For people with bipolar, dating means taking it slow, minimizing anxiety, and putting yourself first.
For people with bipolar disorder, piloting the unpredictable waters of dating can mean much more anxiety than normal. Here, five adults with bipolar disorder talk about their dating experiences, and how they navigate both the dating scene and the crucial question of when to disclose their mental health issues.Melanie Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and author of the Mindful Self-Expresscolumn on Psychology Today, also weighs in.
First Dates: Manage Your Expectations and Have a Getaway Plan
“I’d just remind myself to cool it — it’s just a date,” says freelance writer Laura Dattaro, 28, of New York City. Dattaro was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder right after her 23rd birthday. “It can be easy to get carried away, especially if your mood is on the upswing.” That excitement and good feeling may make the new person seem like your soul mate or new best friend, she says, and when that doesn’t pan out it’s a big bummer.
Dr. Greenberg agrees, noting that in someone with bipolar disorder, that excitement can be heightened. So to those with bipolar who are entering the dating scene, she advises, “since bipolar people can be impulsive, you might want to prepare yourself for taking your time.” For example, you might not want to get too sexual prematurely.
Greenberg also says that your anxiety could be heightened. Leah Yegneswaran, 24, of Fredericksburg, Virginia, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 20, agrees. “I worry that I’ll be triggered over the course of the date,” says the University of Mary Washington student.
So Yegneswaran creates a backup plan to accommodate the possibility of ananxiety attack. “I tell friends in the area of the date that I might need a safe space in case something happens and I need to crash somewhere,” she says.
Elspeth Rawlings, 23, a student in Frederick, Maryland, tends to only date people she already knows, which helps minimize anxiety. At age 17, Rawlings was misdiagnosed with major depressive disorder. She was formally diagnosed with bipolar I in early 2015 and is now thriving with the right therapy and medicationregimen.
Low-key first dates — like watching movies together — are best for her, Rawlings says. “I don’t really like not having a place to retreat to or get away from crowds if I start to feel bad,” she adds, echoing Yegneswaran.
Ryan Zamo, 26, feels “highly nervous” about dating when he’s in a stable period. “I would be hoping that I don’t start swinging into mania, because then I just get erratic and start spending tons of money that I really shouldn’t be spending,” says the Los Angeles resident. Depressive periods make Zamo not want to go at all: “Nothing’s harder than trying to be interested in someone’s story when you’d rather just not be there.” Zamo, who is CEO of his own organic cosmetics company, says he showed signs of bipolar disorder when he was 18, but was only formally diagnosed at age 22.
Should You Disclose Your Bipolar Disorder?
“Definitely do not tell the person on your first date,” Zamo says emphatically. According to Greenberg, not disclosing right away is okay if doing so would be uncomfortable. But, she adds, “If the relationship is getting more serious, you should reveal it.”
“If you think you might behave in a way that is uncomfortable for the other person,” says Greenberg, that’s another reason to disclose.
Zamo has had that experience. When he discloses that he has bipolar disorder, it’s usually after he’s become “feisty and irritated during a low period.” Later, he’ll feel bad about it, and revealing his bipolar disorder is “the only way to explain being an ass to them,” he says.
Michelle Mallet, 32, of Seattle, describes herself as outspoken and open with friends and coworkers about her mental health. Mallet, who currently works as a chef, was diagnosed with the condition around age 18 or 19. Despite being outspoken about her condition, Mallet doesn’t reveal that she has bipolar disorder on a first date.
“I want to know the people I tell this to first,” she says. Dattaro leans that way, too, in a mental balancing act of her own. “I try not to think about it as some scary secret that needs to be revealed,” she says. “It’s more an aspect of my life that’s just a little more personal than regular first-date fodder.”
Rawlings takes a different approach because she has anxiety and panic disorderalong with her bipolar. “I disclose as soon as possible just so I don’t scare someone, but also to protect myself from people who aren’t necessarily accepting when it comes to mental health issues,” she says.
The Risks (and Benefits) of Building a Relationship
When you have bipolar disorder, dating can make you feel like you’re not quite in control of your emotions, says Greenberg. You could feel like you’re becoming too angry or being ultra-sensitive, she adds. When it comes to relationship style,research has shown that adults with bipolar disorder display more insecure attachment styles when compared to people without the disorder. Zamo says he’s definitely scared people off, either because he cut off communication during a low spell, or because his manic behaviors were too much for someone else to handle.
The mood state does matter, according to Mallett. She once reached out to someone she was dating while she was in a “depressive, anxious cycle,” requesting that they turn their relationship into something more serious. Mallett’s request was rejected. “That triggered an anxiety spiral, which triggered my depressive cycle to the max, and I spent the next day in a super-duper fog and then drove myself to the hospital and checked in for suicide watch,” she explains. “I was in a serious, depressive state for two months,” she says, and had to take medical leave.
But what about the pluses of dating? Dattaro sees some possibilities. “One positive aspect is that it can show you that people aren’t really all that judgmental about it. If they are [judgmental], find new people!” Dattaro thinks that opening up to someone and seeing that they remain calm about it can “really bring trust into your relationship.”
Rawlings has found that all of the people she’s dated have had a form a mental illness, and that a good portion of her friends do, too. In fact, there are dating sites that cater specifically to bipolar matchmaking, like BipolarDatingSite. The ability to make jokes and talk about that shared experience can be a coping mechanism, she believes. On the flip side, though, is that you could become a “project” of some well-intended person who wants to help fix you without understanding that it’s not something they can do.
Know Yourself, and Get to Know Your Date, Too
Getting to know the person first makes a big difference. “Take things slowly,” Greenberg says. “Don’t let insecurity drive you, or feel less than [the other person] because you are bipolar.”
Be self-forgiving, too, says Yegneswaran. “Don’t berate yourself for not living up to what you think you ‘should’ be like,” she says. Rawlings agrees: “You should not let anyone tell you that you are broken or not good enough, even if it’s your own brain telling you that.”
“Don’t let being bipolar stop you!” says Mallett. She didn’t date for years because she was worried that she was too depressed or too manic to be attractive to someone without a mental illness. “But if someone likes and then loves you, they’ll love the whole you, and that includes your messed-up brain.”