What Dating Is Like When You Have A Mental Illness


I have Asperger’s syndrome, and I’ve always hoped I could find a socially-adept guy to guide me through life. That hasn’t happened. If you have AS or anything else that makes it hard for you to date, you might be able to relate to my story.

I met Will at an Asperger’s support group. The men there (it’s almost all men) provide some of the most intelligent conversations I’ve had since I moved to New York. But a lot of them also exemplify every nasty stereotype the media tells you about us. They’re misogynistic, probably because they can’t get women. They talk over each other all the time. Their favorite insult is that you are not being logical. In contrast, Will is quiet and empathetic. His lack of bombast is respectful and a little bit charming.

Will took me to dinner at my favorite restaurant. He asked me how my day was, what I like to write about. He wanted to know my opinions and he never interrupted. I spent the night with him. But I didn’t see it going anywhere, so I dumped him a week later.

Most guys, especially in NYC, would have just moved on. Like someone from OKCupid said, “we have options here.” A lot of people here conceptualize each other just like we conceptualize ideas for whatever creative field we work in. It’s lonely, and dehumanizing.

Will was totally different. He spent a cumulative 30 hours asking me why I broke up with him. Ruminating is one of the hallmarks of Asperger’s Syndrome. Even so, I was impressed. In a world where people put on a dignified veneer of indifference so as not to inconvenience each other with feelings, Will was transgressive enough to be vulnerable.

I took him back.

It felt great not to have to worry about the usual communication problems. We could say every detail we came up with about something before moving on to the next topic. Other people get annoyed when you derail the flow of conversation that way. Someone at a bar called us “the cutest couple ever” and bought us a round. We both laughed, because that’s the most good-natured way to say “those two awkward people belong together.”

It also felt great to not be judged for underachieving. Will had a nervous breakdown when a popular girl from his class claimed he was stalking her. (She was actually hanging around him to copy his homework. Her boyfriend got jealous.) Will was diagnosed a couple years later and is slowly getting his life back. He’s currently in a job training program for people with Asperger’s. I finished college, but I’ve been fired from at least half the jobs I’ve tried because I couldn’t keep up.

I have had a fairly typical 20-something social life. He hasn’t gotten out much. It started to grate on me. Worse than that, Will and I have nothing in common. I’m an abstract thinker. He’s not. That kind of thing doesn’t seem like a problem right away, but when you and your partner aren’t on the same wavelength, you eventually get more satisfaction from talking to other people than you get from the person who’s supposed to be most important to you.

Will doesn’t think it matters if you have things in common. He says all you need is to be able to balance the other person out. Will’s best friend is an Ivy League-educated architect in his 60s with bipolar disorder. He’s very talented but couldn’t stay stable enough to keep a job. He married a woman who isn’t anywhere near as smart as him. They can’t relate to each other, but she helps him stay grounded. He helps her relax after she comes home from her stressful executive job. He stayed home to raise their daughter. He told Will he didn’t miss the dynamic conversations he had with other women because he and his wife complemented each other so well.

I wanted to love Will. But I didn’t want to give up on finding someone I loved more.

If you have a mental illness, you probably know what it’s like to have to hold yourself back in relationships. My friend has an anxiety disorder, and her partner pawns her off on a shrink because he doesn’t have the patience to listen to her. As for me, a lot of people haven’t wanted to deal with my obsessive nature, rigid thinking, and slow information processing speed. It hurts my feelings, but I don’t hold it against them.

I usually end up dating other people with problems. I’ve had two boyfriends with bipolar disorder. We connected very well because both disorders make the world look very large and exciting. People with AS are perpetually surprised because we’re not good at inferring social things by connecting the details. People with bipolar disorder tend to feel things more intensely. A lot of them also have pretty good social skills. But my partners weren’t in control of the manic-depressive cycling and I couldn’t deal with it.

I even dated a guy with Asperger’s who was slightly less awkward than me. I’m pretty sure he dumped me because he wanted a socially adept person to guide him through life. It’s tough out there. People don’t want to be stuck with someone crazier than they are.

Right now I’m going to fight to find someone I’m wildly in love with. But in five or ten years, maybe I’ll be tired of failing people’s expectations and my checklist will be a little more forgiving.

I’ve heard that love is finding someone to put up with your shit. Put that way it sure as hell isn’t romantic. But that delicate balance of supporting each other’s dreams while also keeping each other grounded? Being able to be completely yourself around your partner every day? For many people, that’s enough.

featured image – Lulu Lovering