Talking About Your MS: Disclosing to a Prospective Partner

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is typically diagnosed in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, when many people are looking for their significant others. Dating isn’t all that easy under the best of circumstances, so getting diagnosed with a chronic illness obviously adds another challenge. No one likes rejection, and everyone tries to find ways to avoid it.

So, leaving the playing field may be tempting in order to avoid the risk of being hurt or rejected by someone who’s turned off by your MS. However, the result of that strategy isn’t so comfy either. Following are some ideas of how to present your MS in the dating world.

Say you’re about to go out on a date with this incredibly attractive person you’ve been eyeing for a long time. Your MS is behaving pretty well at the moment and you’re wondering whether you should talk about it. Or, perhaps a friend has fixed you up with someone she “knows you’ll just love.”

Now you’re trying to figure out whether to bring your cane so you’ll feel steadier on your feet or whether you should tough it out and hope for the best in the two-inch heels you’ve been dying to wear. Or, maybe you want to ask someone out but you’re just not sure whether you have an obligation to talk about your MS.

You may even be wondering whether the dating part of your life is over — because, after all, who would want to get into a relationship with a person who has MS? The truth of the matter is that people with MS do go on dates, fall in love, and find partners for life. However, in addition to the challenges everyone faces, there are a few added ones for those living with an unpredictable illness.

The starting point for dealing with these challenges is communication. Here are some helpful hints for making dating a little easier:

  • Reaching out to a new person always involves some risk, and nobody ever knows what the final outcome will be until they try. Even though some people may be put off by your MS, others won’t be, particularly if you remember to show off your whole self, of which MS is only a part.

  • A first date doesn’t have to be a show-all, tell-all event (although that can be fun too!). Don’t feel like you have to start with a “Hello, my name is Harry and I have MS” declaration. Your goal the first time you’re out with someone is to figure out whether it was worth your time and effort and if you ever want to see that person again.

    If you have any visible symptoms — your leg drags or you use a cane to help with balance — you have the option to explain it, but you don’t have to. The bottom line is that you don’t owe any information on a first date that you’re not comfortable sharing.

  • After you know that the other person is someone you want to spend more time with, get to know better, and develop more of a relationship with, start sharing more information. A very good general rule is to ask yourself when you would want to know similar information about the other person.

    Most people have issues in their lives — health-, family-, or work-related issues — that they have some concerns about sharing. Generally when people with MS begin talking about their health issues, they find that other people have one thing or another to share as well.

  • When you decide that it’s time to talk about your MS, you need to be prepared to let the person react in his or her own way. This may be difficult. One person may come back at you with a lot of questions, while another may dismiss it with “Oh, that’s no big deal.” Or, another person may clam up.

    Plan ahead a bit. Consider your personal style: Do you tend to use a lot of humor or are you more comfortable with facts and figures? Also consider the other person’s style and try to anticipate possible reactions, questions, or concerns. This is where you need to don your teaching hat. And then you need to sit back and give the person time and space to react.

You may think that the best strategy is to put off talking about your MS until the relationship is really solid. Even though this may be tempting, the better strategy is to take the risk early on — before you’ve invested your heart and soul.

Long-term relationships are full of challenges, with or without MS thrown in. Just think — no matter what the situation, a relationship requires you to be able to communicate comfortably, problem-solve together, and work effectively as a team.

Even though thinking about discussing your diagnosis, your current symptoms and treatments, and the unpredictability of MS may be scary, avoiding these topics in the early days of a relationship is a setup for stress and conflict later.

Building a strong relationship on a foundation of half-truths is impossible. Instead, it’s better to get it all out in the open so that you can begin to work together to address this and other challenges in your lives.

We heard a story recently about a young man who told his fiancée about his MS on the eve of their wedding. When asked why she postponed the wedding, she responded that it had nothing to do with his having MS — that she could handle. The reason was that he hadn’t trusted her enough with this important part of his life. Thus, she thought they needed to spend more time getting to know each other.

For her, honesty and trust were far more important than MS. Had the young man taken the risk of disclosing his diagnosis early on, he would have saved himself a lot of worry and discovered something pretty nice about the woman he loved.

So, even though talking about your MS with someone you really like is difficult, it’s far better to get it out in the open early on. Everyone needs to find out how a prospective life partner feels about important life issues, and you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that MS isn’t the most important thing you bring to the table.

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