The Delicate Balance Of Dating And Mental IllnessS

In discussions of eating disorders and other mental illnesses, one topic often goes unmentioned: dating. To find out more about the complicated intersection of relationships and recovery, we talked to some people who'd been there.

Carrie Arnold of ED Bites, who was first diagnosed with anorexia in 2001, wrote in August that her treatment team had encouraged her to explore dating, in part as a way to combat "this core self-belief that, basically, I suck." When we spoke on the phone, she said that when she was actively eating disordered, "I was in survival mode, so [dating] wasn't even on my radar." But she's been doing well in recovery for about a year, and she said that as she worked with her therapist and toned down the rigidity of some of her routines, "it became a possibility that maybe I was healthy enough and not-crazy enough to drive anyone away immediately." Challenges remain, however. Arnold explained,

The eating disorder made me a very, very solitary person, and I was living alone through the majority of the eating disorder, and so I haven't had to worry about what other people might think of me and my routines, and having to be flexible to allow other people's input. I ate what I would let myself at very prescribed times, and so if it was at six o'clock and someone wanted to meet for dinner at 6:30, well that was just too bad. A lot of it was just [...] taking into account what other people think and feel and everything, because the eating disorder is just so selfish.

Tiptoe of Between Living and Existing described some other difficulties — she says that when she was actively bulimic, "I really had issues with people watching me eat, so that made it tough going on dates. I was highly worried that my date would be looking at what I ate or didn't eat." She adds, "another challenge was my body consciousness. Due to past negative experiences, I was always worried about any type of physical intimacy, even a simple touch." Now that she's recovering, though, "I'm much more comfortable with people watching me eat [...] The focus is less on food and more on the person."

Eating disorders aren't the only mental illnesses that can complicate dating. Meggy Wang of The Novelist's Hubris, whose primary diagnoses are bipolar and generalized anxiety disorder, told me that before she began dating her now-husband, "mental illness provided a kind of definition to the way I chose who I wanted to date. The way I understood it, only another person with a mental illness could understand my unique situation, and as a result, I wound up with a lot of troubled partners." And she shed light on another important issue: that of disclosure.

Wang explained that "for me, there's always this difficult balance between wanting to impress upon someone the gravity of the situation and not wanting to scare them away. I think this is [...] the case with relationships of any kind, sexual or no." Others vary in their attitudes toward disclosure — for Arnold, her psych history is "not first date conversation," but "if my history would scare somebody off I'd want to know that pretty quickly." And Tiptoe says, "I do not disclose ED-related stuff until I feel like the relationship is going somewhere."

Dr. Sarah Ravin, a psychologist who frequently blogs about eating disorder issues, told me, "My advice is to wait until you know your partner reasonably well and feel comfortable enough to trust him/her with emotionally sensitive information. When you and your partner both have a sense that this relationship is likely to last a while, this is a good time to discuss your eating disorder history." By way of quantifying, she added, "on average, I recommend waiting for at least a month before disclosing ED history to a dating partner." She also had this advice for eating disorder sufferers trying to decide if they're ready for dating:

[M]y general recommendation is that people wait until they are in solid recovery before starting to date. By "in solid recovery," I mean that the person has been receiving treatment for at least a few months, has reached his or her healthy body weight, is no longer engaging in restricting, bingeing, purging, or over-exercising, and is able to manage his/her emotions reasonably well.

Dating in recovery can be stressful — Arnold wrote on ED Bites that filling out an online profile "brings up a whole host of issues, the biggest of which is the fact that I don't understand why anyone would date me anyway." But it can also bring rewards — Tiptoe noted that her dating experiences have been "a good reminder [...] that people are interested in me, find me attractive, even with what I view are my flaws." And Wang told me,

[My husband] reminds me that there is a world outside of whatever is going on inside of my head, which is incredibly hard to remember when the world feels like it is what's inside of my head. More importantly, he also reminds me that the world would be a worse place without me in it.

For those in recovery weighing the costs and benefits of dating, Dr. Ravin offers this tip:

Choose a partner who brings you joy and pleasure and fun. Try to view dating as an opportunity to grow emotionally, meet new people, practice new skills, and take healthy risks. If dating seems very stressful or boring or anxiety-provoking, you're either not ready to date yet or you're dating the wrong person.

Sounds like good advice for anyone.

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