5 Tips for Dating Someone With Mental Illness When You're Struggling Too

I was married for nine years to someone struggling with depression and social anxiety. At first this seemed like a good fit. After all, I had spent most of my life managing my own depression, anxiety and anorexia. Finding a partner who understood the challenges of mental illness seemed like a dream come true. I could empathize with his condition. He seemed compassionate about mine. And I loved him unconditionally — mostly. The truth is: I couldn’t stand his mental illness.

If I seem like a hypocrite, I get it. I’m a mental health advocate. I’m passionate about getting the word out regarding depression and mental illness in our country. And I know I need a partner who understands that dark side of me. But giving that gift to someone else — it’s incredibly challenging.

Anyone else who has dated someone with mental illness (including all my past partners) knows this to be true. It takes an immense amount of patience and understanding to love someone through their down times, their body issues and the debilitating anxiety that simply doesn’t make any sense. What I have learned is that when you put two mentally ill people together, there can often be as much challenge as there is compassion and love. As I embark on a new relationship with another man — a man I don’t want to lose — who has also struggled with depression, I have had to consider how to make this partnership work.

The following are just a few things I’ve learned to be necessary when dating someone who has mental illness:

1. Don’t try to be his/her therapist

Oh, it can be so tempting. We have so many tools to share from our own survival arsenal. We have so many insights and pep talks and encouraging words we want to say. My recommendation: don’t. Don’t fall down the rabbit hole of taking on your partner’s issues. He or she is the only one who can solve them, and they need to do it on their own. Yes, be a solid presence. Yes, love on them without end. But no — do not take their problems on as your problems, or soon you will be drowning alongside them.

2. Be on the lookout for co-dependence

This is a tough one. When I met my current partner, I knew he was stressed and low. I wanted to arrange everything — introduce him to everything — fix everything for him. It fed into my own issues of self-worth and wanting to be needed by someone else. The only problem: by focusing so much on his problems, I was becoming even more overwhelmed and anxiety-ridden on my own! My lesson: he’s a big boy. I need to step back and let him take care of himself.

3. Join a group for outside perspective

Two people with illogical thoughts can come to many unhealthy and illogical conclusions. Consider joining a group like Celebrate Recovery or find a compassionate listening program like Humble Warrior to get an outside perspective on your inside problems. Sometimes that is the only way you will be able to get a true sense of whether your relationship is growing healthfully.

4. Communicate regularly about your relationship

One of the main reasons my marriage ended is because we couldn’t talk about the issues that were impacting our relationship. Whereas I was a chatty pisces needing to bear my soul every five minutes, my husband was not a talker. He tended to shut down instead of facing issues head on. The combination left him feeling nagged by my need to talk about our relationship, and me feeling neglected and devalued because he didn’t want to. Please know this: no relationship, regardless of mental illness, can ever survive without good communication. But mental illness makes it even more important. Both partners need to feel fulfilled and valued. If one person is constantly melting down, forcing the other to be strong and stable, it will probably never work. Find balance and take turns being the “sane” one. And check in often to make sure you are succeeding in those efforts.

5. Find an accountability partner

Don’t trust yourself to follow the above rules! Find a friend who is not your partner to keep you accountable for sticking to them.

Building a successful relationship with someone with mental illness is not impossible. But when both people struggle with mental illness, it can take a lot of work and commitment. Both partners need to give what they can to help their partners stay healthy. But both also need to be able to receive what they need to stay stable.

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