Dating while anxious: How you can protect your heart in a positive way
One of the best ways to achieve self-growth is by choosing to be with others.
It’s no secret that putting yourself out there romantically comes with the risk of getting hurt. Sometimes, that hurdle can get in the way of pursuing a person you care about. And other times, that hurdle can be even more arduous if you’re struggling with mental health.
Having an anxiety disorder can make it tricky to pursue relationships because of the exacerbated fear of being judged. That’s why, in part, dating apps have been embraced by the socially anxious. They provide a greater sense of control, comfort, and safety than the meatspace. But feeling comfortable on an app doesn’t mean you’re actually going to go on a date, and there’s currently no data that shows how many anxious people turn their virtual conversations into in-person ones.
What is understood is that allowing oneself to be open to pursuing positive, romantic relationships can be something that’s good for you — if you’re at a place where taking that action means adding something to your life, not making it.
“If a person is still unsure about who they are or has a hard time defining themselves, seeking out a new relationship can be threatening because new partners may end up redefining one’s sense of self in ways one may find unsettling,” Gary Lewandowski Jr., Ph.D., tells me.
But he also notes: “If we’re certain about who we are, adding new elements and seeking ways to grow is exhilarating, and we know from our expansion research that relationships are the best way to achieve self-growth.”
"We know from our expansion research that relationships are the best way to achieve self-growth.”
Lewandowski is a professor at Monmouth University who studies social psychology with an emphasis on close romantic relationships. His primary research topic is the role of self in romantic relationships and how that’s affected throughout the relationship process. He posits that, while self-expansion can certainly happen outside of a relational context, close relationships do become a part of the self. This happens for better or for worse. New relationships often come with a “rapid expansion of the self,” while the death of a spouse is often linked to a “rapid ‘de-expansion’ of the self.”
He notes that, when it comes to wanting to protect yourself going into a relationship, the concepts of self-conservation and self-expansion are not mutually exclusive. We can do both — although the data does show that self-expansion is more predictive of well-being. Lewandowski also says that wanting to protect oneself doesn’t have to be the same thing as being closed off to new experiences. Instead, protecting and respecting the self is akin to being authentic and true to who you are. And, in some cases, being true to yourself means sharing who you are with a partner — without fear of consequences for the self.
“It is generally true that open communication helps strengthen relationships,” Lewandowski says. “In this case, I think that to the extent that you are comfortable disclosing, letting potential partners know about struggles let’s them know who you are.
“Having partners who see us as we see ourselves is extremely helpful.”
In an article on dating with anxiety, professional counselor Kathleen Smith, Ph.D., makes a similar point: It’s better to discuss what causes you to feel anxious with partners or potential partners than avoid the topic altogether. She also points out that examining why you feel the way you do, alongside making sure you spend your time thinking about much more than your dating life, are positive ways to manage anxiety in a romantic context.
Studies indicate that improving relationships improves mental health, but improving mental health does not reliably improve relationships. There’s a number of ways to interpret that, but I offer this: Whether it’s romantic love or not, choosing to make a human connection with someone is a brave thing that can do you a lot of good. The people that are worthy of your time will be accepting of you as you are, regardless of your struggle. Choose to be good to yourself because you are worthy of that — and if that choice is made in the company of others, all the better.