Note: Our thanks to NAMI for allowing us to republish this article from the NAMI website: nami.org/find-support/living-with-a-mental-health-condition/romantic-relationships.
When you’re living with a mental health condition, you may wonder whether or not to talk about it with your significant other. And if you’re single, you may wonder if having a mental health condition rules out romance for you. It’s important to know that many people with serious mental illnesses have strong, supportive, long-term relationships.
A good relationship provides valuable social support during difficult times, whereas a bad relationship can worsen your symptoms, particularly in cases of depression. Here we discuss a few of the questions people with mental health conditions ask about romantic relationships.
Should I Tell My Partner?
Because of the stigma and misunderstandings surrounding mental illness, many people are reluctant to tell their partners. You may think that “what they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
If you want a long-term relationship, however, you and your partner will eventually want to share health information. You need this information to support each other through health crises. If you’re in a long-term relationship, it’s better to disclose your health condition when you are well than to conceal it until an acute episode.
As you begin a new relationship, you don’t need to share your health history right away, but as your relationship grows more committed, think about starting the discussion.
How Should I Tell My Partner About My Mental Health Condition?
If you’re worried about disclosing, remember that many people with mental illnesses have strong relationships. Your partner probably already appreciates the personality qualities that have helped you live well despite a mental health condition. By sharing your health history, you share insight into not just your challenges but also your strengths.
Because of the fears and misconceptions that surround mental health, even well-meaning people may not know how to react to your disclosure. Three kinds of reaction are possible. Some people won’t consider your mental health condition an issue. They know that everyone has struggles and that a long-term relationship means supporting each other through difficulties. The fact that your challenge is mental illness doesn’t matter.
Other people may not be able to handle their concerns, leading them to end the relationship; this is a reason not to wait too long to disclose. And lastly, a large proportion of people will respond to a partner’s mental illness with uncertainty or curiosity. As they learn more about the facts and your treatment plan, they’ll grow more comfortable and learn how to support you. Many relationships grow stronger through this process.
To talk to your partner, choose a time when you aren’t actively experiencing mania, anxiety, depression or psychosis. As for many important conversations, you may want to start with “process talk” to introduce the fact that you want to share something difficult. (For example, “I want to tell you something important that I’ve been worrying about. This is difficult for me to say, though. I hope you can listen and understand.”)
You may also want to use the “sandwich” strategy: sandwiching “bad news” between two pieces of “good news” can help calm people’s fears. Start by saying positive things about your relationship. Tell your partner that because of your love and support, you have to share something potentially difficult. After describing your mental health condition, finish on a more positive note by describing what treatments you’ve followed, what has helped you, and what you’ve learned about yourself and other people as a result of mental illness.
If you have books or know of websites that provide more information about your condition, have them ready to offer your partner. Allow them time to absorb the information.
How Can I Start a Relationship Now?
Having a mental health condition can make it more difficult to date and meet people, largely because you may not feel like connecting with others when your life is unstable. Depending on your condition, you might be dealing with impulsive behavior, irregular moods, a desire to withdraw, trouble feeling empathy, or anxieties about other people. Following your treatment plan to care for your health is thus one important part of building a healthy relationship.
To attract a new romantic relationship with a mental health condition, think about what qualities you’re looking for in a partner. How can you strengthen these qualities in yourself? Show your positive qualities to the world and you will meet people who share your values. Above all, don’t get discouraged. You deserve a loving, healthy relationship whatever your health history.
What About Sex?
Mental illness can disrupt your sex life in many ways. In particular, the side effects of certain medications may reduce your desire for sex, your ability to get aroused and your ability to maintain an erection or achieve orgasm.
If you experience these side effects, it’s important to recognize that they can damage your quality of life and your romantic relationship. Talk about the sexual side effects with your partner and your doctor.
Do not stop, however, taking your medication. Mania or psychosis will likely do worse long-term damage to your relationship than a low libido. Take your time and work with your doctor to reduce negative side effects. Second-generation (“atypical”) anti-psychotics have fewer sexual side effects, for instance, and sometimes simply changing to a different medication can reduce or eliminate side effects.
As you and your doctor work to get your sex life back, don’t forget to show affection and love for your partner in ways other than sex. Remind yourself and your partner that neither of you is to blame for sexual side effects, and that this set-back is temporary.