Dating & Chronic Illness: How to Navigate Questions

white rose on black background text: dating and chronic illness how to navigate questions

Dating can be a nerve-wracking, exciting, love-fuelled adventure in itself. Add in chronic health challenges, disability or past trauma and an adventure can become a pressure-cooker.

Today, we are going to address a common concern for many people dating while living with illness et al, sharing your story…

How often do you have conversations that start like this?

“Hi, I’m Jo and I have osteoarthritis.”

And I aaaalways want to reply:

“Hello Jo, how do you do? I’m Grace and I am not your rheumatologist.

Am I being a meanie? Maybe. I’m guilty too as I’ve totally done this myself.

But you don’t have to introduce your illness you first meet someone new.

I know it’s important to you, but, speaking for myself, when we first meet, I’m not most interested about the finer details of your illnesses…What I am interested in is you.

Your illness is a big deal – but you are a bigger deal.

Sometimes we are so conscious of our impairments that we feel the need to explain them to anyone (and everyone) just to avoid their wondering stares and all those heinously embarrassing questions. I get it, it’s trying to make the other person more comfortable, but too often it elevates your health condition to a status it doesn’t deserve.

Your health challenges may be a part of you, but they aren’t the whole of you. 

In a dating situation when do you share about your illnesses, if they are invisible disabilities? Or when do you invite questions or share information if they are visible? On a dating profile? By email/text before you meet? After the first date? When it becomes a pragmatic need to share re. meds/accessibility?

It is a tough call.

My belief? They are dating to get to know you, not your conditions. As long as they know enough to not invite you to tap dancing if you can’t move your legs – that will do for a first date.

If you are anything like me, your medical situation is too complex to be summed up in a single, easy to understand explanation. So telling all on a first meeting would actually take up most of the first meeting!


The third wheel

When you are chronically ill/disabled/dealing with grief or another life crisis then your pain can always feel like the third wheel at any dinner table.

Potential new friends (or partners) don’t know how to manage – do they ignore it? Talk around it? Ask bluntly? Try to comfort you?

I know it can seem obvious to us that pity should be off the agenda and pragmatism needs to be the order of the day but for those outside our struggle, it can feel like a minefield.

So what can people say? How do you help your potential partner to relax on your date?

  1. Encourage them to talk about whatever they would if you weren’t ill – we are having conversations with people, not impairments.
  2. Try to ask “how are things going?” instead of “how are you?”. Hopefully, they will return the question to you and then you get to answer a question directed at your life-and-times overall rather than one specifically related to health.
  3. Make your needs clear, be matter of fact and others will likely take their cues from you and downplay everything along with you. If you need to use the bathroom, change your catheter or take a pain pill, just say ‘excuse me’, explain as much as you like and do it. Chances are they will just be ok with the situation because you are.
  4. Be clear with your cues. If you don’t want to speak about a certain topic – change it. There are lots of recognised social cues we can use here…

“It’s a long story”

“There’s nothing more boring than talking illness, death or money at dinner! Let’s lighten the subject”

“That’s a conversation for another time”

“I don’t feel like going into that right now, but I would like to ask…”

“That’s something I’m working on”

“I don’t want to go into details tonight, but I’d love to hear more about..”

“Why do you ask?”


Shifting Focus

Some people however just don’t take the hint – a woman in my yoga class recently came up to me to ask,

“Are you in pain all the time?”

Yes, thanks for bringing that up, thinking about that improves my yoga experience no end.

Of course, I actually said, “Yes, but we focus on what I can do not what I can’t.” Unfortunately, this woman was not going to join me in focussing on my abilities and kept her conversation firmly on how ‘sad’ my situation is. She dripped so much sympathy over me I nearly drowned, and she wasn’t taking my back-off hints.

I simply excused myself to meditate in preparation for yoga. I removed myself from the situation.

In dating or friendship if this occurs – you could call them on it – explain what the problem is, and what you need. Or you could choose not to spend time with someone with a very limited view of illness. And that’s what it is, because you are not a bad person, nor broken, you are a trailblazer.

And that’s what it is, because you are not a bad person, nor broken, you are a trailblazer.

(Check out my Dear Grace Q & A: How Do I Explain That My Chronic Illness and Life Isn’t A Tragedy here.)


Protecting your story

When you are ill you can get used to giving all sorts of people all sorts of information. You may find yourself telling some man you just met about your bowel movements or pain during penetrative sex etc. Yes, he’s your doctor, but still, he is also some fellow you just met and it is weird.

Sometimes our admirable openness about living and thriving with illness and disability, our stigma bashing sass can mean that we are a bit too open, in ways which do not serve us.

Check in, what reaction or result are you hoping for? Cathartic release? Pride in our survivorship, for simple information or to (unconsciously) play on sympathies? Step back and consider.

It’s ok to be open and you needn’t be ashamed but that doesn’t mean you have to tell everyone.

You can be careful with your story and with whom you share it. Not everyone is in the positive space we would wish them to be in to receive it.

Some may stereotype you in the mean ‘little cripple’ box in their head forever after.

Some might see it as titillation, (horribly).

Some can see it as just as a good story or a real life wide screen, high-resolution tragedy story, in colour (and you can see the tears).


You deserve better than this

People will ask and you can choose to say no; you can choose to tell them later when you know them better.

The story of how you almost died is now part of your past and even though it informs and influences you, you do not want people to view you only in that context.

In the same vein, you do not choose to tell the story of your birth or the primary school teacher who encouraged you to draw or the roller coaster that gave you your fear of heights with every new friend/potential partner/hockey coach, you may at some point choose not to share your illness story either. And that is ok.

Telling is ok, keeping it private is ok, as long as it is a considered decision that you are choosing to make.

Remember you are empowered and loved, ok?

What’s your experience of dating with illness? What are your struggles/triumphs? Let me know in the comments.

P.S You may also want to check out chronic illness? 3 simple ways to strengthen your relationship part 1 and part 2 and date night idea for when energy is low.