Commentary: There is rarely a right time to talk about your mental health when you’re dating – but do it anyway
Being upfront with the people you date at the start might scare them off – or it can create a strong foundation for the relationship. The trick is establishing the right degree of trust before sharing vulnerable information.
SINGAPORE: To gauge the temperature of a body of water, dip your toes in or run your fingers over the surface before you take the plunge.
Just like you would usually look before you leap, it is generally ill-advised to reveal more personal details about one’s life before you get to know someone better.
Such details, unfortunately, include the condition of one’s mental health.
It’s important to normalise talk about mental health, but discussing yours so early in the dating process seems akin to throwing the other party overboard into the sea without warning – then expecting them to swim.
Not only might you face a range of unwanted reactions, from pity to uneasiness, ironically you might even end up having to comfort the person you’re disclosing yourself to.
WE HAVE COME A LONG WAY
But if the last half a year of unprecedented uncertainty revealed anything, it’s the urgent need to start talking about our mental health, from daily anxieties to more severe diagnoses.
In Singapore, national helplines were set up for anyone needing assistance with mental wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing economic recession, so they could speak to trained personnel.
READ: Commentary: What good is doing push-ups for mental health?
In addition, Beyond the Label’s mental health awareness month from Sep 19 to Oct 30 has ignited an increase in social media conversations. Some public figures discussed their own mental health, while others participated in the 25-day #pushupchallenge to raise awareness about mental illness.
On Oct 10, we celebrated World Mental Health Day – a day that felt extra significant amidst unparalleled anxiety about our future.
But our discourse around mental health progresses when we can move beyond discussing it at a policy level, and begin talking about it casually and candidly in our everyday interactions and relationships.
In the dating scene, however, this can feel particularly nerve wracking.
MIND GAMES WORSEN MENTAL HEALTH
Those of us who’ve had the fortune, or misfortune, of using a dating app understand the dating industry is propped up by a cycle of approval and rejection, only fuelling our insecurities and, in some cases, affecting our mental health.
Figuring out when to touch on vulnerable issues, like a complicated family background or a previous abusive relationship, remains one of the most crucial milestones in any relationship.
But faced with potential commitment to a shared future that requires intimate conversations, some might choose to bail.
READ: It isn’t all about mental disorders — the little-known casework done in IMH’s emergency room
That is the reason a new local dating app that’s launching later in the year, Lovenn, aims to foster an “honest” dating culture through a premise that encourages users to “share their criteria, deal-breakers and imperfections right at the start before matching”.
I have my doubts, but as many say, a cynic is just a disappointed romantic.
Speaking with founder and CEO Vernice Yap, she shares that the app allows users to “appreciate mutual fundamental compatibility beyond just physical attraction” and normalises sharing imperfections, resulting in “an environment that’s safer for everyone’s mental health”.
This might seem ideal to weed out the ones who would take issue with the state of your mental health eventually. But being more vulnerable than usual before you even know the other person requires radical courage and faith.
It’s like diving into the deep end not knowing if you’d sink or swim.
The average person probably doesn’t discuss mental health upfront because they don’t want to be pitied, patronised, dismissed or discriminated against, thanks to the stigma attached even to more “common” conditions like depression.
Yet, if we foresee a future with the other party, we must risk diving deep before it’s catastrophically too late.
The trick is having the tools to navigate the choppy seas, lest it doesn’t pay off.
READ: Commentary: Did your relationship fail to survive COVID-19? Here’s how to move on
Basic trust is the most essential tool, but it requires time and shared experiences.
The danger of discussing vulnerable topics from the start is that some might use these issues as a way to create that trust, inadvertently conflating emotional intimacy with emotional intensity. The latter forces a connection that is “too fast, too soon”, potentially making others feel extra uncomfortable.
Violet Lim, co-founder of Lunch Actually, likens building trust to filling an emotional bank account.
“When we first meet someone, the emotional bank account is at zero. As you share positive things, you build up the account. When the account is full enough, you can start drawing from it,” she explains.
“You don’t want to empty it at the start. You need to build a strong foundation – let someone know your other personality traits. Eventually, when you start sharing about your mental health, there’s a higher chance they’d say, ‘It’s okay, I already know you.’”
In this case, mutual trust is necessary to ensure you’re seen as a multidimensional human being, who won’t be reduced to your mental health condition if you decide to open up.
TESTING THE WATERS
Once basic trust is established, and you sense that you and your partner might be ready to get more serious, the first step is to test the waters.
“The bottom five per cent of our lives are things you’d reveal only to those closest to you. Share the bottom 20 per cent, see how they react, then go deeper if their reaction is okay,” says Lim.
Alternatively, try disclosing mental conditions by sharing how specific symptoms manifest, such as having a depressed mood makes it hard to feel enthusiastic about activities sometimes, rather than using the label or diagnosis to begin the conversation.
This can be even more important if your symptoms might not present themselves explicitly.
“For example, people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) might find it less helpful to use the label because people tend to have a certain negative impression of BPD,” says Andrea Chong, a senior clinical psychologist from the Institute of Mental Health.
Instead, reveal your condition by sharing the things that you might struggle with in relationships, such as fear of abandonment or heightened insecurity in certain situations, she suggests.
READ: IN FOCUS: The challenges young people face in seeking mental health help
If all else fails, my personal favourite is opting for self-deprecating humour.
A viral tweet goes: “I love when guys on dating apps ask, ‘How is a gorgeous girl like you single?’ I’m mentally ill, Brandon.” I, for one, have saved a screenshot for future purposes.
GO SLOW, BE PATIENT
Once you’ve laid your cards on the table, however, the other party might call it quits. While rejection might sting, it’s a better outcome than keeping significant information under wraps, especially if your condition tends to reveal itself over time.
For example, explains Chong, someone with social anxiety would have difficulty in social settings and someone on long-term medication might show visible side effects.
If the other party doesn’t know how to respond initially, it shouldn’t be an indication of how much they value you.
“Many people aren’t equipped to handle these situations. Just because they can’t offer the emotional support we want at first, doesn’t mean they don’t love us,” says Lim.
If they appear to be overwhelmed, Chong recommends checking in with them, asking if it’s too much information, letting them know you’re ready to answer any questions or that you can revisit the issue at a later date.
It’s also helpful to let them know they’re not expected to ‘fix’ you or be their pseudo-therapist.
The most important thing isn’t that they offer unconditional acceptance and understanding from the start, but that they’re willing to try getting there.
This effort doesn’t just indicate support, but reflects open-mindedness – a trait that’s crucial in building a long-term relationship regardless of mental health.
Even though the deep end might be occasionally frightening, having someone tread water with you keeps you from drowning. One day, you might even learn to swim.
Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist at CNA Insider.