In a recent episode of the Showtime hit show, “Shameless,” Ian, a character who lives with bipolar disorder, struggles to tell a potential love interest about his condition. This dilemma isn’t just Hollywood storyline fodder; it’s a common story—and it’s no wonder. Many people living with mental health conditions are reluctant to share their experiences with those closest to them, let alone a potential partner.
So, how should you broach the subject?
Madeleine Wilson, a licensed clinical social worker from Albuquerque, New Mexico, says that individuals who are in a place of stability—that is, are receiving treatment and have developed positive coping skills for living with their condition—shouldn’t be afraid to build a lasting, loving relationship with a partner. And if the opportunity arises, they should approach the topic of their condition directly.
“I think it’s really important to not apologize for mental illness,” she says. “So I would encourage a person with a chronic mental illness to have a conversation with a potential partner and simply say, ‘I have this different way of existing in the world. I have a different perspective. I have a way of dealing with emotions that may be a lot more intense or perhaps different than many people. The conversation should be very person-centered, instead of being about the diagnosis.”
Wilson also encourages her counseling clients to be upfront about their needs and boundaries as that is something a partner should know from the get-go.
“When a person is living with a mental health condition, and has worked to get to a healthy place, they often need to have a pretty structured lifestyle in order to maintain a level of health and stability,” she says. “So if a client is going to be in a relationship built on mutual respect, part of that respect needs to include letting a partner know what’s OK and what’s not. To be able to say, ‘This is what I need in order to be healthy and be where I need to be. Without these boundaries, I can’t function properly and my life becomes more difficult than it needs to be.'”
Such boundaries might include things like medication, strict scheduling, abstinence from alcohol, time alone or a special diet, among other things.
Wilson says people should expect some questions during this conversation, and be prepared to be open and discuss—but only to the point where you’re comfortable.
“If someone is asking productive questions, that’s a great place to start a dialogue. But if it feels like your character is being attacked as opposed to someone really trying to understand, it’s OK to say, ‘I’m not okay answering this,'” she says. “And as this is a relationship that’s just beginning, there may be other kinds of questions that you don’t feel ready to talk about yet, too. Sometimes it’s helpful to direct your romantic interest to a psychiatrist or licensed professional to answer some of those questions instead.”
The Internet also offers a variety of resources—but Wilson cautions that it’s important to point people to trusted and reliable information sources. “People can get lost in the Internet,” she says. “And sometimes the information there can make it harder to be person-centered. This is a person you are doing research on, not a diagnosis, so it’s important to point people to the right places.”
Wilson concedes that having this initial discussion can be uncomfortable—but she says it often isn’t as bad as one thinks it might be. And if it is, that person is likely not meant to be your partner.
Wilson says she hopes people remember that love, community, and connection not only help us survive, but thrive, in life. “Once people open up, I think they find that there is more commonality than they think. What people with mental health conditions experience is often just an amplification of what most of us have felt at one time or another in our lives,” she says. “If you can find that common ground, not only are you opening yourself up to love, connection, and meaningful relationships—but also reducing stigma. So by taking that first step and starting the conversation, you take a step closer to growing and being your best self.”
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