Perhaps the greatest challenge of our time, nay, of any time, is navigating romantic relationships. As a species we have succeeded in making no headway over the past million years. Whilst I would like to boast about my exceptional abilities, it would be a lie. Not only have I felt totally beyond my comfort zone but have thrived in failure. I remember being particularly perplexed the first time I fancied a girl. As is the wont of most twelve-year old’s I resorted to the age-old technique of a barrage of insults. The lack of success still mystifies me.
As I grew older my methods grew more complex. Occasionally I threw in a sporadic compliment among the hail of abuse. Of course, puberty complicates this topic. I would even partake in the occasional (mum look away) hug to keep things wild and risqué. My approach and methods have evolved with varying degrees of embarrassment.
One aspect that has never changed is the emotional turmoil of fancying someone. I used to imagine that I would wait until I met a remarkable human female. Once I had succeeded with step one I would make sure that I got to know her well. Once I had confirmed she had the requisite abilities and character traits (but not looks because I wasn’t shallow…) I would start to “fancy them.”
This smooth, controlled descent into ‘love’ was the thing of fantasy.
Firstly, there is an element of chance as to whom I fancy. One day my mind seems to randomly say “her.” For the next several weeks I then obsess over the person. This usually comes in the form of me imagining how impressed they will be once they realize how many grapes I can fit in my mouth.
Despite common sense existing, I find this stage necessary and consuming. In her presence this manifests itself as doing my utmost to ensure that she will never guess my feelings for her. Of course, this makes any pre-existing friendship we have feel weird. After my thoughts have sufficiently caused severe internal turmoil I realise that the only way out is to confess. This stage is signaled by the onset of the despair of living in a culture where guys have to make the first move.
After dwelling on that I would organize a meet-up to discuss the issues at hand. Prior to this encounter it has been important to spend time agonizing over the possibility of any negative response. I tend to convince myself that the only possible outcomes at this point are sold crushing rejection or imminent betrothal. Right before the actual words appear the butterflies in my stomach breed and disperse to my legs, arms and head as well.
If the response is positive, then an awkward hug is called for. Usually in order to put off the need to utter any coherent sentences. If the response is negative it is usually followed quickly by a feeble and doomed agreement to not let this situation affect the friendship. Whilst this whole situation is bizarre and humorous it is just the start of a romantic relationship (or not).
Can anything make this more harrowing?
Hopefully, some of that resonated with some people and I am not totally weird. I imagine some of the elements were familiar and some bizarre. Yet, I think that most people can relate to the nervous excitement and insecurities of romantic encounters. This turmoil seems to be fairly common across most romantic experiences (someone please affirm me here!).
But what does this have to do with mental illness? Well this post is going to be what it is like both being and dating someone with a mental illness. Given the pervasive nature of mental illnesses it should come as no surprise that they make a difference to romantic relationships. This is not a bad thing. It does not mean that people with mental illnesses can’t date or anything like that. But there will be unique nuances to the relationship because of the illness. In a similar way I am a vegetarian. This affects my romantic relationships. It is not a bad thing (depending on who you ask…) to be a vegetarian, but it does mean that me and my fiancé don’t have meat in meals.
In this post I will mainly be talking about depression and anxiety. There are two of the most common mental illnesses. However, it is crucial to remember that each case will be very different. Dating someone with one mental illness will be very different than another case. Hopefully, this will be a fun and brief look at how a mental illness affects romantic relationships.
The obvious place to start is with emotions. Both depression and anxiety affect emotions, often severely. Which is the same as fancying someone. My experience of fancying someone has changed dramatically since suffering from these things. The usual period of obsession is now healthily sprinkled with episodes of apathy or indifference. It hasn’t changed now that I am engaged. Some days I look at my fiancé and am over the moon with her. She is beautiful, loving, compassionate, fun etc… Twelve hours later I feel like can’t be bothered with our relationships. Some days I look at her and say “I love you and love being around you.” Other days I look at her and say “I love you but you are making me feel anxious by being in the same room as me.” Both are true, but I will let you decide which is more romantic.
At the beginning of relationships, they are often driven by romantic feelings. A string of happy endorphins pump through your brain as you think of the person. Historically, I would wait to see if this period lasted about two weeks before convincing myself that I fancied someone. However, depression made this very tricky. I was never sure about whether I liked someone or not. Because I lost the carefully controlled façade I had about my control over my emotions I panicked. How was I supposed to know if I liked her if my feelings were constantly changing? One day I would think I fancied someone, only to be irrationally angry and frustrated with them the next day.
Overwhelming feelings of shame and guilt are a common symptom in depression. The only time I experienced this was when I fancied a girl. I would be devastated by shame because I didn’t think that she liked me. Then I would be overcome by guilt because I was ruining our friendship. I would emotionally beat myself up about how horrible and selfish I was being by fancying her.
Frustratingly enough this didn’t free me from thinking about a girl. I can be quite obsessive at times (just ask my flatmates about my music choice. Three songs on repeat for the year). Yet, instead of this being an exciting and nervous time, it became horrible. Every time I thought about liking her I would berate myself for my selfishness. It was also impossible to see the relationships succeeding when I was in such a negative state.
This hasn’t touched on the anxiety yet. Earlier I mentioned romantic anxiety/stress. This is excruciatingly compounded by having an anxiety disorder. At times my fiancé has taken my breath away with her beauty, other times it has been by her making me anxious and the ensuing panic. At the best of times it can be scary to tell someone that you fancy them. It is difficult to be honest about challenging things. It is frightening to be vulnerable with someone. These are all things that happen in relationships that suck when you have anxiety.
Anxiety also plays on your insecurities. Worried about commitment? Prepare to feel more anxious about it. Scared he won’t like your obsession with Harry Potter? Prepare to feel worse. Frustrated that she isn’t impressed by how many grapes you can fit in your mouth? You’re toast!
To be fair, most of what I have mentioned exists in all relationships. Everyone has ups and downs emotionally and everyone has insecurities. Depression and anxiety can make these things more severe, and it is important to be aware of this.
No matter how healthy, or well developed, the relationships is, these will still be challenges. If I am in a very anxious mood I am much more likely to be frustrated by my fiancé and get mad at her. This can make communication a challenge. If I am in a particularly sad mood she can say something in jest, something I would normally laugh at, and it can upset me.
The somatic symptoms are no exception. If I am feeling anxious and she wants to invite twenty people round to the house I would freak out and feel light headed. Some days when she has wanted to go out and do things I have been exhausted and feel like I am about to collapse. This isn’t me being lazy or difficult, but my body reacting to life.
I have had much more severe somatic symptoms as part of a suspected somatization disorder. Some days I have struggled to walk, and it means that we can’t get out of the house and do fun things. Other times I have found it very difficult to be in the same room as anyone else. This poses an obvious challenge to us hanging out.
Whilst these are all challenges, they can be overcome. Dating someone with a mental illness is like dating a vegetarian, some changes need to be made. Sometimes sacrifices, such as a beef burger or inviting people round, need to be made. But this is the same as in any relationship. Everyone brings their crap into a relationship and sacrifices will always have to be constantly made.
There are ways to make the relationship a lot easier, too. The first thing is to talk about the mental illness regularly. I don’t mean everyday (although at times it could help), but keep the conversation going. This way you will both be aware of the challenges it poses. It will also help people like myself who can struggle to see things from other people’s perspectives. If your partner has anxiety, a surprise party with twenty people might not be great if they are feeling ill that day. Talking about these things makes it better.
Discussing the challenges will also make your relationships feel like a safe place. At first it will be challenging. But it can make a world of difference if someone feels safe to discuss their challenges with mental health. Good communication is essential in any healthy relationships, and mental illness is no exception.
Set a precedent of honesty. If I have a day where I don’t feel like I like my fiancé at all I can say that. I honestly love, but really don’t like her at that given point. Being able to say this, and know that she knows I love her, frees me from a lot of potential guilt and shame. She never makes me feel bad for being ill.
Regularly affirm each other. When I am having a bad day and freaking out about being mentally ill she constantly affirms me verbally that it is ok. I don’t have to feel bad about being and can trust that God will guide our future.
I have been very lucky with my romantic relationships because everyone has been great about my mental illnesses. This is not always the case. I have heard of some horrible stories of people treating their partners in horrible ways because of their mental illness. Often this happens because there has been some misunderstanding about the mental illness (what do you mean you don’t like me anymore?!?! Why are you so lazy?!?).
Hopefully, this gave a wee bit of an insight into what having a mental illness is like. Given that a lot of the population will suffer from a mental illness at some point, between a couple one of them is likely to suffer. It is worth talking about and doesn’t have to be scary. Please give this a share and feel free to subscribe to the blog by email.
As always, please get in touch with any questions or stories of your own. If possible, feel free to share your own experiences with mental illness.