Dating with Chronic Illness and Disability

Starting a new relationship means navigating uncharted territory, and you know this is particularly true if you live with chronic illness.

That’s why when a recent New York Times article suggested that it is OK to leave someone just because of their health condition went viral on social media, many people (including medical professionals) were understandably upset.

“The article really lost the opportunity to make the point that you are a person who has an illness — but you are not your illness,” says Laurie Ferguson, PhD, a clinical psychologist and vice president of research and education for the Global Healthy Living Foundation. “Really, the larger questions in a relationship are: Who is this person? What are they like? What is the relationship like?”

What’s more, you’re probably not the first person in your partner’s life who has had a chronic illness.

“More than 40 percent of younger adults have some sort of chronic illness, and as we get older, that number closes in on 100 percent,” says Kim Gorgens, PhD, clinical professor and director of continuing education at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver.

Deciding when to talk about your chronic illness with a new partner can be a difficult decision in and of itself, but you shouldn’t feel pressured to disclose it until you feel comfortable. While some people are more at ease talking about their condition immediately, others find it to be a more private matter that they only share with those they trust fully.

“In the initial stages, depending on how much your illness impacts your daily life, you can wait until you feel like the relationship is a go,” says Dr. Ferguson. “It’s like anything else about us that we consider private, like a previous relationship or finances. There is no reason to feel like everything has to be on the table your first couple dates or even months of dating.”

In other words, when you open up to your partner about your chronic illness is an individual decision, and there’s no one right time to do so.

How to Start the Conversation

If it is difficult for you to explain your chronic illness, take notes with bullet points about what you’re going to say to your partner, and bring those notes to the conversation.

“Get clear with yourself about what you want to say and how much you want to say, and bring those notes along, because it’s a serious and meaningful conversation,” says Dr. Ferguson.

You may also opt to write a letter to your partner if you find writing your thoughts comes more naturally than saying them out loud. You could share your history through photographs or even medical records if you feel comfortable doing so.

“That conversation is about saying here’s what I know about my physical health, here’s what you need to know, and here’s how it might impact the relationship,” says Dr. Gorgens.

The Signs a New Partner Is a Keeper

How your partner responds will tell you a lot about your relationship and their character. As the conversation evolves, ask yourself:

  • Is my partner listening intently?
  • Are they showing a sense of empathy?
  • Are they curious about how this affects my life?
  • Are they letting me share my story fully?

These are all good signs that your partner is willing to learn about your chronic illness and support you. Ideally, your partner will be interested in continuing the conversation, but also give you the opportunity to say what you need to.

“I think often people who can give you the space and hold your story without being quick to insert their own reactions and judgment are pretty good people,” says Katie Willard Virant, LCSW, a psychotherapist in St. Louis who treats many patients with chronic illness and has Crohn’s disease herself.

When explaining your condition, using the “spoon theory” may be helpful. This is a metaphor that uses spoons to explain how much energy is expended throughout your day when you have a chronic illness that causes fatigue. So, you might explain to your partner that you start the day with 12 spoons. However, getting out of bed takes one spoon and showering takes two spoons — and if you’re sick or forget to take your medications, you lose even more spoons.

“It helps a person understand that living with illness is always about how much energy you have or don’t have, and that’s dependent on a number of things,” says Dr. Ferguson. “I think it’s one of the most illustrative and concrete ways you can talk about it.”

Red Flags to Watch For

On the other hand, there are some red flags that may indicate your partner might not be as supportive as you need. Of course, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all list, but some warning signs may include:

  • Your partner shuts down (either verbally or with their body language) and resists continuing the conversation
  • They downplay your chronic illness or insinuate it is in your head
  • They are quick to complain or ask about how it’ll affect their life
  • They have trouble putting themselves in your shoes

It’s also worth asking your partner questions throughout the conversation, such as what their own experience with illness is — not just personally, but also with their family. Asking about if a relative has fallen ill before, and how their family treated that situation, may give you insight into what their perspective on illness is.

“I think one of the gifts of having chronic illness is that it’s a great witness test, and a great detector for people you want in your life,” says Virant. “If somebody would reject you because you have a chronic illness, I’d say let them go. Find somebody who’s going to appreciate you for who you are.”

Examine Your Own Feelings

These conversations aren’t always easy, but they can reveal quite a bit about both your partner and yourself. If you feel self-conscious or uncomfortable talking about your own chronic illness with a dating partner, it may be worth exploring why that is. Going to therapy or talking to a trusted friend can help.

“If people who live with illness can really work on and untangle their own self-stigma or shame surrounding the illness, everything else unfolds pretty naturally,” says Virant. “It’s important that the person living with illness feels it in their gut on a day to day basis that they are somebody of value and worth, and their illness doesn’t make them any less valuable.”

What’s more, recognize that you’ll bring many enriching aspects to a relationship based on your history with chronic illness.

“I actually find that the relationships of people with a chronic illness are richer, because they’re better at communicating and they set a precedent of being trusting, trustworthy, and open,” says Dr. Gorgens.

Most importantly: Keep in mind that dating involves an entire person — not just one part of you.

“You are not your illness, you’re you,” says Dr. Ferguson. “You have things you love, things you enjoy doing, your dreams, and your history. You are a whole person, and when you think about dating, you think about the whole person showing up.”

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Interview with Katie Willard Virant, LCSW, a psychotherapist in St. Louis, Missouri

Interview with Kim Gorgens, PhD, clinical professor and director of continuing education at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver

Interview with Laurie Ferguson, PhD, clinical psychologist and Vice President of Research and Education for the Global Healthy Living Foundation