You’ve met someone who you really like. He listens to you. Finally, someone who really listens and asks questions, who shows genuine interest in you. And he’s funny! And he thinks you’re funny, too. Your first several dates flew by, each one of them ending with the two of you staying until closing time, just talking and laughing. You really like this one.
Then, when things are starting to get serious, he tells you more about his family and family history. He tells you that he’s bipolar, just like his mom. What do you do? Does this change how you feel about him?
Dating is complicated enough already, but throw mental illness into the mix, and harmful assumptions can escalate quickly. Misrepresentations in cultural media remain dangerously misleading about what mental illness really looks like. Perhaps when the guy you’re dating tells you he’s bipolar, you remember “Silver Linings Playbook”, and think about what it’d be like to date Pat (Bradley Cooper’s character from the film). From that movie, you’d think that everyone with bipolar disorder beats people up and throws things through windows.
Fortunately, this isn’t the truth. One of the best things you can do when you learn that someone you’re dating has a mental illness is to first hit the pause button. Bring to mind all the associations that you have with that mental illness. It’s great if you can write them all down in a list (you don’t have to show this list to the person you’re dating). Then, once you’ve collected all of your associations with that mental illness, you can begin doing research, and asking the person you’re dating thoughtful, compassionate questions about how their mental illness manifests in them. Listen to their experiences without making assumptions. Remember that mental illness can show up in many different ways for different people. Having a mental illness doesn’t mean that the person you’re dating is unstable.
Remember too that vulnerability is a two-way street. If this person has trusted you enough to discuss his mental health, then a great way to recognize that vulnerability is to be vulnerable yourself. Even if you don’t have mental illness in your background, there are always ways to relate to folks who do. It’s important to remember that vulnerability, trust, and empathy are at the heart of any conversation about mental illness.
Be mindful that it’s not up to you to solve this person’s problems for them. If the person you’re dating is telling you about their mental illness, then they’ve already been dealing with it for awhile, and they know a lot more about it than you do. Approach the situation with an open mind, an open heart and humbleness … while bearing in mind that mental illness is not an excuse for being cruel or thoughtless to you. Be careful not to let the situation become an excuse for things. While it’s true that you’ll need to understand areas where this person may require extra patience or compassion, those exchanges can still be done in a way that feels good to both of you.