As we all continue to get back into “social shape” these days, it’s easier for some people than others. You may be back to your old ways and meet someone who’s not — and you get curious about how to date someone with social anxiety. After all, you’ve been in dating hibernation for more than a year-and-a-half and want to get back out there: You’re all vaxxed up, connect with someone on a dating app, and decide to meet “soon.” Dating app chats turn to texts, then phone calls and video chats. The time comes to meet in person, but your date-to-be hesitates. Is it due to anxiety around pandemic dating? Social anxiety? Both?
Both is definitely possible. According to the Mayo Clinic, social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a chronic mental health condition — characterized by fear and anxiety — that leads to avoiding social situations and disrupting one’s life. And a 2021 study published in Psychiatry Research found that social anxiety symptoms and loneliness increased after the last couple years of isolation. So what’s a dater to do when you and your match — either a partner-to-be or an existing one — have different comfort levels when it comes to being out and about?
“Nowadays, many people who have never considered themselves socially phobic are experiencing a lot of anxiety,” Andrea Wachter, licensed marriage and family therapist tells TZR in an email. "Clear communication, respect, and honoring each other’s needs and boundaries are more important than ever. When respectful communication and compromise are the foundation, creative solutions appear.” If one person has the desire to socialize but their partner is more anxious, they can make some agreements, she explains. Perhaps one of them goes out and agrees to wear a mask, or they both go out and change the plan to an outdoor setting.
Ellen Hendriksen Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, echoes Wachter’s sentiment. “The key is to communicate and make both people’s fears and values clear,” she says to TZR. “Social anxiety is changeable, assuming the person wants to work on it.” Ahead, Hendriksen and other mental health experts give advice on how to go about dating someone with social anxiety so that both of your social needs are met.
First, Understand What Social Anxiety Means
Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York City neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind, says a big way to help your socially anxious partner is to educate yourself about what social anxiety is. “You might have many misconceptions and think it means someone is a ‘loner’ or anti-social — and that is not the case,” she tells TZR in an email. “Those with social anxiety can be extremely friendly, fun-loving, warm, and compassionate. In order for these traits to come out, they need to feel they are in a ‘safe’ environment, typically where they don’t feel judged or intimidated.” People with social anxiety have it in different degrees and thresholds for situations that bring about anxiety range from person to person, she adds.
Assess Your Partner’s Comfort Level
Hafeez says that if you are in a solid relationship, don’t wait until party invitations come in to discuss what you are going to do as a couple, especially around the holidays when there are typically more events to attend. The socially anxious person should explain the kind of situations that are uncomfortable, she says. While it’s important to ask them questions, don’t do so in a way that feels like an interrogation; rather, to understand what people, places, or things trigger the social anxiety. That way, you’ll not unknowingly put them in circumstances that will be triggering. “Then, ask what situations will be tolerable with support from you — and what that support means,” she says. For example, if you have an office holiday party and they decide to go along, you could help coach them through it and stay close to them at the event. Other times, they may prefer to stay home while you go solo.
Taking this a step further, Hendriksen suggests asking your partner how a certain event — like a dinner or that holiday party — would feel on a scale of 0 to 100. She says although you may feel the party’s not a big deal, your partner could feel it’s a “90” on their comfort scale. “Start closer to events in their 20s and 30s and do those until you both feel more comfortable,” she explains. “If your partner rates something as a ‘50’ or ‘70,’ maybe they’ll push themselves to face their fears and attend if they know it’s important to you.” Plus, if they attended a similar event with you in the past and enjoyed themselves once their initial anxiety dissipated, you can remind them of that, she adds. “Gently nudge and support the person with social anxiety to grow, stretch, and change, but do not force them to do something they are not ready to do.”
Make Sure To Take Things Slow And Start Small
Piggybacking on the above, Hafeez says that gradually you can help get the socially anxious person out of their comfort zone in baby steps. “This way, they will continue to gain confidence and get more comfortable in previously anxiety-provoking scenarios,” she says. “Clinically, this is known as exposure therapy.”
Psychotherapist Carolyn Cole agrees. “Taking things slow will feel more comfortable for someone who may be anxious about socializing,” she tells TZR in an email. And if you’re going out with someone for the first time, in the past, you may have met at a social place, such as a coffee shop, bar, or restaurant, she says. But now, it may be going for a walk or having a date somewhere outdoors where you can social distance or be alone. “The person who’s more comfortable, socially, will need to cater to the more anxious one in this instance, but hopefully both parties will be happy with the dating location,” Cole explains. “You are still meeting and getting to know one another; it may just be in a less traditional way.”
Help Your Partner, But Make Sure To Compromise, Too
Hendriksen says it’s important to help your significant other (or person you’re seeing), but with a caveat. “It ultimately comes down to communication,” she says. “If you are really committed to making the relationship work and are willing to learn about social anxiety — by reading a book or an article about it — do so. Or perhaps even have a joint therapy session.” In any case, it’s important for the two of you to take a collaborative approach and for it to be a partnership and not turn it into an expert-student dynamic, she explains. Sometimes, this may mean you agree on the more social person going to events alone or whatever they need to do to feed their social soul. “But it’s important that the other person makes an effort, too,” says Hendriksen. “Each couple can come up with a system that works for them — maybe you’ll alternate who gets to choose.” If you want to meet with a core group of friends, for example, perhaps your socially anxious partner will agree — but if it’ll be a night of strangers or coworkers, they’ll sit that one out. “There is no one right way to do it,” adds Hendriksen. “But the key is to communicate and come as close to meeting everyone’s needs as you can.”
Cole, too, says compromising is important so both people get their needs met, and that different things may work for different couples. “For example, there may be an agreement on going out, but not being out as long as the social person may like,” she explains. “In this instance, the anxious person is agreeing to do something social — even though they may prefer to be at home — and the social person is agreeing to be out for perhaps two hours rather than four. There can also be an arrangement set up of how the socially anxious person will communicate with their social partner when doing something out together to indicate discomfort or a readiness to go home.”
And Hafeez says to keep in mind that, “ultimately, compromise will be needed, but that is part of any good relationship, whether a partner has social anxiety or not. There are many reasons in a relationship why one partner cannot attend all social functions.”
Practice Patience And Note If It Turns Into Resentment
When two people have different socializing preferences, it will require patience on both their parts. However, Hendriksen says to pay attention and see if, underneath the patience, there is some resentment. Perhaps the more social person feels they are missing out or not getting their needs met and realizes they’re being passive-aggressive. In that case, more communication likely needs to happen. “Be patient, but pay attention to little red flags and the cause of your patience wearing thin,” she says.
Show Compassion And Empathy
Cole feels that being empathetic is a crucial component when dating someone with social anxiety. “They want to feel loved, cared for, and understood by their partner,” she says. “When social anxiety kicks in, it’s the anxiety you're seeing that’s rearing its head — it's not something the person is choosing to experience nor feels good about. The more empathy that can be shown, the better it will be for the relationship.”
And if you are out on a date with someone new — whether you are interested or not — and you sense social discomfort on their end, putting the other person at ease is the kind thing to do, Hafeez explains. You can do this by making a self-deprecating comment, she says, like “First dates make me nervous.” In essence, she suggests doing what you can to take the other person out of their anxious state.
Remember, Opposites Attract
In many relationships, opposites do attract and you can be compatible even if you initially think it’s not possible. “You can have a neatnik and a hoarder, the life of the party and an introvert,” Hafeez says. “People with social anxiety often feel comfortable with those they know very well, such as a romantic partner, close friends, or family. [The difference is that] they have more anxiety going into ‘unknown’ situations, like a cocktail party of strangers, a networking event, or any place where they feel they mighty be ‘judged’ by people unknown to them.” She says to remember that people who have social anxiety often want to be social — they simply have anxiety doing so in certain situations. She adds that “everyone has an ‘Achilles heel’ in life, and social anxiety is simply one manifestation.”