communication skills mental health social anxiety

Mental health, dating and relationships

During Mental Health Awareness Week, let’s help to reduce the stigma around mental health issues by thinking about how to enhance our mental health and practise self-care in dating and in our all relationships. Good relationships promote well-being and reduce loneliness, but we need to work at them.

Let’s communicate more honestly about our difficulties

Nadiya often suffers high levels of stress and anxiety. “When I’m dating someone, it often feels like there is this gap between the person I’m trying to be on dates and the real me. I feel like I have to be this happy-go-lucky, chilled, sorted, confident woman all the time or my date will lose interest. Then when I’m home alone, I often feel like I can’t cope with the fast pace of working life, and need to do lots of relaxation exercises, yoga and time out just to survive. It’s hard to find a way to convey a me that’s in the middle of these two extremes, and that discrepancy creates even more stress.”

We don’t want our dates to come across as too needy too early, but as long as Nadiya can communicate a mixture of strength and weakness, I think her date could appreciate her honesty and realism. No one needs perfection in their partner – maybe there’s that fantasy when we first start dating someone, but for it to turn into a relationship, perfection won’t encourage sharing and growth together. A bit of vulnerability can be very attractive.

We’re all a crazy mix of contradictions – we want stimulating jobs but we don’t want to be pushed over the edge; we like to set goals but we sometimes need to curl up and hide under a blanket; we want intimacy but we shy away from putting the work into revealing our weak spots. So don’t wait until you have it all sorted in your mind before you talk to your date about your inner conflicts. And encourage them to do the same!

Get support from others

Gary always relied on his partner Jay for emotional support when going through depression. “Jay was great at listening without offering advice or judging me. But it got to the stage when I needed to spread the load more. It’s a big burden on one person, and after a couple of years, Jay started to develop his own social life more, and I was left at home. It was hard but I had to talk to other friends and family, and get professional help. It was much healthier for our relationship, and it made me take up running which has made a big difference to my mental health.”

Research by Cheung et al (2018)[1] has shown that our well-being is higher if we have others we can go to for specific forms of support. The authors call these relationships “emotionships” – people who help us regulate our emotions. We might have someone to show empathy in our grief or depression, another to bring perspective when we are angry, someone to make us laugh, someone to motivate us, someone to help soothe, relax or calm us down. The more we can disperse these among a range of people, the better our well-being.[2] And, no doubt, the well-being of our partner and relationship.

laughing on date

Protect your self-esteem when online dating

Online dating can be difficult for those of us with low self-esteem. Men and ethnic minorities especially tend to get few replies to their messages online, and it can feel like a lot of rejections. Through coaching, Hardeep, an Asian British man, agreed that when women just stopped messaging him out of the blue, he was he was “over-interpreting” when he assumed it was something he had done wrong or that he was simply unattractive. Claudia, a Black British woman, assumed something was deeply wrong with her or the vibe she was putting out when her friends got dates but she just got asked for sex.

Coaching can help with this by providing hard data about how often this happens, so you can be reassured that what is happening is part of a social trend. Cognitive-behavioural therapy methods[3] can also help you not to jump to conclusions when a conversation doesn’t lead to a date, or date doesn’t work out. We can often say to ourselves “No one will ever like me” or “I’m useless at dating” when we could say “That person wasn’t right for me” or “Maybe they weren’t ready for dating” – attributing it to the other person rather than ourselves.

You can still date with social anxiety

Dating can be stressful for many of us, especially when we first start, and doubly so for those of us with social anxiety. Sophia, who met her husband on Tinder and has a number of mental health conditions including social anxiety, says: “My advice is make sure it feels right before you meet. Meet somewhere you are familiar with – maybe a bar or cafe that you regularly meet friends in, so you know the layout and don’t feel scared by an unfamiliar place or menu. I also spoke to my husband on the phone before we first met as I think you can get a better feel for someone’s personality that way.” She also gives some useful practical tips: “Make sure someone knows where you are too, in case you need someone to rescue you. I got myself there the first time by asking my dad to give me a lift – getting someone you know dropping you off is far less stressful than public transport.”

Could you could ask your friends to arrange a relaxed date with one of their single friends as a practice run, or set up a double date, where there is less pressure and more support?

Video-dating, popular since the pandemic started, can seem intimidating to some of us. Hannah, who suffers from social anxiety and is now in a relationship, advises using voice messages on Whatsapp rather than just texts as a bridge from messaging to a video-date or real-life date.

And why not tell the date you’re very nervous beforehand? They will understand and it might make them feel good about themselves that they can support you. Since the pandemic, people are being much more honest and accepting about what makes them or others feel uncomfortable or anxious.

For more tips on dating with social anxiety, see a previous blog post here.

Are you ready for dating?

Anisa had had an eating disorder and OCD for many years, and had recently emerged from a period of hospitalisation. She was keen to get back to normal life, and jumped into online dating as a way of forcing herself to be sociable. But after a few dates with the same woman, she realised she wasn’t ready for a relationship. “I still had issues with things like body image and didn’t have much stamina for prolonged socialising. I realised I needed ongoing professional support and to take a gentler approach to dating. I didn’t want to get my date’s hopes up and then back off when I couldn’t cope with intimacy. It’s easy to use dating for your own growth, but you need to think about the other people involved too.”

Anisa learned to explain from the beginning that she wasn’t ready for anything too serious, and talk more openly about her ongoing journey once she got to roughly the third date with someone. “I know you can’t wait until everything is perfect before you start dating. Plus maybe you only learn what you can cope with as you go along. I’m also learning to embrace imperfection and uncertainty in my dating life!” confides Anisa.

Should you date someone with mental health issues?

You need to judge for yourself (a) how serious they are and (b) whether you have the emotional resources to cope with providing support to someone else. Don’t try to be someone else’s therapist – that’s not a healthy dynamic for a relationship and is best left to the professionals. It might be best to wait until they have got some help first, if they aren’t already.[4]

Ben was in a relationship for a year with Melissa, who suffered from clinical depression and agoraphobia. At the beginning it seemed that he was helping her to overcome it, but as time went on, it was clear she needed professional help. He found that his own needs were not being met, and found the worry about her mental state overwhelming. It took a long time before she moved out of his flat, and now he is determined that his next relationship needs to be more equal.

Let’s support mental health awareness

Whether or not you consider yourself to have any mental health issues, let’s all work at honesty in our relationships about our imperfections, our stresses, anxieties, times when we lack confidence or drive, and our emotions. And let’s also work at our listening skills, empathy and not giving advice unless it’s asked for!

[1] Cheung, E. O., Gardner, W. L., & Anderson, J. F. (2015). Emotionships: Examining people’s emotion-regulation relationships and their consequences for well-being. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(4), 407-414.

[2] The effects of having lots of high quality relationships was controlled for – in other words, the analysis found that it wasn’t just that people with lots of really skilful friends have higher well-being.

[3] Available on the NHS (through referral by your GP or self referral) and used by some coaches, like this one!

[4] Anyone with mental health issues should contact their GP. For emergency situations, visit A&E, call The Samaritans on 116 123 in the UK, or other helplines. There are all the links you need at https://www.mind.org.uk/get-involved/world-mental-health-day/

Rachel New
Rachel New is a Dating Coach and regular blogger on dating. She is particularly interested in the social psychology of dating and in promoting ethical dating: treating each other well, challenging norms, keeping an open mind.

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