t need to be a dealbreaker in your relationship.
Image credit: Yoel Ben-Avraham/CC