Dating with Mental Illness: What Is It Like?

Recent research reveals the dating lives of people with mental illness.

Posted Sep 28, 2017

Romance, dating, and sexuality are core aspects of the human experience. Indeed, the vast majority of people strive for a meaningful and satisfying romantic relationship. Every day, millions of people use dating apps such as Tinder, Bumble, and Plenty of Fish in a strenuous effort to find ‘the one’.

But do people with mental illness face specific barriers or issues when searching for romance?

This is a question myself and my graduate student, Marie-Eve Boucher, set out to answer during a recently completed research study published in the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal. In this study, we interviewed a range of people with mental illnesses, such as major depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, to learn more about their dating and romantic experience.

What did we find?

Only 15 percent of participants were currently involved in a romantic relationship. The rest almost unanimously stated that they strongly desired a satisfying and rewarding romantic relationship. Many craved the affection and attention which comes with successful romance and often opined that this was a glaring hole in their lives. Indeed, we frequently heard statements such as ‘it would be good to have a girlfriend’ or ‘I am tired of being alone’ during the research.

But participants noted numerous barriers to a successful dating or romantic life.

Barriers to Dating and Romance

Stigma associated with mental illness was a core barrier to successful dating and romance. Many participants poignantly reported instances where dating and romance had gone wrong when their date learned they had a mental illness. For example, one stated that she had started dating someone, and it was going well. Then he found her medications, and she never heard from him again. Others stated that if they wanted a quick exit during an awkward date, they would casually mention they had a mental illness. Quick enough, their date would leave.

Many noted structural barriers to dating. This was especially so for those with more severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, who tended to receive low-income or welfare. Some lived in supported housing, such as group homes with strict guest regulations. This meant they had little money to go dating and were often unable to host romantic interests at home. Dating for them was frequently a non-starter.

Some of these issues are explored in the poignant video below about Jennifer, a young woman with mental illness who found love, despite barriers including stigma, homelessness, and unemployment.

Finally, some participants stated that they had previously been in toxic relationships, or experienced messy break-ups, both of which had considerably worsened their mental illness. This meant they tended to avoid the dating world, fearful that new romantic entanglements might lead to further deterioration in their mental illness.

Implications

Much research indicates that recovery is fostered when people with mental illness obtain and engage in normative social roles, such as gainful employment. Being ‘coupled-up’ is one of the most normative and desirable social roles in western societies. Indeed, in our research study, the vast majority of participants with mental illness stated a strong desire for a meaningful and satisfying romantic relationship. However few achieved this goal.

While there are many effective ‘supported employment’ interventions for people with mental illness, there is no equivalent ‘supported dating’ intervention. That said, clinicians can explore and support clients’ relationship goals during routine consults (if this is a client priority). Certain evidence-based approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy, lend themselves well to supporting clients in this regard.

Romance and dating are an integral part of our culture, as witnessed by the ever-expanding array of dating apps, which more and more people are using with much merriment and mirth. But people with mental illness often report considerable discrimination in the dating market.

This is another silent stigma that must be addressed.