Simply stated, dating with a diagnosis is much more complicated, problematic, and riddled with more expectations and appropriate use of self-disclosure than healthy courting. There are several reasons why finding a partner is more difficult when carrying a mental health diagnosis.
First of all, several questions immediately come to mind. For the person dating, these questions should come forefront – for the person carrying the diagnosis and be mobilised to support a partner, loved one, wife, or husband. Unfortunately, in most cases, it is the person sponsoring the partner with a disability, often privileged in their relationship, and in a position of relative power over the disabled member of the association.
From first-hand dating with a disclosed mental health condition, I know some of these questions can be cutting, difficult to hear and present a new sense of doubt in the relationship. As with all relationships in which one person has a disability, some of these questions can be: ‘Can he still work and support a potential family?’; ‘Is he safe to be around when he isn’t feeling well?’ or ‘Can he be fully present while carrying this tremendous responsibility to take care of his condition?’
Without question, people mull over many questions when considering dating someone with a mental health condition. These are just a few questions my own partners have experienced concern over and stumbled upon during my past relationships.
I’ll never forget the words of my first girlfriend at college when I dropped her off at her residence on the campus of Binghamton University. The last time when she said it quite sharply: ‘You really are crazy, Max,‘ before we ultimately parted ways.
As a Jewish American, the first time I celebrated Christmas with a family wasn’t until I was enrolled in graduate school. I was visiting my girlfriend’s family in upstate New York in Delhi, and it was the holiday season.
Cheer, joy, and suddenly doubt filled the room. We were all opening presents and celebrating when my girlfriend’s parents discovered I took mood stabiliser medications and had recently been hospitalised.
My girlfriend didn’t exactly hide my diagnosis. I wasn’t exactly interested in being anything but open and honest about my history, so word got around the house quickly. Just as soon as my diagnosis was learned, her parents’ attitude towards me changed seemingly overnight. This was not coincidentally the day after my medication ‘turned up’ in her family’s washing machine when they did some of my laundry as a guest courtesy.
My girlfriend advised me soon after the laundry was completed that her mother was enquiring: ‘If he (that’s me) can still work and hold down a job?’ with my ‘issues’. Suddenly, I wasn’t the new family member invited to spend Christmas – I was assessed for my capacity and ability to maintain gainful employment.
My illness was identified and marked for a potential prognosis. The possibility of myself attaining a full recovery before entering the workforce or even worse, the likelihood of me needing care, and be a drain on the resources of their future family.
I was once in a relationship that existed within the gates of a delusional system formed and marked by a constant stream of voices, cognitive distortions, and hypervigilance from uncontrolled mania. Given all of these problematic aspects of my own mental status, I shouldn’t have been totally shocked that I couldn’t find someone realistic, supportive, and willing to be in an equal partnership with someone with an active diagnosis.
Sure, we all experience some level of distress at any given moment. Still, some of us just seem to naturally handle stress better than others or have learned, over time, how to process dysfunction without becoming too overwhelmed by the impact of a partner’s symptoms.
A good relationship will mean linking up with someone who complements you and your need to rejuvenate self-care and residual or uncontrollable symptoms without also reacting to them.
Skills will get you only so far in furthering your relationship. Find a partner genuinely interested in being there to witness you succeed in your self-care and healing. Just think that any expectations placed on your future success – these should originate from you, the person experiencing the distress, and not your carer, ally, or anyone claiming to love you. Not only when you can perform up to a certain standard or level of so-called functioning.
People who are genuinely looking out for you and wanting the best for you aren’t surmising your medical value and supposing you were becoming a future insurance burden. Mental health diagnosis aside, if it isn’t a diagnosis, it’ll be some other problem.
So whatever it is that is getting in the way of you being happy in your relationship – figure it out like any other interpersonal problem out there, complicating your happiness to connect with others.
Max E. Guttman, LCSW is a psychotherapist and owner of Recovery Now, a mental health private practice in New York City.