Bridging the Gap between your Condition and your Relationships

Bridging the Gap between your Condition and your Relationships

Written by Stacey Leijenaar, Research Communication Manager ANRF

I, like most of you with a chronic condition, realized quite quickly that this was not something that only affected my health but touched each and every part of my life. I have met others with chronic conditions and through doing so have formed firm friendships, giving ourselves a safe space to discuss concerns relating to our conditions. February, the month of love, saw many of our conversations filled with discussions on how having a chronic condition impacts your interpersonal and romantic relationships. Yes, we did discuss areas of worry and what made dating more difficult since diagnosis, but more importantly we spoke, heard and learnt about ways in which these incredible individuals had overcome these aspects, leading to long fulfilling and happy relationships. It is hoped that by sharing seven strategies we have learned in our own relationships; it may help you to conquer the dating world with a great deal more confidence.

1.Identifying your emotions

When we first get diagnosed many of us spend an inordinate amount of time researching our condition, understanding its physical effects and exploring treatment options. Something that is often overlooked and neglected is understanding our emotions. After a diagnosis most of us experience a vast array of emotions from anger to despair and everything in between. Before you are able to emotionally connect with another it may be necessary to understand your own feelings first and identify potential situations in which those feelings become heightened. I started dating after my diagnosis before I had done an emotional inventory. Looking back I found that many of the issues in those relationships were due to projecting my fears onto my partner and not a very accurate reflection of what had actually happened in the relationship itself. As best you can, take emotional stock, understand your own feelings before you try to combine them with another’s.

2. An Outside Perspective

All of us, even those who do not have a condition, tend to view anything we consider an imperfection under a microscope. In high school many of us would have a tiny blemish but reacted as if it were Mount Vesuvius, wanting to wear a paper bag over our head, not realising that those around us barely noticed it if at all. Obviously, any physical changes that occur due to our conditions can seem immense, leading to heightened feelings of embarrassment.

It can be helpful to sit with a trusted friend, family member or in a support group to discuss aspects of your self that you feel have changed and that you are concerned would make potential or current partners look at you differently. Chances are you’ll actually hear a great deal more about what they admire about you, which can give you a much-needed confidence boost. It can also remind you that these people are in your life because they choose to be, that they value their relationship with you and your condition hasn’t changed that. Your mountain may in fact not even be a molehill!

3. Set Boundaries

This point hit home for me while I was out helping a friend shop for clothes to wear to her graduation. She had been a pillar of strength through my diagnosis and everything that came after and I was delighted to help her in some small way. Unfortunately, a little while in I started feeling a bit off, I didn’t say anything as I didn’t want to let her down. I had previously needed to cancel plans or left early and really wanted to be there for her. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Instead of helping her choose a great outfit I ended up having a seizure in the middle of the store, swiftly putting an end to the day. I was lucky, as she had all of my medical information and was well informed regarding my condition and could pass it on to the paramedics. She organized that I was taken to my doctor’s practicing hospital, which was not the nearest, alerted the hospital and my family of what had happened so that I could receive rapid appropriate care. All of this could have been avoided if I had not pushed myself knowing full well it was not the best thing to do.

As someone living with a chronic condition you know your own limitations. It can be tempting, especially at the onset of a new relationship, to try and push yourself, doing more than you should. This approach can be risky both for your health and your relationship. It can create unrealistic expectations of what your relationship will be like in the future, putting even greater pressure on you. A new partner may not be aware of when and how best to help you if something goes amiss. This can in turn lead to a partner feeling guilty, as if they are the cause or if they did something to trigger the event.

It has therefore been suggested by a number of the group members that first dates be low risk, as by over exerting yourself will also mean you are unable to fully enjoy the experience as you will be worried of potential negative outcomes. First dates are nerve wracking enough! So, don’t put additional pressure on yourself, take it easy and let yourself enjoy the experience.  If it develops into a strong relationship you can tackle more exciting and challenging activities together, knowing that you can be secure in your partner’s support and ability to handle the situation on both your behalves, no matter what crops up.

4. When to Share

Once your initial hesitation in meeting someone has been overcome and you are either considering starting or have started a relationship with someone, the big question becomes when is it the right time to tell them about your condition? There is no right or wrong answer here, but it will be necessary at some point if the relationship is going to develop into something more serious. It’s completely understandable that this may be something you are initially nervous or reluctant to do, fearing that it will be an awkward or uncomfortable conversation and not knowing what kind of reception the announcement will receive. I have over the years approached this very differently, from holding off telling someone for quite some time, to jumping straight in and getting it out of the way on day one. I still regrettably can’t say with certainty what the “right” time is, only that it will depend on you and your partner.

The general consensus among my friends and group members that have been through this, is that while it doesn’t need to be on the first date, sooner rather than later gives you the best chance of moving forward as a couple. After all, this will be something that is likely to impact them as well if you choose to be together. Unfortunately, the reality is that not everyone you meet will be equipped or have the maturity to handle what you need to tell them, the important thing to try to remember is that this is not a failure on your part. We all have baggage; the key is to find someone that will carry yours when you are unable to and that you would do the same for them.

Once you’ve told someone about your condition the next question becomes how much to tell them. This tends to be more personal and once the initial conversation has taken place, will likely occur more organically.

5. Have Realistic Expectations of your Partner

Once you have disclosed your condition to someone you care for it is extremely important that you have realistic expectations regarding your partner’s response. All of this is old hat to you by now but will be completely new to them. It is unfamiliar and they will need time to adjust. Making such an announcement effectively means you have altered the picture of how they thought this relationship would develop and function. When I was first diagnosed there was an adjustment period during which I had to come to terms with my new life. I have learnt that a partner may require the same consideration before they too can come to terms with it. Even if their response was not exactly what you were hoping for, give them some time—chances are they’ll get there.

Try not to get frustrated. Your partner may ask you questions you have answered a hundred times before. Be aware that for them this is their first time asking it. You don’t want to discourage them from learning about this aspect of your life, so your response and approach matters and should be considered. Encourage reading from reputable sources, invite them to a doctor’s appointment so they can ask questions. Be open to the fact that this is a new journey for them but still one they are hoping to take with you.

Be clear on what your needs are. It’s common for a partner to “want to fix it”. We know this is not possible so instead offer practical ways in which they can support you. After all, toothpaste in the sink or water on the floor are usually nothing more than relationship irritations. For someone with a chronic condition this could pose a very real health risk. Define what these triggers are for you, don’t expect your partner to be able to guess what you need from them. Acknowledge the ways they do help you, open communication including gratitude goes a long way.

6. Acknowledge Your Partner’s Needs

An extremely vital point that often gets overlooked is to remember that just because your partner does not face the same challenges as you do, they still have needs, they still deserve care and attention and will have their own difficulties to face. Finding balance when one partner’s needs are at the forefront due to necessity can be difficult. The important thing is to acknowledge this and not belittle the needs they do have. If you really do not have the capacity to take it on in that moment, offer to revisit it so that your partner knows the have been heard and acknowledged.

Remember to take care of yourself, no one can pour from an empty cup. So to meet your partner’s needs, which are also important, you need to also put time into yourself. Essentially you may need to be a little selfish in order not to be completely selfish.

7. Because You are Worth it

Many of us with these conditions question our own worth and what we bring to the table in a relationship. Know that your condition is not all you are, you are worthy of love and acceptance, you have much to offer. The right partner will not only accept you as you are but will know that you are a warrior and will be willing to fight alongside you. So, value and love yourself, know when to walk away, not everyone is worthy of your limited time and energy but don’t close yourself off to the possibility of a successful and healthy relationship – it’s infinitely possible. What you receive from a partner who is willing to support you through this combined journey is invaluable.

So, this February and the months that follow go have fun, date, have romantic adventures, open yourself up to the idea that you are wanted and are so much more than your condition would sometimes have you believe. Your fairy tale might start off a little differently but can still end in happily ever after.

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Article Author
Arthritis National Research Foundation

The Arthritis National Research Foundation's mission is to provide initial research funding to brilliant, investigative scientists with new ideas to cure arthritis and related autoimmune diseases. Writing articles about the patients affected and the science being done to find a cure shows why we need to come together to #CureArthritis!

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