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Worth the work: A psychologist’s guide to dating while living with mental illness

But believe it or not, it is possible to have happy romantic relationships even when you’re mentally ill, stigma be damned. Yes, it takes an extra layer of maintenance, but it can be just as fruitful and healthy as any other relationship — that is, if both parties are willing to put in the work.

We sat down with developmental psychiatrist Dr. Maricar Fajardo and asked her for insights on how to navigate relationships where at least one party is living with a mental illness. Whether you have a mental health condition and you’re struggling with your romantic relationships, or you’re the one looking to be a better partner to someone struggling with mental illness, here’s a guide on how to navigate this difficult terrain. 

Mental illness is not a handicap

Something that’s difficult to keep in mind — but important to come to terms with nonetheless — is that having a mental illness is not a handicap from having successful relationships. You can definitely live with mental health concerns and still find long-term love; your condition will not ward off potential partners, and you are not doomed from finding healthy, honest, and healing connections.

Dr. Fajardo shared that even the most emotionally unstable individuals are capable of having happy and meaningful relationships. Not having stability due to one’s mental health condition is not necessarily a barrier to forming and maintaining solid connections — in fact, Dr. Fajardo said that relationships can actually be a training ground to regulate dysfunctional behaviors. 

“Being in a relationship really helps you to be able to trust yourself and the other person,” she explained. Granted, a huge chunk of being in a relationship where one or both parties have mental issues involves navigating the feeling of “walking on eggshells.” But treading with extra thoughtfulness and caution isn’t necessarily a bad thing — in fact, doing so will give you more opportunities to look inwardly at yourself and your actions. And even if evaluating who you are is an incredibly daunting feat, self-reflection pays off; you end up becoming a better and more sensitive person because of it. 

You can’t pour from an empty cup

When we asked Dr. Fajardo about what she feels is a qualifier for healthy relationships, she said that the main thing is to be aware of who you are as a person and what you need in a relationship. “The more you know yourself, the more you are putting yourself in a position to be with someone,” she said. The key is to be comfortable with yourself and to be wholly and totally accepting of your individual struggles, conditions, and experiences. 

Dr. Fajardo added, “You should be able to accept that, ‘I do have anxiety, I do have symptoms of depression, I do have Borderline Personality Disorder, and this is who I am. It is not me, however. It is a part of me. That’s one aspect of who I am as a person.’ It is in acceptance of this that you feel closer to being ready to be in a relationship.” 

One thing that will help you become more emotionally stable is a solid self-care system. Whether this is getting enough exercise, spending time with loved ones, pursuing a new hobby, or treating yourself to a filling meal, self-care in any form is absolutely non-negotiable.

“[You should] want to be healthy – like truthfully, genuinely, and authentically a healthy person – because that’s the only time you can actually be in a relationship and give care and love to each other. Fill your cup, then you can fill other people’s cups.” 

Practice your communication skills

Any relationship necessitates the ability to communicate well. If you have mental health concerns, you may tend to get wrapped up in different anxieties about your relationship — because of this, constant validation and reassurance are often needed especially when actions get lost in translation. 

Partners should be able to explicitly say what works and what doesn’t, even if it means having uncomfortable conversations every now and then; otherwise, both parties will end up crossing boundaries and even stepping on each other’s principles. 

If you and your partner are having trouble communicating, maybe start by discussing what you expect from each other, what kinds of behaviors you like or dislike, and what actions you’re willing to tolerate. For instance, it can be as simple as saying, “It’s not acceptable to me that you walk away while we’re having a serious talk,” as per the example Dr. Fajardo gave. 

Having healthy communication doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to come to an agreement after a discussion – in fact, Dr. Fajardo says that the bulk of it means “laying down the cards on the table for the other person to see, evaluate, and hopefully act upon.”

Don’t be judgmental towards yourself or your partner

Yes, your partner will never totally understand what it’s like to be in your head — how crippling it can often be, or how shameful it feels when you’re experiencing thoughts and moods that you can’t rationalize. But rather than resenting them for this, allow your partner to meet your anxieties with gentleness, sympathy, and care. They may tend to say or do the wrong thing upon approach, but try to grant them the patience to be there for you, even if they don’t completely know what they’re doing. After all, they’re just trying their best. 

If they retreat or need time off from you, don’t immediately jump to the worst conclusions by assuming that you’re unwanted, that they hate you, or that you’re worthy of being left behind. Everyone needs space from time to time, after all — and if your partner reassures you that they’ll come back when they’re ready, maybe take a shot at trusting them, as scary as that sounds. 

If you’re in a relationship with someone who has a mental illness, you need to understand that they think, feel, and process things differently than you do. Try to do some research and learn the symptoms of their condition so you have more clarity when these symptoms strike — this way, you’ll be able to meet these periods of turmoil with compassion over judgment.

Yes, their words and actions may be hurtful and hard to understand, but try to remember that even if you’re at the receiving end, their moods are often not about you – it’s their condition that makes it difficult to regulate their feelings and act accordingly. Don’t be quick to accuse them of being “irrational,” “manipulative,” or “too much;” it’s terrifying enough for them to let you see them struggle, so let your partner feel safe enough to be vulnerable with you. Learn how to actively listen, provide reassurance, and encourage their recovery. 

It’ll take a truckload of patience and understanding — especially since you’ll learn how to put their needs above yours at times, Dr. Fajardo said. But also, know when it’s time to impose your own limits; after all, you should also attend to your own needs when you struggle and know when it’s time for you to seek support.

Understand that you’re in a position to hurt and be hurt by your partner, but that’s the very condition of love. Instead of dwelling on each other’s faults and wrongdoings, do your best to forgive each other and provide spaces for healing and growth. 

Set healthy boundaries

One of the most important things you should do to keep your relationship healthy – whether it involves someone with mental health concerns or not – is to set the necessary boundaries to keep yourselves afloat. 

Not sure where to start? A good boundary, to begin with, is to not let your partner become your therapist. While it’s tempting to let them become your go-to person to talk about problems you need to resolve, Dr. Fajardo actually highly discourages this. “Not only does this become unhealthy when your partner can’t provide, but it also creates a power imbalance in the relationship,” she warned. “Once you start acting like a therapist towards your partner, you are assuming a position of authority.” 

Her advice? Be there as a partner to maintain equal ground, and only give advice when it is asked for — after all, we all often just need someone to listen to us when we talk about our struggles, not someone to solve our problems. 

Also, know when it’s better for you to ask for space or step away from time to time. “You should be able to understand that sometimes, you and your partner can be triggering towards each other,” said Dr. Fajardo, “and that your partner can aggravate your anxiety or moods in ways you won’t always be able to explain. But give your partner reassurance that you’ll reach out when you’re ready.”

While there’s a lot more to navigate than usual when you’re in a relationship with someone who has a mental illness, you’ll find so much growth in the payoff. You’ll learn what it means to support your partner; to actively listen during a conversation; validate, understand, and sympathize with one another’s feelings and experiences; and truly be a safe space for the person you love. 

If you’re living with a mental health condition, remember that your illness does not make it hard to love. It may take a bit more maintenance to be with you, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Learn to trust that you’re someone who’s worth the work.

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