When we first starting dating someone new, we all try to put our best foot forward and present the most attractive version of ourselves, while still staying authentic to who we are. It is natural to try to seem as smart, funny, and nice as possible early on in dating someone. As someone with depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder (a real triple threat of mental health problems), the question of how to connect with a potential partner but also remain true to ourselves is even more complex. Dating can be challenging for everyone, but here I seek to illuminate the hurdles people with mental health issues face and the best ways to handle them.
Obviously, I’m not going to convey all of my trauma on the first date, but to hide these parts of myself for extended periods of time while dating a man can feel deceitful. At what point do I disclose these parts of myself to him? I am not ashamed of the state of my mental health, but I only want to reveal these vulnerabilities to someone I believe I can trust. Not every man I meet on Bumble or Hinge deserves to hear all of my story. I still do not navigate this situation perfectly, but I tend to enter into this conversation when the time comes to “define the relationship.” After a few months, I will eventually bring up the idea of us being exclusive; in concert with this possibility, I explain what my life can be like: one of joy and love and laughter, but also one of panic attacks and days of doing nothing but sleeping. While I am in therapy and on medication, I tell him, that does not mean I will be ok 100% of the time. Dating me exclusively will mean dating someone who occasionally will shut off, who has a deeply complex relationship with her body, and who has deep-seeded issues with men. I tend to be a blunt communicator; I can be honest to a fault. If my potential boyfriend cannot handle even hearing about these issues, I would rather know before I enter into a committed relationship with him.
Even if my now boyfriend assures me that he still wants to be with me and does not care about these problems, my relationships in the past have been met with a variety of results. Some men get utterly uncomfortable when I show any depressive symptoms; they cannot handle any sort of emotional display of sadness. I have had friends in the past who have defended these boyfriends, saying, “He’s a guy, come on. They don’t deal with emotion well. Give him a break.” While I recognize that men’s upbringings and the current harmful standards of masculinity might influence their ability to express or deal with emotion, their gender is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for being a supportive, caring partner. If a man cannot deal with the fact that if I am depressed on a Saturday night, that might mean staying in and watching a movie instead of going on a big night out, what does that say about him? If they cannot handle a slight inconvenience, how will they react in our relationship if something terrible, like a job less or life-threatening accident, happens?
When I first started dating regularly in my 20s, I accommodated every aspect of myself to make my partner more comfortable. This often meant hiding my symptoms or engaging in behaviors that my partner wanted, but would ultimately aggravate my symptoms. Eventually, I learned the difficult lesson that in my relationships, I need to advocate for myself and my mental health. It is perfectly fine for me to set boundaries to be kind to myself; it can be as simple as communicating that I need to go to bed early every night and avoid late night outs, since sleep deprivation worsens my anxiety. I, of course, do not expect my romantic partners to cure my mental illness or act as my therapist. Rather, I expect my partner to be an empathetic, understanding, and supportive person. If I’m feeling depressed, sometimes I just need him to give me a hug or talk to me about funny work stories from his day to take my mind off things .Of course, I do not use my mental illness as a trump card; it is never, “we have to do things my way because I’m sick.” My approach is to recognize and honor my needs, and communicate them to my partner. Hopefully he will respect them and I will do the same with his needs.
There were many men who could not handle any aspect of dating a complex person. If I cried, some men shut down entirely; they were not able to leave my apartment fast enough. If I told them that we needed to cook at home more because eating out frequently aggravated my eating disorder, they became frustrated with me. People always say relationships are about compromise, but in the past few years, I have met so many men who are unwilling to compromise about the smallest of things. Apparently making dinner instead of grabbing take-out can be too great a burden.
In some ways, championing my mental health when it comes to dating has made things easier. If a man I am dating freaks out when I mention I suffer from depression, then that’s an easy goodbye that saves me a good amount of time and energy. Revealing this damaged, vulnerable side of myself can be hard; it is not my job to explain how mental health and therapy work to a man who knows nothing about them. It also can mean reopening past wounds and expending a great deal of emotional bandwidth. Yet, having this conversation can also be freeing; there is something liberating in presenting your entire self to another human being and asking them to accept you. If they reject me, I have the perspective to know that it is due to a problem with them, not with me. I know what patterns, routines, and behaviors are important in my life to maintain and improve my mental health; I want a partner who also recognizes these things as important. In self-disclosing to a potential partner, the benefits always have outweighed the cost. While people with mental health problems can suffer a variety of negative symptoms, we also are supportive, generous, funny, and kind partners. We deserve romantic partners who accept all facets of us. I will keep advocating for myself and what is best for my mental health until I find a compassionate, understanding partner.