Love in the Time of Chronic Illness

When should you disclose medical conditions to a date? When is illness too much for a relationship to survive?
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“Don’t even tempt me.”

That was Ashley Pierce’s response when her friend Tammi tried to set her up with Walter. Having spent a good portion of the last 10 years in a Las Vegas hospital bed, Pierce didn’t even want to entertain the thought of dating.

Besides, if he was anything like other guys she had pursued, she didn’t think he’d be able to handle it. He’d back out. Four years later, they are engaged. He never backed out.

“I never thought someone would marry me with my conditions,” 26-year-old Pierce recently wrote in a Facebook status.

Her conditions? Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis—chronic inflammatory conditions that affect the gastrointestinal and digestive tracts and include complications ranging from abdominal cramps to malnutrition.

For Pierce, the most extreme cases were when the doctor told her parents she wouldn’t make it through the night, either because she had stopped breathing or was dangerously anemic, weighing in at 63 pounds. On more ordinary days, she experiences stomach issues and a chronic cough, among other non-terminal-but-annoying symptoms caused by medicines that suppress her illnesses.

According to a report published by the National Health Council, nearly half of Americans have at least one chronic illness, with that number expected to grow in coming years. If this number sounds high, it’s worth noting that the category of “chronic illness” can include minor cases of asthma or oral herpes or major conditions like Crohn’s.

The more extreme physical chronic illnesses can make dating seem unrealistic or especially difficult, causing people like Pierce to think, “don’t even tempt me.”

One major issue chronically ill people face in dating is disclosure. The question of when to share the illness with a prospective partner fills online forums, videos, articles, blogs, conferences, and discussions. Sharing too soon may scare the person off and sharing too late may lead to a lack of trust.

Amber Miller, a 26-year-old college student in Oklahoma City, was waiting to tell Josh about her type one diabetes. They had been dating for a month. So when he didn’t hear from her for a month while she was recovering from a diabetic coma, he expected the worst.

“Josh thought I broke up with him because none of my family told him about the coma and he didn’t hear from me for a month,” Miller said. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I was in a coma.’”

The classic coma excuse.

In Miller’s case, it turned out okay, even with the misunderstanding—the couple eventually married. But that’s not always the case, which is why the question of disclosure remains a hot topic in the chronically ill community. Some choose to be upfront from the get-go, others wait until things head in the direction of exclusive dating.

Disclosure becomes even more nerve-wracking if the chronic illness is contagious, like Nate Butler’s HIV.

The 51-year-old Denver native has had the disease for nearly 25 years and has dated both HIV-positive and negative men and women since then. And while it's unlikely he would spread the disease through protected sex, he’s had a decent number of people turn him down. He usually tells the person about his HIV after he sees that it’s going to be more than a platonic relationship. Even waiting two or three dates is too long for some people, who accuse him of wasting their time.

Butler has been dating an HIV-negative woman for three months now, though he thinks dating someone with HIV would be simpler. He’s been on many HIV dating sites in hopes to avoid the nuisances of dating an HIV negative person, namely disclosure and condoms.

“Most of us HIV positive people know the online dating drill completely,” said Butler, who owns a small business. “If we like each other, someone’s flying out on an expensive date weekend. In most cases, sex happens more quickly, probably due to not having had it as frequently as they would like to. You don’t have to have the disclosure talk. Then it turns into a joke. ‘Oh by the way, did I remind you I’m HIV positive? Oh, you too? Good.’”

Butler’s on a combination of medications that produce side effects no worse than occasional gas, though they cost him around $2,000 a month. For him, the stigma of the illness hurts the most, which has kept him from approaching as many dating prospects as he used to. He sees his HIV as one more deal-breaker to add to the pile that has stacked higher as he’s gotten older.

Chronic illness is no doubt a deal-breaker for many people. 

On DateHookup.com, the question of whether people would date someone with a chronic illness has come up more than one time in the forums. Some would if they really liked the person. Some would if the disease or illness wasn’t contagious. Some have and realized it was too much for them and won’t again. And then there are people like the person in the forum who wrote, “No, no, and no!!” and explained that she doesn’t want anyone to interfere with her active life.

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Jon Fortenbury is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in USA Today College and Forbes.

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