Dating with a Chronic Illness

I’ve been toying with this post for years now, but I didn’t seriously start thinking about this until a few months ago. I generally don’t talk about this aspect of my personal life online – my last relationship wasn’t mentioned on any social media at all – but I do date. I had two relationships in college, one of which was pretty serious, and another one a few years later. I haven’t had a proper relationship in a couple of years now which is due to several factors: how busy I’ve been in grad school (grad school + part-time job + highly active autoimmune disease), my health has prevented me from doing many things like meeting new people, many people are gone as soon as they hear “rheumatoid arthritis,” and I’m extremely picky.

But I’m getting out of my comfort zone today and I’m talking about dating with chronic conditions. While I haven’t been in a relationship in a while, I have been in them while dealing with my health issues, and I’ve gone on plenty of dates in the past couple of years. I’ve used a variety of strategies when it comes to sharing my chronic illnesses, so I feel like I have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. Also – there’s an accompanying YouTube video to go along with this post, but that will be out later this week.

Dating can be difficult for most people, but when you have a chronic condition of some kind - like chronic pain or chronic illness - it can be even harder. There are a lot of things that go into this, such as when you decide to tell someone about your chronic condition or maintaining relationships with someone who isn't used to dating someone with these types of issues. Here I break it down and include resources to help you learn more about certain things, either for you or for your prospective partner.

Dating in General

Do you disclose your condition? This really depends on your condition, how it affects your life, and how serious a relationship you want this to be. If you’re just looking for something casual and it doesn’t affect too much of your life, then you might not need to. But if it affects many aspects of your life and you’re hoping that this will be a serious relationship (or at least not casual), then you probably should. The big problem is that your partner might feel like they were lied to if you’ve been together for 6 months and they suddenly find out that you have a chronic illness when you’re hospitalized for symptoms you’ve been hiding.

When do you disclose? This depends. I like to slip it into a conversation naturally when something related comes up because my RA is a huge part of my life. Hiding it feels like lying to me, especially since I do advocacy work, have 1-8 medical appointments a week, and take nearly 40 pills a day. Basically, I suggest doing it when it feels right and/or not disclosing it would be lying or lying by omission.

How do you disclose? Like I said, I like to include it when something naturally connected comes up. But if you somehow get to a point where you’re really into someone, they’re really into you, you’ve been seeing each other exclusively for a little bit, and it hasn’t come up that you have a chronic condition, you should probably mention it. I would find a way to connect it to something else you’re talking about so it’s not a bigger deal than it needs to be.

What should you share? There are multiple factors that affect this, including how serious your relationship is and your comfort level with sharing your personal information. If this is someone who you think might be a long-term partner, then I suggest you give them as much information as you feel comfortable sharing. If you’re just getting to know them, then I suggest giving the basic overview, and if they ask questions, then share what you want.

What do you do if someone loses interest because of your chronic illness? First of all, screw them. This has happened to me a LOT: everything is fine and dandy and then I tell them I have RA and they are gone (even if I don’t explain how serious it is). It’s very annoying. Second of all, don’t fight for them. If someone decides that being with someone who lives with a chronic illness is too much for them, let them go. Whether they’re too emotionally immature to handle it or they just don’t want the ~drama~ doesn’t matter; you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.

Dating with a Chronic Condition (Pain, Illness, Etc.) Click To Tweet

Going on Dates with Chronic Conditions

Be the one to pick where you go. This really helps because then it doesn’t feel like you’re being high maintenance or difficult if you they suggest multiple places and you say no to all of them. You can suggest places that you know are accessible or, if you have food issues like I do, where you know you can eat.

Give a heads up if you will need a wheelchair or other accommodations. I think this really applies more to if you don’t normally need that accommodation; for example, when I go to museums I need a wheelchair, but I don’t in general. I can push myself a fair amount, but since my hands are also affected my arthritis, I can’t always do it. This would require telling them that I need will need assistance. In another situation, if we’re going to a bar, they should know that I won’t be able to stand most of the time that I’m there. This helps them have realistic expectations of what will happen, and prevents us from having to change plans in the moment.

What if I need to cancel? If you’re just seeing someone for the first couple of times, I would just tell them that you’re not feeling well. Once you start getting more serious, you should probably explain the annoying unpredictability of chronic conditions (both pain and illness). Hopefully, they will understand that it’s nothing personal and will roll with it. If it becomes an issue, either they need to realize that this is about your health and not about them or you should say goodbye to them.

One of the unfortunate aspects of dating when you have a chronic condition is ableism. How do you address it? When is it worth pursing something? How do you educate them?

Dealing with Ableism

What do you do if someone says or does something ableist? When you like someone and then they say something ableist, it’s a big bummer. My reaction to this depends on what they said; if they use the r word or accuse someone of faking their disability, I’m out of there. If they do something like use words like “crazy,” I’m more understanding because most people don’t realize that it’s ableist. I’ll probably explain how it’s ableist and depending on their other behavior either keep seeing them or take my leave. Casual ableism might happen because they’re not aware of it, which is usually clear based on their other behavior. For example, if they’re generally a good person in other areas of life, then I give them more chances. But if there are little signs of other problems (like racism, sexism, etc.), then their casual ableism is generally a part of a larger picture, and I’m done.

What if they keep doing it? If you explain the problem and they keep doing it, then they don’t really care about it, and then, by extension, you. Like I said earlier, you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.

If you’re concerned about continuing ableism, you can send them these posts: Everyday Ableism, Examples of Ableist Language in Everyday Life, and We Need To Talk about Ableism

Maintaining Relationships

Now that you’ve gotten to know someone, you decide to be in a relationship with them. Most of what I discussed so far applies in a relationship, too, but I also want to talk specifically of the struggles that come with maintaining a relationship when you have a chronic illness.

[FYI – this part of the post does mention abuse.]

Don’t settle for someone just because they can deal with your chronic condition. You deserve someone awesome, and just because someone can handle your chronic condition doesn’t mean that they’re awesome. That shouldn’t be the only reason you have a relationship with someone. Is it necessary? Absolutely. But (ideally) the world will have lots of people who can handle your health, and you should be with a person who is awesome for you for reasons other than they’re not an asshole about your health.

Remember – disabled people are more likely to experience abuse. Like, one study found that over 70% of the disabled population had experienced abuse. As this sheet with an overview of abuse among disabled persons says, ” In 2010, the age-adjusted, serious violent crime (e.g. rape, robbery, assault) victimization rate for persons with disabilities was 16 per 1000 persons. This is triple the rate of 5 per 1,000 persons for those without disabilities” TRIPLE. Please, please, please keep this in mind as your relationship(s) develop and be on the lookout for questionable behavior. Here are 6 early warning signs of an abusive relationship. But also remember that you might have no idea that someone could be abusive. And it is never, never, never, never, NEVER your fault. Ever. You should not have to be on the lookout that someone might be abusive. I just want to give you as much information as possible because we are at a higher risk of being abused.

Exploring the caregiver-partner balance. Depending on your chronic condition, a long-term partner for you might also be a caregiver to a certain extent. I will fully admit that I have no experience with this because I’ve never lived with a partner or needed a boyfriend to care for me in situations other than post-ER trips. That said, I do think that it’s very important to make sure that your relationship is not mostly caregiving (as much as you can) so neither of you feel like that is all your relationship is. You are still partners first and foremost, even if caregiving is a necessary part of your life. FYI, though, many disabled people experience their abuse at the hands of their partner/caregiver, so see above for that. If you have experience with managing a partner-caregiver relationship, please comment with your advice! I’m sure we’d all love to hear it.

Read more about this in my post about relationships and chronic pain and you can send your partner this post about loving someone with chronic pain.


Like this post? Check out:

Chronic Illness Bloggers To Follow, How To Talk about Your Chronic Illness + Free Printables, Chronic Medical Conditions and Family Discussions over the Holidays

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  • Reply Sarah @ Back to Carolina

    This is all such important info. I didn’t know the stats on abuse. I did know some stats about divorce.
    I found guys who totally ran away and guys who didn’t care. My husband didn’t care, but at first I think it was from a lack of understanding about what my conditions meant.
    I still remember the first time that we had to have a serious talk because he didn’t take my first serious talk about bedtimes/going home seriously.
    When he finally saw a flare, his compassion made me really hope that he felt the same way about me that I did about him. And when I have felt not good enough for him or anyone, he is always there to remind me of my worth. So, I think that anyone who is sick can find the right person–but like you said, it takes finding a balance. He may help me organize my meds and help me stand up, but he does that because he is my partner and cheerleader, who wants me to succeed and have a fulfilling life.
    I appreciate you writing about this because when I was diagnosed 7 years ago and dating, and still dating up until 4 years ago, I googled the topic on a regular basis. I never found much.
    There was always some info for married couples or the spouse of a chronically ill person.
    There was nothing for us. And we might hurt, but intellectually and emotionally, we have needs and wants and can give!

    August 15, 2017 at 10:24 pm
  • Reply Alex Slegers

    This post is incredible, thanks for posting! I’ve looked for more information on this topic and it’s incredibly difficult to find something that doesn’t make me feel even more depressed. I’m struggling to meet people, and I’m wondering about others’ experience with online dating. I tried it briefly many years ago and it made me realize how many people didn’t want to be with someone who required accommodation. I’m feeling stronger now, but still severely affected by my illness. Would love to hear from others about their non-perfect dating experience!

    August 16, 2017 at 8:34 pm
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