As a child, I was consumed by compulsive behaviors I swore no one could ever understand. I’d wash my hands until they were raw and conduct nighttime rituals to ward off bad dreams. These habits took over my life, and I felt incredibly alone. In years to come, I would experience various forms of anxiety and depression, and feel alone again — even in the stablest of romantic relationships. Sometimes, especially in relationships.
When you’re dating someone, it can feel like you are constantly under a microscope. It’s difficult to hide your emotions — good, bad, and downright ugly — from a partner. Your unhealthy coping mechanisms and quirks are going to come out sooner or later. When I was in my first serious relationship, my anxiety prevented me from being able to eat around my partner for the first few months, forcing me to binge on snacks in the comfort of my dorm room. I would also have bi-weekly breakdowns and crying sessions that made him “feel like a therapist.”
I’ve dated people who simply didn’t understand how anxiety could be all-consuming or that my lack of motivation was a symptom of my depression. They viewed my manic episodes as a cry for attention. They wanted me to “just deal with it” and “get over it,” two phrases no mentally ill person wants to hear. Whether it was their intention or not, they made me feel difficult to love. Instead of speaking up, I blamed myself. It took me years to break this pattern and realize that invalidation and shame only worsened my mental state.
“Dating when you’re mentally ill can feel extremely lonely when your partner doesn’t understand what you’re going through,” says Emily Gabelman, LCSW. “The healthy partner can often get frustrated and discouraged when figuring out how to help the person who they love and is suffering. This can lead to resentment. They may also feel like their own needs are neglected.”
When I first caught my current partner, Adam, organizing and reorganizing, showing symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, it, oddly enough, piqued my interest. After we talked about our quirks, I thought, here is someone who shares some of my compulsive symptoms. Here’s someone I could help and someone who could help me! When I recounted my days of being a germaphobe, I could see in his eyes that he understood. When I talked about my depression, he shared his own stories about not being able to leave his bed.
This allowed us to discuss our various mental health needs right off the bat. There was a kind of solidarity I felt with Adam that wasn’t present in past relationships with more neurotypical partners. We understood each other’s seemingly strange compulsions and recounted childhood stories. This was nice, but admittedly, it still takes patience to deal with some of your partner’s not-so-cute quirks — especially when you have your own mental health issues to work through.
Even though I’m tempted to yell at Adam when he takes forever leaving the house because he’s double, even triple checking the stove or locks, I’ve learned to be empathetic. This is a part of his identity, though it doesn’t define him, and he has to tackle his challenges at his own pace. We’ve agreed to validate, not downplay, each other’s anxieties and to be careful not to shame each other. This is important for any relationship, and it’s especially important if both parties struggle with mental health.
Allyson Duncan, 30, has borderline personality disorder (BPD) and is dating someone with depression. She says BPD makes it challenging to communicate when she is upset or sad because her emotions “don’t process the same way as most people’s.” Duncan often becomes angry, and the inability to express her feelings leads her to become angrier, creating a vicious cycle.
“I think because [my partner, Jacob,] knows his own extremes, it makes it easier for him to recognize and identify mine,” Duncan says. “Even though we have different illnesses, being able to pinpoint your own symptoms really helps in understanding others.”
While there is a mutual understanding, the dynamic between two people who suffer from mental illness is certainly not without its challenges. When Adam and I are both having issues, it can get messy. We definitely had our share of fights early on when we found ourselves overwhelmed at the same time.
“You may not be able to care for your partner if you’re struggling as well,” says Gabelman. “Both partners can start to feel like their needs are being neglected, like they have to walk on eggshells, and feel resentment. They feel the pressure to be there for their partner but also have to be there for themselves.”
Duncan has experienced this firsthand. “I try to make sure I give Jacob the emotional space he needs but also try to check in with him when he seems a bit off,” she says. “I think we work really well together by kind of filling in emotional gaps for the other. [At first], it was hard to find common ground. Now, since taking time to get to know each other’s mental illnesses, we rarely fight, and when we do, it’s uncommon that it lasts very long since we’ve learned how to communicate.”
Ultimately, Gabelman says that, yes, when people who both live with some form of mental illness are in a relationship, they tend to understand each other particularly well. But this obviously differs from couple to couple, and the types and severity of illnesses people deal with are myriad. And it’s OK to not totally understand what your partner is going through. The key is to truly believe that they care about you and are trying their best, even if they don’t get all the ins and outs of your mental health, especially right away.
If you are experiencing mental illness and are in need of support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-8255.