One of the most common themes I’ve explored with people in the chronic illness community is the question of how to disclose a chronic health diagnosis to someone you’re dating.
There are plenty of reasons to be anxious about this. Everyone has their own perspectives on what it really means to have a health challenge, and it can be hard to predict how someone new will react. And there’s plenty of stigma around what it means to have a chronic illness.
Feeling hesitant to disclose a health diagnosis is more of a reflection of this cultural climate than it is an issue with your self-acceptance.
But this article isn’t about the reasons to be afraid. Instead, it’s about the power, beauty, and potential that exists in revealing your health condition to a new dating partner.
Having lived with multiple sclerosis (MS) for the past 6 years, I’m happy to report that there are many reasons to lean into the conversation.
There are certain things that folks with health challenges may understand, know, and do even better because of how we’ve dealt with the challenges that chronic illnesses bring.
Do you recognize that your process of learning and growing in the midst of physical challenges means that you bring even more to the table?
There are many benefits to dating someone with a chronic illness, so the list I’m about to offer is not exhaustive. As a result of navigating challenges with your health, you may have:
When I look at this list, I see a collection of strengths that add tremendous value to any relationship.
So please keep in mind that you, my friend, are a real catch.
When sharing about a diagnosis, you’re not just giving factual information about this one part of your life. You’re also setting the tone for how you talk about, think about, and interact with your condition.
If you’re still processing your diagnosis, you can share that. If it feels like something that isn’t a “big deal” to you, you can act casual about it.
If you see your health challenge as one of the many aspects of your life that has helped you develop a deeper relationship with yourself, you can talk about that, too.
You don’t have to be perfect or un-self-conscious about your condition in order to make the interaction valuable to yourself and your new love interest. The key is to share in a real way that reflects the whole of who you are as a person — not just your diagnosis.
When I was still dating, a pep talk I used to give myself went something like this:
“I’m committed to being a good friend to myself no matter what happens with my MS, and that’s pretty great. If this is the right person for me, they will probably be attracted to this quality in me, too. I’d want a partner like me!”
And in case you need to hear this: Your health condition isn’t something to apologize for. It’s a circumstance that you’re navigating, and being by your side for the journey is an honor for the person who is meant to be with you.
It may be challenging for you both, but the truth about romantic partnership is that it isn’t always easy, anyway.
Sometimes, we can be so focused on avoiding rejection from someone else that we forget to check in with ourselves about what we actually feel towards them.
You’re allowed to feel disappointed or turned off by a less-than-sensitive response to your disclosure.
Sometimes, it’s possible that the other person just needs time to let the new information sink in.
I remember dating someone who was fairly quiet upon hearing about my diagnosis, but the next time we saw each other, I discovered that he’d researched my condition and was interested in talking about it with me in a caring way. I felt delighted that he’d done some reflection on his own and glad that I’d given the situation some time to evolve.
If the person you’re seeing doesn’t respond in a way that feels good to you, it’s worth checking in with yourself to see what you want and need. Some questions you might ask yourself are:
Keep in mind that spending more time with someone isn’t the same thing as making a commitment to them. Checking in with your intuition can be easier when you know that there isn’t necessarily pressure to make a “final decision.”
You’re allowed to take as much, or as little, time as you need to make decisions about who you spend time with.
It can be surprising and hurtful to experience rejection from someone you’re dating. I like to think of it as a time- and energy-saving (though often painful) gift.
When someone isn’t up for the type of challenge that chronic illness can bring, that’s important information for you.
Fortunately, if they step away, that frees you up to meet someone who is up for the adventure, or at least open to exploring the unknown with you.
I once disclosed my MS to someone I’d been on a few dates with, and a little while later, he called me up and told me that he couldn’t continue seeing me. He explained that he had too much fear about what my future with MS would hold.
As hard as it was to hear this, I felt relieved to know what was true for him so that I could move on.
That very week, I logged into my dating app and (literally, truly) met my life partner, who was very much up for the adventure of navigating life alongside me and my MS.
When I look back to that painful moment of rejection in my past, I’m grateful for the other person’s honesty that ultimately set me free to meet the right person.
Sharing information about something less-than-convenient that’s happened to you can actually be a doorway to a deeper connection with the person you’re dating.
Have you ever heard someone’s story about getting a flat tire, or managing some other unexpected circumstance, and actually found yourself admiring the person’s approach to handling it?
Or have you ever been on the receiving end of someone’s honest sharing about a time when they struggled with a circumstance, like job loss, and found yourself feeling empathetic towards their challenges?
We can talk all day about the vacations we want to go on, the children we want to have, and the pets we want to own, but those are all are best-case scenarios. I think they’re valid and important parts of getting to know someone, but they’re only one aspect of what the future may hold.
How someone manages the difficulties of life can be a very useful way of learning about them. Being vulnerable in revealing stories about chronic illness, childhood memories, or even getting a parking ticket, shows the other person more dimensions of who you are.
This is the realness of life that doesn’t go away, even when we find a dream relationship!
These deeper conversations can evolve over time at your own pace. You don’t have to explain every last detail of your health history on the first date. But revealing aspects of your rich and multifaceted life can be a gift to the person you are dating. It opens the door for them to be authentic with you, too.
When it comes to navigating the challenges of life, having someone with you for the journey can make it sweeter.
I believe that we aren’t meant to do life alone, and romantic partnership is one of the most intimate ways to have — and give — supportive companionship.
Those who have experienced conscious partnership know that some of the most enriching and intimacy-building moments of any relationship often take place in less-than-ideal circumstances.
Illness happens, plans change, we lose a loved one, move somewhere new, or change careers. The idea isn’t to avoid the challenges, but to navigate them with someone who wants to navigate them with you.
About the author
Lauren Selfridge is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, working online with couples and people living with chronic illness. She hosts the interview podcast, “This Is Not What I Ordered,” focused on full-hearted living with chronic illness and health challenges. Lauren has lived with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis for over 5 years and has experienced her share of joyful and challenging moments along the way. You can learn more about Lauren’s work on her website or follow her and her podcast on Instagram.