You’re on a third date with a girl who seems perfect for you. She makes you happy and seems like a wonderful person, someone who really gets you.
You drop her off at her home. Before she reaches for her keys, she leans in to chat.
“Hey, would you want to go to this party with me next week?” she asks. “I was thinking you could meet my friends.”
Suddenly the good mood and giddy feelings are gone. The thought of interacting with a horde of potentially judgmental strangers fills you with dread. Anxiety surges through your body until the stress is visible. She sees the disturbed expression on your suddenly sweaty face and can tell something is wrong.
What do you do? Is now the time to tell her you have social anxiety? If so, what should you say?
You are far from the only person who experiences this dilemma. About 15 million American adults have social anxiety disorder. The mental health condition inevitably impacts their dating lives and relationships.
It can be difficult to know when and how to disclose social anxiety while dating. Nonetheless, it’s always better to say something. If you don’t tell potential partners about social phobias regarding certain situations, they might assume you don’t want to spend time together or become closer. There is also a risk of them thinking you have no interest in meeting important people in their lives. The decision to withhold this part of yourself for too long can stunt the growth of a healthy, promising relationship.
The conversation about social anxiety doesn’t need to be a detriment to your dating life. To provide the best advice on how to prepare and decide when to raise the issue, we consulted several therapists who coached clients with anxiety disorders while they dated. Use their advice and tips to decide when and how to bring up your social anxiety during those initial dates.
Don’t Bring It Up on the First Date
The first date usually isn’t the best time to talk about mental illness. Your date is still getting to know you as a person. Raising the issue too early might present social anxiety as a bigger part of your identity than it actually is.
The exception to this suggestion is if your date discloses a mental health condition on the first outing. If you are comfortable with this level of openness and want to reciprocate, talking about your own mental health challenges could show empathy and help you bond. Don’t feel pressured to, though. Even if your date has opened up, it’s OK to wait.
To reduce the likelihood of social anxiety coming up on the first meeting, plan a simple outing that only involves you and your date. Dinner and a movie may be cliche, but the option has little risk of triggering anxiety. Interacting with a few waiters and clerks should be manageable.
Use Context and Gradual Steps to Start the Conversation
Sometimes the conversation about social phobias will arise naturally. If related issues come up, consider using the coincidence as an opportunity to disclose. Here are some examples of situations and topics that might provide an opening:
- Your date notices you acting differently or looking bothered during a social situation
- Your date talks about being shy sometimes
- Your date mentions feeling suffocated at a big event or party
- A story about an awkward social situation comes up
- Your date talks about feeling nervous during certain social interactions
If these topics don’t come up on their own, try using language that moves toward a conversation about social anxiety. Anxiety expert Dr. Friedemann Schaub recommended bringing up shyness, for example, if a date sees avoidant behavior that might otherwise be concerning.
Therapist Asta Klimaite suggested using jokes and compliments to test how dates react to issues around social anxiety. She told one of her clients he could half-jokingly say his date was so beautiful it was making him feel a little socially awkward to be with her.
To venture into the discussion of social anxiety without explicitly mentioning it, therapist L. Gordon Brewer advised clients to talk about how they become nervous when they are around many strangers. People with social anxiety can tell their dates they would initially prefer to spend time as a couple or with friends, Brewer said.
When the Relationship Gets Serious, It’s Time to Chat About Social Anxiety
When your date starts to become a serious romantic partner, it’s time to discuss the role of social anxiety in the relationship. If you haven’t already raised the issue, think about making it an addendum during one of those inevitable relationship conversations: exclusivity, becoming official, what to say on Facebook, etc. After answering a tough question like, “What are we?” talking about social anxiety might seem relatively easy.
How to Figure Out What to Say
There isn’t a standard script for disclosing social anxiety to romantic prospects, but there are some guidelines you can follow. Therapist Ginger Poag encouraged her clients to write down what they wish their partner knew about living with social anxiety. This strategy provided a framework to express feelings and concerns, Poag said.
During therapy sessions, both Poag and Klimaite helped their clients practice for the big conversation. Klimaite prepared clients for negative reactions to ensure they could cope and recover. Consider working with a therapist to receive this training.
Here are some points you should cover in the conversation:
- “If I become avoidant, anxious, or irritable during social events, it’s not because I don’t want to spend time with you.”
- “I might not be able to go to some social outings with you at the beginning of our relationship. Give me time to adjust.”
- “Meeting your friends and family might be difficult for me. Please be patient and understanding.”
Don’t Use Mind-Altering Substances Before the Conversation
Klimaite said many of her clients considered drinking or getting high in hopes that the buzz might help them breeze through difficult conversations. This strategy has a few risks. If you try it, dates might think you don’t care enough about them to be sober and in a state of mind where you can properly listen and be fully present. Too much alcohol can also cause you to make bad decisions and scare romantic prospects away.
By trying to overcome social anxiety without any “liquid courage” — or whatever else — you can work toward making your mental health issues less of a hindrance to your romantic life. Handicaps will only prevent you from growing as a person, and obviously drinking or drugs are some of the worst methods of coping.
Think About Post-Conversation Relief
For some extra motivation, think about how much better you will feel after telling the person you’re into about your social anxiety. Simply knowing you won’t need to have that conversation again will be a huge relief. Opening up about health issues will bring you closer to someone you might have a wonderful future with.