“Keep dating and you will become so sick, so badly crippled, so deformed, so emotionally warped and mentally defective that you will marry anybody,” said Florence King in “Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady.”
All kidding aside, dating can affect your mental health, and having good or poor mental health can affect your dating life. Since many people are actively seeking a long-term romantic partner in life, and dating is part of that process, it’s beneficial to understand the impact mental health and dating can have on each other.
Alicia Munoz, a licensed mental health counselor, licensed professional counselor and a certified Imago relationship therapist, shares information about the complex relationship that exists between dating and mental health for those people who deal with mental illnesses and other mental health issues.
She said that some experts might suggest people with mental health issues work on themselves before bringing another person romantically into their lives.
“It’s true that in a pristine, organized, methodical world, it might benefit people with mental health issues to seek and get treatment before they begin to date,” Munoz said. “Realistically, however, this would be a very improbable recommendation, since part of the way we as human beings seek relief from our mental health issues is by seeking connection with others.”
Getting out and interacting with others is actually a major focus of the treatment process for people with mental disorders like generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD and major depressive disorder, since withdrawal and social isolation are some general symptoms.
“Part of the focus of treatment is to encourage clients to reach out, seek human contact, risk sharing their fears, feelings and vulnerabilities, and develop or maintain intimate relationships with other people,” Munoz said.
However, whether dating is beneficial or not all depends on the individual and even certain mental disorders. For example, people with borderline personality disorder might not be able to handle the “highs and lows of dating” without first treating their disorder, and their symptoms could worsen as a result of dating.
People with untreated mental disorders like narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, pedophilia and sexual sadism could be potentially harmful to the people they date as well, depending on the severity and symptoms of the disorder.
For people with more “minimal” mental health issues, dating has the potential to both benefit and harm mental health, and it can be difficult sometimes to determine which way you’re headed.
“The great irony of dating and mental health is that it can both ‘cure’ your minor mental health issues – such as low self-esteem, sadness, lack of motivation, anxiety, existential blues, negative thinking – or it can exacerbate those same issues,” Munoz said.
“If you have a positive dating experience, you can feel recharged, rejuvenated, hopeful, and motivated to move forward with plans and projects,” she added.
“However, a negative dating experience can confirm your darkest fears about yourself and the world, and leave you feeling even worse than before you took the risk to meet someone new.”
Munoz does suggest people try individual therapy or group therapy to help with some personal issues they might be having while dating, and especially before deciding to become involved in a committed relationship.
“Understanding yourself -- your triggers, biases, blind-spots, feelings, needs and fears -- will also influence who you choose to get involved with,” Munoz said.
“Generally, the healthier you are mentally, the healthier your romantic choices will be. Some couples and marital therapies (such as Imago therapy) hold that the deepest healing can only occur in a committed love relationship – that this kind of relationship creates the ideal starting point for two people to challenge each other and motivate each other in just the right ways needed for the deepest healing and growth.”
While dating and in general, it’s important to recognize how your personal issues, mental health status, disposition, characteristics and personality can affect dating and other aspects of life.
“Feeling bad about yourself, lacking motivation, and having high anxiety can actually create the negative dating experiences you are hoping to avoid -- becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Munoz said.
“When dating, it's important to be aware of your tendencies toward self-judgment or perfectionism or catastrophic thinking or whatever, recognize your fears and longings, and be very, very kind and supportive of yourself throughout the process.”
Even for people without mental health issues, dating can sometimes be an unpleasant selection process.
“People with mental health issues tend to be more vulnerable in situations where the risk of rejection is high – to have a harder time with what therapists call ‘affect-regulation skills,’ self-soothing, taking things in stride, believing positive things about themselves, viewing situations objectively – and so when they date, they need added support, internal and external, throughout the process,” Munoz said.
“People suffering from mild to moderate mental health symptoms would benefit greatly from being in therapy while dating to better understand and explore any shame, self-hatred, frustration, or other issues that arise. If that's not possible, a strong support network can help.”
Munoz, Alicia. Email interview. June 26, 2012.
Reviewed June 28, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith