How to Talk About Mental Illness in a New Relationship

How to Talk About Mental Illness in a New Relationship

Dating can be tricky for anyone, but for those living with mental illness things can get a little more complicated. Putting aside how having an anxiety disorder makes the whole process much harder — you’re deliberately introducing new potential sources of anxiety into your life — there’s also the issue of how and when to talk about mental illness with the person you’re dating. Is it possible to do that too soon? What if you leave it for too late? And what about stigma? We spoke with several mental health experts to find out.

When to discuss mental illness in a relationship

Let’s start with the ideal point in a relationship to bring up the fact that you live with a mental illness. Turns out, there really isn’t one, nor is there a set timeline for disclosing other personal information while you start dating. For the most part, the mental health professionals we interviewed said that it all depends on the nature of the relationship, how comfortable you are with the person, and where you see the relationship going.

According to Dr. Wilfred Van Gorp, a psychologist and the former president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, this conversation should happen “at the point you trust the person sufficiently that you wish to take the relationship to a deeper level.” Similarly, Dr. Leela R. Magavi, M.D., an adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist and regional medical director at Community Psychiatry, says that prior to disclosing personal information — like any mental illness — you should make sure that the person you’re dating respects and values you. Sometimes this can take a month, other times it can take a year, she explains, noting that each relationship is unique.

Meanwhile, Dr. Julian Lagoy, another psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry, advises against discussing your mental illness on a first date. Instead, he recommends waiting until things start getting serious and you’re considering more of a long-term and permanent relationship or marriage. “Obviously it is very hard to bring up something like this to a new partner,” Lagoy tells Lifehacker. “However, it is even worse if you never tell them about it, and then you get married or have been together for many years and they find out about it another way.”

How do you know when you’re ready to have this conversation?

So, you trust your partner, want a future with them, and think they respect you: Does this mean you’re ready to bring up mental illness? According to Dr. Daryl Appleton, a psychotherapist specialising in anxiety, communication strategies, quarantine mental health, and relationship counseling, there is no set timetable for these discussions.

But, what you can do is make sure that you’ve entered what she calls the “vulnerability sharing phase” of a relationship. “You know — the one where they tell you about their traumas and inner fears, and you share in return,” Appleton tells Lifehacker. To help determine whether you’re ready to take this step, she recommends asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do you see your relationship progressing with this person, and are you looking to deepen your connection?
  • Has this person openly shared their values and own personal stories with you, creating an environment that feels “safe” and welcoming?
  • Do you feel that it is important to give a voice to your story and experiences so they can know all parts of you?

How should you approach the subject?

First of all, it doesn’t have to involve a scenario where, over a candle-lit dinner, you blurt out “Guess what? I have bipolar disorder” between the entrees and the dessert. (Though if you’re comfortable doing it that way, that’s entirely up to you.) Here are some examples of (slightly more nuanced) alternatives:

Mentioning mental health in the context of your current challenges

One way to ease into the subject in a way that doesn’t feel forced, is by bringing them up at a time when you’re discussing your challenges and what you’re doing to overcome them, according to Van Gorp. “Relate [your mental health issues] to everyday functioning,” he suggests For example, right now, the pandemic is a logical entry point to these discussions, and Van Gorp says you can open with something like: “This COVID thing really freaks me out — I have anxiety anyway — and this just makes it worse.” Then take it from there.

Along the same lines, Appleton says that it can come up when you’re telling the person you’re dating about an issue that came up at work, but that you handled well. After mentioning that, you can follow up with a piece of information on your mental health: “a few years ago I was not in as good of a space, and I absolutely wouldn’t have handled that as well as I did.”

Drop therapy into the conversation

A more straightforward way of bringing up mental illness with someone you’re dating is simply saying something like “I have therapy today” and the giving the person the space to ask any follow-up questions, Appleton explains. We should note, however, that how and when you talk about your mental health is entirely up to you, so you can mention going to therapy and answer questions about your mental illness without going into specifics, if that’s how you’re most comfortable starting out.

In the context of fears and triggers

If you live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and can be easily triggered by what others might consider normal, everyday things, this is something you may want to bring up with the person you’re dating, Dr. Cio Hernandez, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Lifehacker.

“If there are certain fears or triggers that need to be shared [in order for you] to feel a sense of safety, share them sooner,” Hernandez explains. “This could be something direct like, ‘I’m going to sit where I can see the door,’ or ‘If you notice me shaking or a little sweaty, I just get anxious. Deep breaths seem to be helping. I’m OK.”

As part of a discussion about support

When you’re dating someone new — especially if you happen to be in recovery — Hernandez says that it’s important for you to be clear about the kinds of support you need from the other person. “Set the parameters for future dates like meeting in a park or museum instead of a bar, and tell your partner your goal,” she advises. “Asking for your needs to get met is a normal part of any healthy relationship.” And if the support you need involves a mental illness, this could be a way to bring it up.

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How detailed should you get?

Again, this is up to you, and how comfortable you feel with the person, and whether you see yourself in a relationship with them in the long-term. According to Appleton, in the very beginning, you only need to go into as much detail as you feel necessary, and then reveal more over time as the relationship progresses.

And eventually, you might even invite your partner in to a therapy session with you. “This meeting does not need to be a quintessential couples therapy session, but can be a general information session where you and your therapist can provide your partner information on your diagnoses and give tips on best practices to support you,” Appleton explains.

But when it comes to trauma, things can get more complicated. For example, Hernandez says that she has clients with complex trauma who regularly share too much too soon in a relationship, only to feel even more vulnerable. Meanwhile, she has other clients who share too little, leaving room for misperceptions about behaviours, likes, and interests. “Share enough information to assure your inner vulnerable voice that you will be safe, but not so much as to overwhelm yourself or others,” Hernandez explains. “It can feel scary to a new partner to think it is their responsibility to fix you.”

Does the type of mental illness matter?

Not only is mental illness itself stigmatised, but there are also certain conditions that carry more stigma than others. For instance, you may feel comfortable sharing that you live with depression, but may be more cautious with diagnoses for personality disorders, given that not everyone understands them as well. “Unfortunately, some individuals experience shame and guilt speaking about personality disorders, addiction, and eating disorders, due to stigma surrounding these illnesses,” Magavi explains.

But Lagoy says that your diagnosis does make a difference in how you bring up mental illness with someone you’re dating. “If someone has slight anxiety, it is a lot different than if someone has major depressive disorder and is suicidal, or if someone is a narcissist or has borderline personality disorder,” he explains. “The type and severity of each mental illness will affect your relationship in a different way.”

The bottom line

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that having a mental illness is not a shameful secret. “Rather, it is an area of diversity that we have the power to protect, if we choose,” Hernandez explains. “No one has to enter a new relationship wearing a diagnosis badge. Take time to see if you can trust a new relationship. The wrong partner may use the information against you. The right partner will lift you up to your highest light, even when it seems the symptoms are winning.”

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