How to Talk to a Romantic Partner About Your Chronic Illness
You deal with your disease every day, so here’s how to keep the lines of communication open, whether you’re dating or in a long-term partnership.
If you’re coping with a chronic illness, your partner can be a strong source of support in your life. But sometimes it can be tough to know how often you can bring up your condition, when is the right time to talk about it, how to best express yourself, and how to make sure you’re on the same page. Here, relationship experts and real people dealing with lifelong conditions share their best advice for prioritizing the health of your relationship the same way you do your physical health.
Don’t Worry About the First Few Dates
Unless you really want to, you don’t have to tell a first date everything about your life—and that includes disclosing your illness, says Beatrice Tauber Prior, PsyD, a North Carolina–based clinical psychologist.
The early part of your relationship can and should be focused on learning about each other’s personalities, likes, dislikes, and backgrounds, notes Gary McClain, PhD, a therapist and member of the American Counseling Association. There’s no reason to go through the process of sharing personal information with someone you’re not completely sold on, right?
Build Trust, Then Disclose
So when should you tell a newer partner about your illness? Every relationship progresses at a different pace. But here’s an idea of a good time to spill: Once you’ve opened up to each other about your jobs, families, and friends, and have started exchanging deeper, more meaningful information, you’ve got the green light to give them a heads up. “We cannot gloss over the reality that disclosing a chronic condition to a potential long-term partner is risky,” says McClain. “But mutual self-disclosure paves the way for coming to the place where you can talk about health.”
Know Your Limits
Sometimes situations (like simply feeling too exhausted to go out, or being in pain) can cause friction in a relationship. One or both of you may feel like you’re missing out on the fun. That’s why open dialogue with your partner (about what’s bothering you and what you need) is key, notes Alena Gerst, a New York City–based psychotherapist who works with people with chronic diseases.
Share Your Day-to-Day
In the same way that you keep your significant other up to date on what’s happening with your job, family, and friends, you can also let them know about what you’re experiencing with your illness. “Check in with yourself every morning when you wake up,” recommends Lauren, a 33-year-old in Cambridge, MA, who was recently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). “If you’re having a bad day because you’re in pain, you’re having a flare, or you’re just bummed that you have this disease, tell them that as soon as you can so they’re not wondering why you’re grumpy. Be proactive with your communication so they have the opportunity to support you. Keeping it to yourself and suffering internally is going to leave them feeling cut out and confused and you feeling alone and resentful.”
Talk About Sex
Sex is a difficult topic to bring up in any relationship. But here’s the thing: Being honest about what you can do (certain positions, for example) and finding creative ways to work around obstacles (scheduling sex for high-energy times) can get you back on track, says Gerst. It is important that you and your partner change your thinking so you can both enjoy sex regardless of any health conditions you may be suffering from. If you run up against any sex-related challenges that are particularly bothersome for you both, touch base with a health care professional.
Find the Silver Lining
Though there are many challenges that come along with chronic illnesses, it’s possible to find the positive.
“It’s so important to understand that we are not our condition. We are just as worthy of love and healthy relationships,” says Sandra, a 35-year-old in Troy, MI, who has been coping with hidradenitis suppurativa (HS) for 15 years.
“I’ve been married for 10 years. I have two beautiful children, a very robust and adventurous sex life, and I told my now husband about my HS before we were ever intimate,” she says. “He has seen me at my lowest because of my HS (including dressing the gory open wounds that I couldn’t reach myself) and still makes me feel like the sexiest woman in the world.” When two people have the right skills and compassion to overcome the obstacles and struggles that chronic illness invariably throws at them, they often wind up with a truly loving partnership.
McClain says he recently treated a couple struggling because the female partner had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. By asking them to share what they each appreciated most about each other, he was able to start a discussion from a place of love and understanding, rather than defensiveness.
McClain is onto something. Science shows that gratitude is incredibly powerful in relationships. One study showed that expressing gratitude made it easier to share relationship concerns with a partner.
Show your other half appreciation by planning a surprise date or by grabbing their favorite snack at the grocery store.