DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I was wondering if I could ask you a question on a potentially sensitive issue; to cut a long story short, I’ve recently been diagnosed with Complex PTSD after experiencing a very troubled and traumatic childhood. Whilst I’ve made a lot of improvements over the last few years thanks to getting professional help and challenging myself to become a better man, the one thing I’ve struggled with the most is with dating. Now there’s a whole lot of reasons for that which I’m working through in therapy, but given that you deal a lot with people writing in for dating advice and as someone who also has experience with mental health issues, I’m interested to hear your views on when it’s appropriate to disclose to a potential partner about mental health issues.
From a personal view, I feel conflicted about when is the best time; not that there may ever really be a ‘best’ time for this discussion in the first place. On one hand, I would like to let somebody know as early as possible so that they are able to make a decision about whether they feel comfortable being in a relationship with someone that needs a lot of support, as well as avoiding the possibility that somebody begins to feel emotionally attached but then feels hurt when they learn that I may not feel emotionally ready to do all the things they want me to do with them. At the same time however, I’m aware that my willingness to be immediately open about having C-PTSD may be interpreted by potential dates as a warning sign that I am not ready to take responsibility for my own well-being and looking for a partner to depend all my happiness on, a sign that I have attachment issues (which in all honesty I have the wonderful combination of being avoidantly attached at first with people, then anxiously attached when I trust them, but is something I’m actively working on and I feel that any relationship will be difficult if I don’t admit that and talk through my fears stemming from never having a secure attachment with anyone) or that it’s a red flag for someone who will use his past misfortunes as a manipulative tactic to try and keep a woman in an unhappy relationship. I’m also mindful that whilst I want to protect others as much as possible, I also need to protect myself and declaring something as personal as having a diagnosis may encourage the advances of abusive people.
So what do you think dude? Should I be waiting for a certain level of emotional intimacy before telling someone? Get it out of the way by making light of my situation and writing an amusing anecdote about it on my dating profiles? Make first dates painfully awkward by introducing myself with “Hi my name is Sandy Ravage and I have C-PTSD. On a scale of 1 – 10, how does this affect my chances of getting in your pants”?
DEAR SANDY RAVAGE: The question of when to disclose… well, anything, when it comes to dating can be a contentious one. Lots of arguments have been had, amongst the advice-giving industry and elsewhere, about timelines and disclosure. This gets especially heated whenever the topic involves an issue with serious social stigma attached to it.
There are a lot of sides to the question – on the one hand, our potential dates and partners deserve the right to make an informed decision about whether they want to date somebody. On the other hand, some issues with significant stigma to them – which could range anywhere from physical to mental health to relationship status – can cause people to see the label and not the person. Putting disclosure off for a couple of dates means that people are more likely to get to know one another as individuals instead of whatever stereotype they have in their heads.
But on the third hand (because this issue was exposed to radioactive waste as a child), finding out later on about potential deal-breaking information could be seen as a violation of trust, especially if they’ve started to invest, emotionally.
So needless to say, there aren’t any easy answers to be had.
Now my personal philosophy is that you should time your disclosure based around how quickly this will become an issue. If the issue involves, say, having herpes or HIV, then it’s information that should be disclosed well before sex, and possibly before even sloppy make-outs. Doing it after the two of you have started to get physical – even if the pants haven’t come off yet – could freak people out. If the issue is one surrounding, say, an open relationship, then I think you have more leeway, especially depending on the nature of the relationship you’re pursuing with the other person. A casual fling makes it somewhat less immediately relevant than if you’re with someone who’s looking for someone to settle down with.
In terms of your mental health? Well… that’s going to be tricky, and much of it will depend on how your CPTSD manifests. If this is something that’s going to affect your relationship with them – whether it’s your attachment pattern, the way you respond to stress or potential emotional triggers – then it’s better to disclose earlier than later. Now, if you’re dating casually and there’s no expectation of things going beyond “we hang out on occasion and have a good time”, then I feel you can put it off. But if this is a relationship with a potential for serious commitment, then it’s better to let them know… especially if you need to be careful about how quickly you get attached to someone.
Regardless: this should be part of the Defining The Relationship talk, if you haven’t disclosed it before then.
But here’s what you shouldn’t do: you shouldn’t roll this out as something shameful or a deep dark secret that you hoped you would never have to share. The fact that you have CPTSD doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, weak or a poor relationship choice; it means that you’ve survived some s
t. You have been through the fires of hell and you’ve got the ashes to prove it. Yeah, you have scars; anyone who’s been through what you’ve experienced would. But the fact that you recognize this, that you are actively getting treatment and working with a therapist and have a solid handle on where you are with your emotional health? Those are all positives. Those are signs that you are someone with their stuff together, who isn’t expecting somebody else to do all the emotional heavy lifting for them. You may have your issues – and hell, so does everyone – but you have actively engaged yours and are doing the work to make things better.
That’s a mark in your favor, as far as I’m concerned.
It may also help to hear from others who’d been there before. Ellen Fornay has an excellent memoir called Marbles about living with a mood disorder, including how she eventually told her partner. Reading her story might give you insight into your own.
So when the time comes, be ready for the Awkward Conversation. Sit down, explain why this is potentially awkward and how you’re concerned they will react. Then explain things clearly and calmly: here’s what happened, here’s why you have your diagnosis, here’s how you’ve been working on it and how you have it under control. Then, give them space. Let them know they can ask questions or share their concerns. And from there, the ball’s in their court.
Maybe they’ll be ok with it. Maybe they’ll decide they need to bail. Either way: their response will tell you everything you need to know. Think of this like your superpower or the Hogwarts Sorting Hat, SR. If they’re not right for you, their response to your telling them will let you know right away.
There will almost certainly be people who will take this as a deal breaker. That may suck, but it’s fine; they’ve shown that they were the wrong people for you and you’re well rid of them. Anyone who’s right for you is going to see this, not as a deal breaker, but as part of what makes you uniquely you.
You’ve got this, SR.
All will be well.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m at a crossroads. One road leads me to a solitude life forgoing any romantic relationships and trying to get back into dating.
Some context: I’m a 27 year old male. I’ve had a few girlfriends. Out of all of them only my last standout, MT and SJ
MT I dated when I was 17. She tried showed me how to love and be loved. I learned valuable life lessons I still carry today. When she left me I lost a lot of my confidence.
SJ I dated when 2 years after MT. I thought I was ready for a new relationship after giving it some time. SJ cheated on me on Christmas day at her mom’s house after she invited me there. I was hurt beyond any physical pain I’ve ever felt. It shattered me. It took me years to eventually pick up the pieces. We talked about it and we are now platonic friends. She tells me she is really sorry about what she did and I accepted it.
I tried thinking about all my relationships and this was my string of logic:
All the women I’ve dated are vastly different.
Most of them eventually left me.
I’m the only common point between these women besides gender.
I must be the problem.
This is pretty much how I arrived at my crossroads. Do I stop dating entirely and focus solely on self improvement and enjoyment or do I leave room open for someone else?
Trying To Make A Choice
DEAR TRYING TO MAKE A CHOICE:
Let me tell you where you’re going wrong, TTMAC: your logic isn’t actually logical. You have a classic case of “right data, wrong conclusion”. You may have all the data, but the fact that you have that data doesn’t mean that you’re drawing the right inference from it all. This isn’t A: God is Love, B: Love is Blind therefore C: Ray Charles is God. This is someone seeing Diogenes running around with a plucked chicken yelling “Behold, a man” and starting a Kentucky Fried Long Pig franchise.
The problem here is that you’ve assumed, like many do, that you’re the center of the universe. That literally everything involving your relationships was about you and only you. There’s no possibility of anything going on in MT or SJ’s lives that had nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. To pick an example: yes, SJ cheated on you. But did she tell you why she did it? Because even if it was a case of “well I’ve decided to hurt him in the worst way I know how,” then that’s not about you. That would be about her being an asshole.
I mean, let’s talk about some of the steps you’re missing in your logic here. Yes, all of the women you’ve dated are vastly different. So too are the relationships you’ve had with them. Each relationship is it’s own story, as unique and special as the person you’re having it with. And each story is going to come with it’s own unique challenges and issues. Why did you and MT break up? Well, call this a hunch but I suspect a lot of it came from the fact that you were both 17. I have known a lot of people in my time, TTMAC, and the number of folks I know who married and lived ever after with their high-school sweethearts can be counted on the fingers of one hand with enough left over to play Destiny with a keyboard and mouse.
And to be perfectly blunt: every relationship you’re in is going to end. Except eventually there will be one that doesn’t. And you have no way of knowing which one it will be until it happens.
But a relationship ending doesn’t mean that you screwed up somehow, or that it was a failure at all. The fact that you didn’t die in the saddle doesn’t mean that it was all worthless or that you’re a horrible, unlovable person. It just means that this story came to its ending. Not every love story is meant to be an epic poem. Some are just meant to be short stories. Some are meant to be dirty limericks.
And not every relationship ends because you screwed up somehow or that you’re flawed. Many relationships are intended to be fleeting things; they’re right for you for that stage of your life. But as you change and grow, you may well outgrow that relationship. That doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong. That doesn’t meant that you’re an unlovable person. It just means that your relationship was meant for that particular stretch of time and it’s time for you to move to your next adventure.
The fact that it ended doesn’t make it a tragedy or a failure. If you can look back at that relationship with fondness, if you can hold on to that core of respect and affection for your ex, even if you’re not together romantically? That’s a success in my book. Hell, even your relationship with SJ strikes me as a success. Yeah, what she did was cruel and it hurt you. But the fact that the two of you have been able to reconcile, make your peace and and be friends again? That’s pretty goddamn impressive, dude.
I get that you’re hurting. I empathize. And you know, it’s not impossible that some of the relationships failed because of things that you did. But that doesn’t mean that you’re a failure or unlovable. It just means that you’re human, same as the rest of us. So instead of deciding that you’re screwed and flawed, do some real soul searching. Find the areas where you can do better and work on those. But also recognize that it’s not always about you. Relationships end… but they’re not the end. They’re not even the beginning of the end.
They’re just the end of a new beginning.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com)