In a culture where dating and marriage are often viewed as the holy grail of life experiences, single members of the Church who face debilitating mental illnesses can often feel the quest is utterly hopeless. However, building and maintaining healthy relationships is possible through our own efforts and the efforts of a loving Savior who once said, “Let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.”
Strive to Love Yourself
One of the most common “side-effects” of mental illnesses is the arrival of shame. You not only feel ashamed for what you feel, but for all the things you both do and are unable to do because of these feelings. In order to fully enjoy the blessings that come with dating and relationships, you need a foundation of self-worth and an understanding of your own divine nature. No one is perfect in this pursuit, but as we strive to love ourselves we will find our capacity to love others increasing.
We often feel if we view ourselves harshly, we will change. Nothing could be further from the truth if we want a lasting change of heart that makes us more like Christ. Seek to cut out self-deprecating thoughts and voices. Your mental illness does not make you unworthy of love or any less of a person. Pray fervently to disconnect your mental illness from feelings of shame.
Don’t Look for Someone to Make You Whole
In a healthy relationship, math is a little different. One plus one doesn’t equal two…it equals three. Here’s how it works. When you have two people who are whole, they come together and make something completely new from their relationship. However, people with mental illness often struggle with dependency. They don’t feel whole and are looking for someone to make the equation equal one. This may seem fulfilling, but ultimate growth, joy, and intimacy are eventually stifled by this equation.
We are only made whole through Jesus Christ. Through the Atonement, we are able to be fulfilled, overcome our struggles, and find peace. If we are unable to find these things on our own, it is unlikely a relationship will suddenly fill us up. It is true that a good relationship will help us grow and evolve and help us feel more complete, but our self-worth and value should never be dependent on someone else.
Work on Healthy Self-Care Habits
If you live with a mental illness, you may find regular self-care tasks exhausting. Getting out of bed, showering, brushing your teeth, doing the dishes, and even eating can feel impossible and drain away your precious energy. While such lulls must be lived through, it is important to work towards building healthy habits. You’ll feel more confident, more able, and more ready to tackle a relationship if you’re taking care of yourself. And whether we like to admit it or not, being able to put our best foot forward is a large part of the dating world.
So find some good habits to build. Maybe it is making sure you take off your makeup every night or having a healthy breakfast. Maybe you go for a short walk around the block every other day. No matter what it is, try to find something that makes you feel good. Avoid doing things solely for someone else. For example, find joy in getting dressed up because you like the way it makes you feel, not just because someone else is going to see you.
Place High Priority on Emotional Safety
In the age of Tinderellas and those beloved lists we made as young women, it is easy to focus on looks, money, and status when swimming in the dating pool. If you have a mental illness, and even if you don’t, there is something much more important. What is it? Emotional safety.
Will you be able to suffer well together? Can you safely tell your partner about your abuse, your past with self-harming, or the fact you can’t see them today because you’re too anxious to leave the house? Do you feel like you can share your thoughts and feelings without fearing judgement or criticism? These are questions that you should be able to answer with a resounding “yes.” Attraction is important, but so is placing your heart and your past safely into someone’s hands.
With mental illness, the rule is to play it safe. If you’ve been living with a mental illness for years you likely know how to put on a good face, especially when you’ve faced shame or judgement for certain behaviors. It can be easy to get lost as your public and private self become two drastically different people. Take back your life and be willing to take risks. Evaluate your comfort zone and determine how you can stretch yourself. It can be as simple as trying new activities or classes or as heart-pounding as asking someone out.
Be willing to be vulnerable. Your mental illness has made you who you are and the person you are is someone awesome. Let friends in and help educate people about what you’re going through. The people who are willing to stick around will.
…But Don’t Cast Your Pearls Before Swine
Not everyone is going to understand your mental illness or having the capacity to stand by your side. Your experiences and struggles are sacred; they are part of your Gethsemane. You are under no obligation to “warn” someone about your past or reveal your entire emotional history on the first few dates.
When a relationship starts to become serious, that is when you can evaluate how much you share and when. As stated above, vulnerability and honesty is necessary in order to make a relationship move forward. Use both caution and faith when opening up about your mental illness.
Elder Holland once said, “I would not have you spend five minutes with someone who belittles you, who is constantly critical of you, who is cruel at your expense and may even call it humor. Life is tough enough without having the person who is supposed to love you leading the assault on your self-esteem, your sense of dignity, your confidence, and your joy. In this person’s care you deserve to feel physically safe and emotionally secure.”
Learn to Recognize Desperate Tendencies
Mental illness can wind you up so tight it is hard to breathe. You feel so desperate, desperate to escape, for relief, to be alone, to not be be alone, to be loved and accepted. When we’re desperate we can make bad choices to feel good. Learn how you react when you start feeling this way. Do your standards change as you consider potential dates? Do you contact your exes or become too vulnerable with someone who isn’t trustworthy? Do you place yourself in potentially embarrassing or even dangerous situations to garner attention? Do you stretch yourself too thin, trying to please everyone?
Instead, learn to focus on what that which truly fulfills you. Cultivate these things and have them easily accessible. When those desperate moments come, you will have activities to do, people to turn to, and guides in place to help you find fulfillment in safe and true places.
Look to Positive Relationship Examples
We live in a world with drastically shifting values and ideas about dating, sexuality, and marriage. When even the most stable and seemingly perfect relationships don’t seem to be lasting, it is natural to wonder how you can make it when you feel your mental illness already puts you behind the pack. It isn’t true for everyone with a mental illness, but past abuse and trauma can also affect the way someone is able to give and receive love.
If you are having a hard time finding hope to love and thrive with your mental illness, take some time to look at positive relationship examples. Perhaps it can be a close friend, co-worker, or even our Church leaders. Study the doctrine of marriage and charity. Seek to build positive relationships with those around you as a foundation and learning experience.
Manage Cultural Expectations
No matter your opinion, no one can deny: the dating culture within the Church can be intense. The pressure and judgement are real for a lot of people, even if no one actually intends for it to happen. Mental illness, just like marriage, doesn’t often come with a set time table. You know your mental illness and you likely know what works for you in overcoming it. If you are earnestly striving to do your best and keep your covenants, don’t let anyone make you feel less.
If you need to move slower in a relationship, move slow. If there are triggers to avoid, avoid them. The ultimate goal of dating is to find someone you can live a life with and that person should be able to fit comfortably alongside you and your mental illness.
Focus on Your Relationship With Jesus Christ
The most important relationship any of us can focus on in this life and the next is our relationship with our Savior. If you strive to love Christ and serve him, you will find yourself better equipped to date and form relationships with others. You will learn how to thrive with your own personal struggles and challenges. Jesus Christ is the perfect example of how to love and be loved and he can teach us how to do the same. No matter who you are or what you’re going through, following Christ is the best tip there ever was…for anything.