I’ve been getting many emails from men and women who say they are dating and/or are in love with someone struggling with panic attacks and/or with depression and having a really hard time making it work. The men and women in these relationships say they are in love and that the person they are dating is really an amazing person but still they are finding it hard to handle the getting close then pulling away that is characteristic of these relationships.
Why are these relationships more challenging than others?
It is hard to find the RIGHT person to fall in love with and even harder to make any relationship work. But there are even more challenges dating someone struggling with emotional related outcomes such as anxiety and depression. The challenges include: the anxious and depressed person being preoccupied and fearful that the relationship will not work, over-sensitivity to your words and actions, extreme mood swings which lead to unresolved fights and anger. Communication is almost impossible since the person prefers not to talk about compounding problems. Many of these relationships follow the highs and lows of the depressive’s states, sometimes with frequent breaking up and making up within a very short period of time.
Do these relationships have a chance? YES. I’ve seen it work so many times. It’s not easy, but these kinds of relationships do work:
1. If the person suffering has faced up or is willing to face up to their struggle with anxiety and depression, and has sought or is willing to seek professional help.
Most people with this problem are pretty good at hiding it from most people because they don’t want others to see them as fragile or vulnerable. If you suspect that there is an underlying emotional problem, and want to encourage him or her to seek help, bring it up in a gentle and friendly way. Something like: “You don’t seem to have energy. Do you feel OK? Why don’t you get checked out?”.
2. You understand what you are dealing with.
As hard as it is, if you love him or her, you have to learn as much if not more about this condition. You should do all you can to understand what you are up against and to be involved in his or struggle so that you can understand what is happening. This will make it easier to handle problems in your relationship.
3. You can tell when the relationship is plain toxic and unfulfilling, and when it’s the anxiety and depression that you are dealing with.
The nature of the chemical imbalances that result in anxiety and depression mood disorders is that often the person gets overwhelmed when he or she feels that he or she is trying to do too much or expected to do too much. At times like this, they feel that they are better off on their own because they don’t feel the pressures to be a certain way or perform. Times like this it’s easy to think the person is just selfish – which is what it appears like most of the time.
Teach yourself to read his or her moods. Get into the rhythm of the illness. In the beginning this can be hard because you have to kind of learn how to tell their moods by the way they talk and their body language, the hours and some times days when the moods start to get intense, for example when he or she begins to lash out, pulls away, gets angry, feels tired and when he or she is extra jovial, high energy, working lots, finishing lots of projects etc. Sometimes working with a professional in the beginning can make it easier to get into his or her mood rhythm.
4. You know and have accepted that he or she is prone to perceptual distortions and will have a tendency of over analyzing your relationship and finding reasons why the two of you shouldn’t be together.
Most people with this problem have had a number of dating and relationship failures in their lifetime and are more likely than not to be obsessed with past failures. Their obsession with past failures often leads them to be in constant search for some type of flaw or weakness in the relationship. Doubt and discontentment are consequence of this over vigilance.
When you find yourselves getting into big arguments, often over things you don’t even know what you did, it is important to remember the love and not take the moods or things they said seriously. If he or she gets unreasonably annoyed with you, let that not get to you. This can be a tough one – balancing how much you can take and when to stand up for yourself. The general guide is to always keep in mind that you are not responsible for his or her depression.
5. You are okay with the fact that from time to time he or she will distance him or herself from you, won’t call and take your calls or answer your emails.
Most people with this problem are almost scared of someone caring for them. They are afraid that you will not be able to handle their problem, and often feel (and even say) that they do not deserve you and that you are better of with someone else.
When he or she distances, you’ve got to find a way to get him or her to talk and take all the pressure off him or her. Don’t let them drive you away now that you know about what their going through. In the end they need your love. The real challenge in getting him or her to talk is that the usual communication skills that work with most other people may not be enough. Direct questions may be misconstrued as confrontation, questioning his or her every move or not understanding his or her struggles. This will often be met with “I don’t know” or dead silence. Giving advice can come across as “judging” or “pitying” which is the last thing he or she wants. And trying to “cheer them up” is a waste of time.
Unless you are a well trained professional or have had this illness yourself (by the way not all people experience it the same way), you can’t truly understand what the person is going through. The approach I use with my clients who are finding it hard to date and have relationships because of their struggle with anxiety and depression is what I call the “Help me understand you” approach. Let them open up themselves and don’t pressure them instead be patient and you may just be what he or she needs at the time.
Just as getting him or her to talk is important, it is also important to know when to back off and give him or her the space he or she needs. When backing off, be sure to let them know they have the security of your love to come to when they need it. If you find yourself at the edge of your own rope find someway to break free for awhile and re-energize.
Don’t write someone off just because they struggle with anxiety and/or depression -which is so easy in this culture obsessed with “perfection”. Dating someone struggling with panic attacks and depression is a long and hard road but it can also be a useful experience for learning to love unconditionally. If the two of you can work together, you’ll come to appreciate the creativity that dealing with this illness involves.
Caution: Look out for early warning signs that your dating relationship is potentially dangerous; you are afraid of his or her temper and anger, you become isolated and have few friends, you are always walking on eggshells because you are afraid of “upsetting” him or her, or he or she threatens you with suicide or other violence if you leave.