What it’s like to date with anxiety, OCD, and depression

Illustrator: Jesse Zhang

Mental Health Awareness Month may be drawing to a close, but life with a mental health condition goes on even after the hashtags fade away.

For a window into their worlds, we asked three of our writers to share their candid experiences and insights on what it’s like to live—and date—while navigating mental health challenges. Hear what Deena Cohen has to say on dating with anxiety, Stephanie Watson on dating with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and Michelle Sabato on dating with depression.

Dating with Anxiety

What are some of the misconceptions or myths about dating someone with anxiety? 

Deena: One misconception is that anxiety is social. I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, so my anxiety typically stems from internal thoughts. In fact, socializing can often distract me from my anxiety and calm me down. Of course, I often get nervous before meeting my boyfriend’s friends or family members, but these are just the usual nerves anyone might get before meeting their partner’s loved ones.

What do you wish others knew about living with anxiety? What would help potential partners understand you better? 

Deena: One thing I wish people knew about living with anxiety is how physical the effects can be. Some of the smallest triggers (like waking up to a loud noise) can affect my breathing and heart rate for the entire day. My anxiety can also cause physical pain, like stomachaches and headaches. I’ve even had to go to the hospital on more than one occasion for pain caused by anxiety.

Partners can provide support by validating you. Sometimes, if I know that a certain pain is just being caused by anxiety, I don’t treat it as valid as, say, an injury from working out. My boyfriend often reminds me that it’s okay to take medicine and treat it as a valid pain, no matter the cause.

Partners can also help by checking in to ask how you’re feeling, and helping you with whatever works to ease some anxiety—whether that’s counting down as you do a breathing exercise, sharing a long hug, or giving you some personal space.

If you’ve been to therapy, how has that helped you improve your relationships through this lens? 

Deena: Going to therapy over the past few years has helped me in many ways. When I started dating, I had trouble giving myself agency and allowing myself to judge my date; instead, I was always preoccupied with what my date thought of me. Through therapy, I’ve been able to clarify what I’m looking for in a relationship and give myself permission to assess my date.

Another thing I’ve learned is that everyone has their own life and relationship experiences that inform how they act, and this isn’t a reflection on you–even if, like me, you tend to blame yourself for any and all things. The more time you spend with someone, the more you can understand them, and you can also share the experiences that affect who you are today. Although these conversations can be difficult, they can strengthen your mutual understanding and teach you how to care for each other.

Anything else you would like to add?

Deena: Just recently, I had the unfortunate experience of completing my graduate school finals while going off of my anxiety medication for the first time in five years (due to a prescription delay). Over a month in advance, I’d booked a nice dinner for myself and my boyfriend for the day after finals, thinking it would be a welcome respite from my hard work. On the day of the reservation, however, my anxiety peaked as I realized how much of the rest of my life had—literally and metaphorically—piled up while I’d focused on finals. I had work and bills to straighten out, and my room looked like a hurricane had passed through it.

As I scrambled to catch up, I could feel my anxiety build. In the midst of my running around, I even mistook eardrops for eye drops and managed to burn my left eye! But I’d committed to these plans and was determined to show up. At dinner, I couldn’t hide how burnt out and worried I was; all I wanted to do was go home and clean up the physical representation of my anxiety that was crowding my room. My boyfriend immediately picked up on this, and, of course, my anxiety convinced me that he would get annoyed with me. In reality, he was just concerned about my well-being and wanted to help me take care of everything.

We went home, and he helped me clean up and assured me that I could have just told him how I was feeling and canceled the dinner. But, of course, my anxiety had tricked me into thinking that I had no other choice.

This entire ordeal was a reminder that, in a healthy relationship, it’s okay to put your mental health first. A supportive partner will understand and would prefer for you to genuinely feel better than to put on a brave face for them.

Deena Cohen is Keepler’s social media intern. She graduated from Barnard College of Columbia University with a BA in sociology, and is now pursuing her master’s in media and communication at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Dating with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

What are some of the misconceptions or myths about dating someone with OCD?

Stephanie: That we’re “difficult.” I’m not saying life with OCD is easy, but [seeing] the way it’s shown in the media, you’d think we were in zero control of our lives. Dating someone with OCD means exactly the same thing as dating someone without it: you respect their boundaries, fears, desires, dislikes, opinions, all that jazz. If you’ve dated someone with anxiety, depression, or even a broken leg, you know there are ways to be sensitive to someone’s pain or irritation. With OCD, it’s mostly about making sure you’re not triggering them, and if you do so accidentally, then make sure you’re there to help them feel better, rather than get defensive.

My partner knows there are certain things I don’t feel comfortable doing, so he doesn’t urge me to do them unless I’ve specifically told him I’m doing some at-home exposure therapy. For example, for a while, I was disgusted by dust [due to] my germophobia. I could feel it on my skin even after several hand washes. So when it was time to clean, he took over dusting and I did the dishes instead. He was there to help, to reassure me, and to take over when it got too much. He didn’t coddle me, but he didn’t force me.

By talking to your partner or date about your boundaries and fears, you can work with them to meet a good middle ground.

What do you wish others knew about living with OCD? What would help potential partners understand you better?

Stephanie: First and foremost, everyone experiences OCD differently. Some have very severe symptoms that impact every corner of their lives, and others have less evident symptoms. You may not even notice someone has OCD if they have Pure O, a form of OCD that mostly revolves around intrusive thoughts rather than rituals. Some of us have Tourettic OCD where our symptoms manifest in a very physical and sometimes loud way (i.e. tics like tongue clicking until “just right”). Some of us fit the stereotype of what Hollywood thinks of OCD with obsessive hand-washing or turning the light switch on and off over and over, and that’s okay.

People also need to understand that our OCD is not a personal attack on our partners. If there’s anything we can’t do (as sex repulsion and OCD sometimes go hand in hand) or something we have to do [out of compulsion], it’s not out of disgust or irritation.

If you’ve been to therapy, how has that helped you improve your relationships through this lens?

Stephanie: Therapy (specifically CBT for OCD and generalized anxiety) has helped me immeasurably. It helped me understand that the disorder isn’t a burden on my relationships, nor is it something that I should allow to compromise my partner’s feelings.

Therapy will be different for everyone. You may not hit the nail on the head your first time, but after practice, you can apply what you’ve learned to both your relationships and your mental health. In CBT, there’s a thought exercise that deals with “mind reading.” (If you’ve ever ruminated on how “everyone hates you,” then you’ve likely engaged in mind reading.) This cognitive exercise is very helpful in avoiding worries like, “My date won’t show up,” or “My partner is mad at me,” when you have no proof to back them up. Therapy is wonderful because you can do all this in a safe setting with a confidant, but always keep in mind you can do it at home too with online resources.

Anything else you would like to add?

Stephanie: I often joke about my OCD in order to deal with it. I try to keep a good balance between being casual and taking it seriously. Let’s face it, it may be a part of who I am, but it stresses me the hell out. There’s only so much serious I can take. I believe I’m allowed to say things like, “That really messes with my OCD, LOL,” without someone coming out of the shadows to say, “Actually, OCD isn’t an adjective, it’s not a joke, it’s serious,” assuming that I don’t actually suffer from it. Don’t let possible partners gatekeep how you deal with your mental health.

Stephanie Watson is a freelance blogger and copywriter from Scotland, as well as the co-founder of the feminist website Fembot Magazine. 

Dating with Depression

What are some of the misconceptions or myths about dating someone with depression?

Michelle: Misconceptions regarding depression run rampant throughout our society. We hear the word “depression” and immediately think of someone crying alone in a room or a cartoon rain cloud following someone wherever they go. Depression is quite sneaky and can present itself in vast ways.

I didn’t respond to a text from a guy I was talking to for four whole days. Did I forget he texted? No. But my depression told me that there was no use in responding because I wasn’t good enough to be speaking to him in the first place. No rain cloud. No crying in a corner. Just a lack of response due to horrible self-image issues.

One day in college, I overheard someone on the soccer team talking about his girlfriend of six months. He talked about his girlfriend’s depression and how it was upsetting him that he couldn’t help her. In a cocky tone, his friend said, “You’re a better guy than I am because I would have been out a long time ago.” (I may or may not have had to forcibly stop myself from throwing something at him.) But I did take note that a lot of times we see the non-depressed partner in the relationship in some heroic light, or we assume that they will take on a caretaker role.

Are there people who do take on a caretaker role for a loved one with depression? Absolutely. But is that the expectation? Absolutely not.

What do you wish others knew about living with depression? What would help potential partners understand you better?

Michelle: Living with depression is like having an annoying critic talking to you at all hours of the day. Think of any normal mistake, like making a typo in a work email. A person without depression might say, “Darn, I should have taken a second to proofread before sending.” A depressed brain would say, “See, you don’t even deserve this job if you can’t type an email correctly. You’re probably going to get fired.” That annoying girlfriend thing about always thinking you’re going to leave isn’t a “clingy” tick. It’s my depression telling me that you are going to leave because I’m not good enough.

Other images often associated with depression are sluggishness or indifference. While I have certainly had those feelings at times, I find that my depression has actually caused me to be hyper-aware and attentive with my partners. Tell me about your aunt’s pasta, I will remember it. The way your face lit up while watching that one scene from that movie, I will remember it. My depression will let me overcompensate with you, but won’t make it easy to take care of my own needs.

If you’ve been to therapy, how has that helped you improve your relationships through this lens?

Michelle: Therapy forces you to hold a mirror up to yourself and reveal the fallacies that depression often tells you. It’s hard to live with such a negative self-image, and it’s even harder to unlearn those tendencies. Being in therapy helped me walk away from having so many knee-jerk reactions and gave me the tools to take the time to process my emotions before speaking.

Talking to a therapist and journaling allow you to see your irrational thoughts and patterns subjectively. I once said to my therapist, “There’s no use in dating because all of the guys leave.” My therapist said, “Didn’t you dump the last guy you dated?” She was right. It was an oversight on my part that allowed me to weave a tale of hopelessness that I wasn’t worthy enough to have someone stay in my life. Depression is the ultimate poet, in that regard.

Anything else you want to add?

Michelle: It’s important to note that there are varying levels of depression. Some people have deep-rooted trauma that causes their depression while others have mild forms of depression due to life changes like job loss. Some people can manage their depression with exercise while others need years to build up skills of coping. Depression is not a one-size-fits-all, and it’s not always doom and gloom.

That would be the most important thing to stress to a partner – depression journeys are distinctly individual experiences.

—Michelle Sabato is a writer, voice-over artist, and actor from Cleveland, Ohio. She has written five independent films, three of which deal with mental health. After being diagnosed with anxiety and depression at 15 years old, Michelle has made it her mission to speak out about her struggles to help end the stigma of mental health. 

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