Dating as a Chronically Ill Person

Dating is hard for us all, but not equally hard for everyone — for chronically ill people, dating has an extra host of challenges. From navigating logistics to negotiating the complex economy of care work, it can feel daunting to look for human connection, even in a world that’s impossible to navigate alone. Here’s what I recommend keeping in mind.

Put your health first

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Dating as a disabled or chronically ill person often means considerations and risks able-bodied people don’t necessarily need to consider. It can be a drag to have to take into account factors that other people in your life don’t, or have to cancel plans yet again, or have to explain to a new date why their proposed plans for the evening won’t work for you. 

But your relationship with yourself and your body are the most important ones in your life, and romantic relationships with others won’t succeed if those aren’t on a stable footing — caring for yourself and your health must come first.

This may look like dating at a different pace than others — maybe spending more time chatting online or doing a first date via FaceTime to conserve the energy of going out until you’re sure this is someone you’re interested in. It may mean being strict about COVID safety, and only dating folks who are down to have outdoor dates and discuss safety going forward. Although this process can feel frustrating, prioritizing your health early on is a good way to ensure that the partners you end up with are ready to prioritize your health, too.

Be clear with yourself and others about what you need in a partner

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Any kind of long-term romantic relationship is ultimately a negotiation about how you’ll each take turns showing up for each other through the lows and crises of life, and whether you can consistently rely upon each other for care work and material support. Dating as a disabled or chronically ill person just means that you may have more advanced information about some of these lows and crises ahead of time, and can think about what your needs in those situations really are.

We can (hopefully) presume that your partner wants to show up for you and care for you as a chronically ill person — but it’s up to you to define for them what that actually looks like. Many of us are socialized to avoid discomfort or illness, and don’t always know instinctively what to do to support someone who’s sick or in pain, even when we very much want to. Chronically ill people are more likely to get the care they need from a partner if they can identify what’s most useful to them and communicate this very directly to a partner — ideally up front or ahead of time, before you’re in a flare. Resist the urge to minimize your needs or work to be more accommodating early on — the “messier” you are at the beginning of a relationship and more honest you are about your needs, the more authentic and successful your relationship can be.

When you’re in pain, is it helpful to have someone else already versed in the best interventions for you so they can offer them without you having to make decisions? Do you need someone to take on extra housework or specific tasks when you’re feeling sick? Is it important for an able-bodied partner to attend doctors’ appointments with you to back you up or take notes? Are you looking for a partner who’s emotionally regulated enough to let you be in a bad mood when you’re in pain without trying to fix it? Telling a partner these needs explicitly makes it much more likely they’ll be met — or at least make it quicker to find out if your partner isn’t able to meet them.

Talk openly about care work and equity in your relationships

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One major concern many chronically ill or disabled people have when dating is that the care required from a partner will lead to resentment and guilt. This isn’t totally unfounded — many able-bodied people do harbor the fantasy that chronically ill people in their life will eventually “get better,” even if subconsciously, and conflict does sometimes crop up around resentment or care fatigue, or just exacerbated versions of able-bodied arguments about who’s doing the dishes. 

The solution for this isn’t to try to diminish your own needs or go without care and support that you know you actually need, but to address these concerns head-on with open communication. If you really trust that your partner will tell you that a request isn’t realistic for them or is causing them to feel overburdened, you can more confidently accept the care they do offer without reservation. If there does seem to be some strain developing in the relationship, open lines of communication can help you discuss what’s happening freely, and work together to find solutions. Maybe it’s possible to shift the balance of your relationship in other areas or for you to take on more in a different capacity, or maybe there are places you or your partner can reach out to a larger support network to get your needs met outside the relationship.

If resentment, codependency, or conflict around care is a persistent problem and you’re struggling to manage it alone, couples therapy may help you both find resources and tools to navigate your situation differently.

Recommended Products:

Love in the Time of Chronic Illness: How to Fight the Sickness―Not Each Other

Aches, Pains, and Love: A Guide to Dating and Relationships for Those With Chronic Pain and Illness

The Chronic Pain Couple: How to be a joyful partner & have a remarkable relationship in spite of chronic pain

For More Articles Check Out These Recent Posts:

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Dating & Finding Love With a Disability

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