Chronic Illness and Relationships: Dating with a Chronic Illness
Updated: Jan 5
How do you find dating with a chronic illness?
Hard. Yup - seems to be the consensus.
Folks living with chronic illnesses have mentioned how difficult dating with a chronic illness is. So you are not alone.
If you want to:
Understand why dating with a chronic illness is hard
Expand your dating skills
Connect with someone who understands what you’re going through
Then read on!
Reasons Why Dating with a Chronic Illness is Hard
There are many reasons why dating with a chronic illness is difficult. Some of the more frequent reasons that I have come across in counselling therapy have been identified by folks, just like you, who are living with a chronic illness (or condition).
One of the dating difficulties of chronic illness and relationships comes with the unknown. Living with a chronic illness can yield many uncertainties. Illness progression or changes in symptoms make it hard to plan activities or predict ‘good vs bad’ days. You might feel exhausted by the uncertainty of how the illness may impact you day to day.
Some people even say that living with a chronic illness causes a cognitive burden. From regularly checking your blood-sugar levels to planning a city tour based on accessible public washrooms, daily living - let alone dating - with a chronic illness is hard. When we put chronic illnesses and relationships together there are a lot more dynamics at play. Beyond the unknowns of the illness, you might also have uncertainties about the dating process (e.g., Will they understand my condition? Will I be able to last the whole evening? Will they pity me? Do I have to explain why I can't do certain activities? etc.). It's normal to question the dating process and to feel uncertain about how it will go. Dating is hard.
Opening up with someone
Having to explain an illness over and over again can be mentally and emotionally draining. It is a huge undertaking to open up to someone new; feeling safe enough to be vulnerable is extremely important in relationships.
When you’ve been newly diagnosed with an illness, your world has flipped upside down and so you might be feeling especially vulnerable. This vulnerability can impact your ability to disclose your illness. That’s okay; taking your time to build safety in the new relationship makes sense.
Your sense of vulnerability about a new diagnosis can start to dissipate as you learn new language to talk about the chronic illness. There are so many new pieces of information that are needed to be absorbed, digested and consolidated. Finding the language to explain the illness and then actually sharing it with others is a process. Be kind to yourself.
Once you do end up finding the language that suits you best, you might start feeling more comfortable with sharing your story. When dating with a chronic illness, the onus to share and inform others often falls on the person living with the illness. While there is power in acknowledging and sharing your story, it can also be tiring, anxiety-provoking or even shame-inducing to have to talk about. Fears of being rejected, dumped, judged, misunderstood, or even made fun of are high. So it would make sense then that dating with a chronic illness would be hard, similar to living alone with a chronic illness.
Disclosing a chronic illness on a date is not a fun topic to talk about. Some folks won’t even disclose an illness until much later in the relationship, if and when an opportunity arises. And lots is at play for a disclosure to be made, such as emotional safety, trust, open-mindedness, and courage. If you do end up sharing your illness story with your date, you could find yourself in the caregiving role. This is the very opposite of what you might need. Being the caregiver in this situation places mental and emotional burden on the person living with a chronic illness. You can find yourself helping and supporting your date to make sense of your disclosure, providing most of the emotional support. Of course not everyone living with a chronic illness has these experiences, but if it’s happened to you - you’re not alone!
It takes courage to make a disclosure and to be vulnerable with another person; having to ‘carry the load’ by yourself is the last thing that you want. Instead, having a date be curious about the chronic illness and honest about their reaction to the disclosure invites a more welcoming attitude to the shared experience. If this isn’t the case, unhelpful beliefs (e.g., “there’s something wrong with me”) and emotions (e.g., shame) can start to emerge, making it all too easy to back away from dating all together.
What’s worse is that people living a chronic illness are unfortunately already faced with the stigma of a diagnosis. While there are many movements aimed at reducing the stigma of chronic illnesses, there is still a long way to go.
Stigma, like other factors, contributes to an altered perception of the self. If you have learnt through social and cultural views that illnesses are ‘bad’, you might internalize this idea and believe that you are ‘a bad person’. Subsequently, this unhealthy thinking pattern can further isolate you from others, and the dating world. These beliefs aren’t your Truth. They are part of larger unhealthy systems that are beyond you. Come back to the person that you know is you. You are more than your illness.
What has been your experience of dating with a chronic illness? I’d love to create a safe space with you to talk about chronic illness and relationships. If you live in Vancouver or across British Columbia, Canada feel free to get in touch.
Dating with Chronic Illness FAQs
How does chronic illness affect relationships?
As mentioned above, there are many ways that a chronic illness and relationships can get complicated - both romantic and platonic. Some factors include: chronic illness progression and symptom changes (such as fatigue, pain, soreness, fogginess, etc), medication changes, unplanned medical appointments, type of dating activity, and stigma. These factors can impact someone’s level of involvement, engagement and participation in dating and relationships.
What should you not say to someone with chronic illness?
There are many do's and don'ts that come along with dating someone with a chronic illness. One that may be obvious to some, but definitely continues to happen is saying “I'm sorry” after someone has disclosed their chronic illness. While the empathic intention Might be there, saying I'm sorry comes across as pitying. And the last thing a person living with a chronic illness wants is pity. Instead, you might use the following responses: “That sounds really tough to live with. Who’s part of your supper team?” or “Oy - I can see how that would make life difficult sometimes. What do you do to stay on top of it all?”
How do you talk to someone with chronic illness?
They are human, just like you. So talk to someone with a chronic illness like you would talk to anyone else, with compassion and honesty.
4 Ways to Make Dating with Chronic Illness Easier
Here are four different ways to make dating with chronic illness a little easier.
Find Your Language
While you may not want to disclose your chronic illness on the first date, be prepared to say something if your symptoms flare up. Finding your language around your chronic illness can be slow and daunting at first, and then become quite empowering. And this process takes time.
You might read or listen to others’ experiences of living with the same chronic illness and appreciate how they have shared their story or described their illness. Take note of what resonates with you and start using this new language when you are ready.
Remember - not everyone deserves to know your inner world right away or at all. This is a vulnerable place that only trusted people get access to. So you may want to find “filler” words or statements that you can use without disclosing what’s really going on (e.g., “I ate lunch super late today, and not that hungry”, “I didn’t sleep well and so feeling tired today”, “I was really looking forward to our date, but work has unexpectedly got me tied up late tonight. Can we reschedule for next week?”). These ‘fillers’ might help you navigate tough or sticky situations without having to disclose your chronic illness.
Share Educational Resources (when appropriate)
You by all means do NOT have to share any information, written or audio, if you do not want to. Some though, have found it helpful to have reputable and reliable educational resources on hand to share when needed. Having educational resources about your chronic illness ready to share can take the load off your shoulders.
Being held solely responsible for teaching or informing others about your illness isn’t fair to you. There are plenty of great resources (and organizations) out there ready and willing to take on this “task” for you. So when appropriate or when you are ready, you can share educational resources with others, like your date, so help lighten your load. Talking about your illness might be easier after they have read or listened to an informational piece about your chronic illness. Direct your date to your favourite websites, books, podcasts, and help sheets to get the ball rolling.
Ask for What You Need
This is probably the hardest to do, but you are allowed to ask for what you need. So do it! This isn’t selfish. This is you being clear about what is happening and what you need.
I think that the misconception around asking for what you need is that you’ll seem needy, self-centred, or ego-driven. This is bullshit, and the reality is quite the opposite actually. People are much more respectful and appreciative of those who can be clear about what they need (and want).
Similar to saying “no” to set a boundary in your relationship (or work), asking for what you need can be awkward and uncomfortable at first but it is still worth doing. Over time, just like finding the right language about your chronic illness, meeting your needs will become easy and comfortable. For instance, If you know your symptoms are worse in the evenings, suggest a daytime date.
It takes courage to be able to ask for what you need. So dig deep into yourself and find your courageous voice. You are worth it! As you connect to your courage, your communication style will shift from a place of cautiousness to a place of braveness.
Connect to Your Authentic Self
Remind yourself of the person that you are. This can be hard at first if your chronic illness has been at the forefront of your life, but be patient with yourself. You are more than your illness. Connect with your authentic self, your truth.
Journal or write out affirming statements about yourself, about what you believe and know is true. Don't be shy to repeat these statements to yourself as a way to keep yourself grounded in your authentic self.
If you can connect to your authenticity, your truth, others will notice that energy as well. Our emotions are embodied experiences that give off energy that both you and others sense. If you feel settled within yourself this is a felt experience that someone else will notice.
Get Counselling in BC from a Chronic Illness Counsellor
I know taking the first step to getting support is hard. Thank you for being here.
“Shopping around” for a counsellor is normal, and it can take some time to find the right one. If you feel a tad bit curious about me or my counselling services, please reach out for a free 15 minutes phone consultation to see if I’m the right Canadian counsellor for you.
In the meantime, check out my 10 reasons why counselling is good for you.