Dating and Chronic Illness... Where does the journey start?
I work with several couples who come to see me for sex and relationship therapy where one partner may suffer from a chronic illness and at times, both may experience illness. But, what happens when you are single with a chronic illness and you are wanting to step into the world of dating? This can be quite scary and intimidating. Dating is not easy. It does not come with a “how-to” guide, and what about all the dating apps that are out there? They can be quite overwhelming. One advantage of dating apps is that you have the opportunity to discuss and list what you are looking for in a potential partner. But, when and how do you disclose you are chronically ill? Well, believe it or not, it starts with acceptance.
Everyone is on their own journey with chronic illness. However, the majority of clients I work with experience a crisis phase in the beginning and at this point, they are in need of a diagnosis. You may experience extreme chaos and it can be considered a trauma. The ultimate goal here is to deal with your immediate hurts and the trauma you have experienced.
The next phase is stabilization. This is when you have reached a plateau of symptoms, and because they stay more or less the same, you become familiar. During the stabilization phase, you may continue to experience a lot of chaos, but you usually try to keep behaving as you did prior to getting sick. This attempt frequently leads to relapses. Because a certain amount of time you may feel like you can manage, you keep trying to find a way to return to the old life prior to the onset of the illness. During this phase, the goal here is to begin to stabilize and restructure life’s patterns and perceptions.
In the next phase, resolution, there may be a plateau of symptoms or a series of relapse. But at this point, you have learned how your illness behaves and how the world responds to it. You have learned that you can’t be the person you used to be prior to the onset of the illness. This can be a devastating perception, but the goal here is to develop a new, authentic self by locating a personally meaningful philosophy to live by. This is the start of the acceptance process.
The next phase is integration. In this phase, you may experience a plateau of symptoms or periodic relapses, but you are now able to integrate parts of your old self from the illness with the person you are now. The goal here is to continue to find new ways to express your “personal best” to reintegrate or form new supportive networks of family and friends. In total integration, you arrive at a new, whole complete life, of which, illness is only one part of your life. This is when I see and help clients accept illness and they ultimately want to learn to live well. It is at this point you may have the desire to date. Perhaps at this stage, you are starting to feel sexual again.
It is critical to find your dating goals and expectations. I refer some of my clients to relationship coaches, but I have used time in a session to help a chronically ill client develop their dating profile and I find this to be rewarding. I am helping them step out into the world with a new perspective on living. Dating is a different experience for everyone so you want to list your goals and expectations. Ask yourself the following questions:
What does dating mean to me?
Am I looking for someone to date short-term or long-term?
Do I want to get married eventually?
If I am in a lot of pain, would I like an online romance with someone or do I want to meet in person?
Would I rather date someone in person for a short while-maybe dip my toes into the dating pool and see how it goes?
Or am I looking for a no-strings-attached, casual hook-up?
Whatever your dating goals, be clear on them before you put it out there that you are ready to date. It is your call if you want to disclose on a dating profile you have a chronic illness or you would rather share it in person. Most of my clients prefer to disclose on their profile first that way the other person is aware. Being clear on your intentions will help you avoid situations where you end up in a casual sexual encounter when you really wanted was a long-term relationship or vice versa.
Rejection….it is an ugly word, right? But, it happens. Many of us are petrified of rejection- so afraid that it stops us from doing things because we simply fear being rejected. You may cancel date after date because you fear rejection due to your illness. Think of it this way, is rejection any different when you are experiencing chronic pain and illness? If you feel rejected due to your condition, you may experience depression and anxiety, thinking that if you were only healthy this would not happen. My recommendation would be not to dwell on it because if you do, it may cause more pain and this can trigger a relapse. Keep in mind you can learn from your rejection.
Rejections are not always bad. Reach out to your support systems if you have them. If my clients don’t have one, I help them find one, whether it is a support group or an online support group. I always ask my clients who their support systems are outside of therapy. It is important to have them! If you need to take a break from dating, then take a break. Unplug from social media and the dating apps if need be. Always listen to your body and find what works for you and find what brings you pleasure. You only have one body, be kind to it, and take care of yourself.