I’ve dated a robust handful of people. Some relationships were ended by me, some weren’t. Some went out with a bang, others simply petered out or ended sweetly. Some were intense and romantic, some abusive, while others were more casual and non-committal. If there’s one thing I have learned since my first “relationship” in seventh grade, it’s that neither specific looks nor cleverness are my principal type, anymore.
After I left the normality of my public high school and entered into a therapeutic school, only interacting with other mentally ill kids, I noticed a shift in the health of my relationships. I’m only twenty, but my dating life is notable in its transformation. Mental illness is not a disqualifier of a partner of mine by any means, but none of my relationships that were formed with fellow mentally ill kids were based in what relationships should be: mutual respect, trust, truth telling, genuine caring. These people not only were mentally ill, but because of their inexperience in treatment, were unable to maintain their end of the kind of relationship I was seeking, though I didn’t know it at the time, of course. Where dating had once been an exciting world that giddy, teenage me had found success, health and happiness in, it became a long, dark tunnel with any number of scary surprises littering its walls, ready to jump out and snag me. I used to say that a sharp intellect, athleticism and looming height were the ideal elements of my “type,” but now I strongly believe my type is someone who is good for my mental health and who understands themselves well.
Here are the three main lessons I’ve learned from my teenaged dating experience, formatted as things I need in a relationship in order for it to be considered mentally healthy, especially if one or more of the partners is mentally ill.
A relationship is going to be riddled with obstacles no matter how bonded its component parts are. Mentally ill folks bear particular challenges that will inevitably play a part in their relationships. If either partner isn’t honest about their conditions, their histories, their boundaries, and their needs, all of which may be complicated by mental illness, an imbalance of information will be created. From imbalances of knowledge spring betrayals, heartbreaks and catastrophes. Whether it’s finding out that a boundary had been inadvertently crossed, that one partner was unfaithful, that their diagnoses are different than previously thought (more unwell or differently unwell, such that one participant may have been more wary), or any number of other concealed truths, all must be revealed in order for both parties to move forward with personal agency and respect.
Dishonesty tends to lead to the worst heartbreaks and breakups, and when the stakes of those things are higher, as they often are when a partner is mentally ill, honesty should be a paramount policy in order to maintain respect and safety.
While the previous point was something that has happened to me, this is one I am primarily guilty of. My childhood and upbringing are such that I feel a strong pull to find people who need emotional healing, and I pour everything into giving to them what I didn’t have. At a certain and seemingly inevitable point, I lose what makes me individual, frantically and intently focusing on my partner, and blur myself into them.
People who have suffered intense childhood trauma tend to be this way. Their own identity and realities are painful or insufficient, so they smudge into the struggles of others in order to scratch the itch of giving to and healing people they care about. It’s a good practice when done properly. It’s hard to do properly, though, and it involves intentional and mutual boundary setting.
Don’t like an activity? Tell them. Unable to spend time with them that day, or for two days, three? Speak up. Need to go to bed? Say it. Not ready to meet the family, become intimate, go on a big date? Spit it out. Though it feels selfish in the moment, or at least it does for me, it keeps resentment and frustration at bay and ultimately leads to a healthier relationship that both parties feel better about. In a way, it’s more selfish to dive into someone’s life and identity, leaving yours behind. It dooms the relationship in its own way, and will lead to hurt feelings.
Ladies, here’s a big one; if a man does not understand himself, he will not understand how to behave with/around you. Of course the gendering is interchangeable, but I generally find men to be more guilty of this. Societally encouraged to be less emotionally expressive, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to decoding their emotions. They’ve simply rarely had to.
If you’re like me, that immediately makes you go “aww, come here, we’ll figure it out together!” No we will not! The days of me doing that are long gone, even if I want to instinctively. Women, comparatively, are often societally reared in the caretaker role, conditioned to put up with behavior in partners that is lacking in self awareness and honesty. This was a major issue in my last slew of relationships, specifically because of trauma-tinged behaviors; my partners didn’t understand why they felt the way they did, why they did the things they did, and were about as eager to understand themselves as I was to “abandon” them for unacceptable behavior.
I’m not going to figure you out for you, anymore. Do some reading. Write in a diary, or at least put effort into your essays. Get a therapist. Really open up to people. Dial up your mom. Do the work that every human should be doing: self exploration.
Why do you lie? Maybe you were affection starved in childhood and grew up lying for attention. Why do you push people away? Maybe your childhood coping skill was creating distance. Why do you cling on? Maybe you have deep abandonment issues that are rooted in something identifiable. Whatever and whoever you are, there are reasons for it, and understanding those reasons must come before you can honestly interact with others meaningfully, or at least do so while claiming to have control over yourself. I spend so much of my time trying to understand myself, so I won’t dedicate another second to someone who isn’t doing the same.
If you’ve done the work and know what your vulnerabilities are, you’ll have capacity to create a true adult relationship, but until you do that you will be stuck in childhood ways.
If you’re texting with a new guy, or facetiming, or in the nascent stages of a relationship, be sure to keep in mind these relationship foundations. I’ve seen the short end of every one, and it’s intensely painful. We’re all looking for something flowery and elevating in our lives, and the prerequisites to creating interpersonal beauty are understanding yourself and treating others well.