Ask A Therapist: Dating after Diagnosis

Dating with Diagnosis

I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) at just twelve years old, so all of my dating and relationship experiences  happened later and were in the context of illness. In my case, I didn’t have to adjust to dating with MS. I never knew what dating was like as a healthy individual. As a result, I was the address for many phone calls from people trying to navigate dating in a totally new context which, for me, was the norm. 

Because dating with a diagnosis is all I’ve known, I have a very different perspective on dating and relationships than most people. Many couples have to learn how to choose their battles. That was never really a challenge for me because needing help walking or having to pause an argument to catheterize kept a very powerful perspective on what mattered most in life. I am frequently asked a range of questions when it comes to dating but today I want to focus on the most common concern. 

What If Someone Won’t Want to Date Me Because of My Diagnosis?

This is a very common and understandable fear. As patients, we know what it’s like living with illness. And if we met a dating prospect who had a diagnosis, we might think twice because we know what it entails. If you haven’t already experienced this, I can tell you straight out, it is likely that someone will pass up dating you because of a diagnosis. I know that sounds terrible for me to say but it’s important to begin with realistic expectations. Especially because I don’t believe that is a bad thing at all. On the contrary, I think this is a great thing! I am going to say a few things on this topic that are not popular opinions, but I believe are essential to stay in the dating game with joy, wholeness, and hope. 

You Are Actually At An Advantage

I had many first dates that ended when the other person learned I had MS. I was honestly relieved. I preferred to know immediately that this wasn’t a person I could ever get serious with rather than find out on date five and be disappointed. Many people argue that by date five, a person might be more willing to make it work because of the bond. Personally, I like knowing someone’s first response to the challenge. 

Here’s why I am so OKAY with someone walking out because of a diagnosis: When others stand on their wedding day and promise “in sickness and in health,” they actually have no idea if their partner will actually stick it out with them. When dating with a diagnosis, you already know your partner is actually going to be there and not bail the moment things get rocky. So in truth, dating with illness is a very quick sorting strategy that allows you to date the best. It doesn’t mean it’s always the healthiest relationship, you still have to work on it, but you know you are getting a partner who doesn’t shy away from life. After all, all of life will be filled with challenges and our partners need to be people we can face those challenges with. 

It Isn’t About You

It can still hurt a ton when someone walks away because of illness. Having emotional support is of paramount importance to make sure you have space to feel all the feels around it. That said, I encourage you to be as understanding as possible when someone chooses not to explore a relationship. You don’t know how you would handle the same situation. While letting yourself feel the pain of it, remember that it is actually not about you. It seems like it on the surface, but it isn’t. It is about them. You didn’t get to have a choice in living with illness, they do get a choice and we know all too well how much we wish we could have been given a choice. Let them make their choices knowing it has nothing to do with you. The dating prospect can make this decision for a number of reasons so just hold tight to the knowing that it is not about you at all. Maybe they grew up with a parent with illness and it hurts them too much to go through it again. Maybe they just got a diagnosis themselves and aren’t ready to share it so it feels too real or confronting for them. They may not tell you their reasoning, but focus on finding a place inside of you to let that be OKAY. It will be the “make it or break it” of your journey to find a place in yourself that can let someone’s decision around this be about them and not you. Finding inner peace and having understanding for the other person’s choice is for your sake so that you don’t have to carry around even more emotional burden on top of illness.

You Are Not The Minority

I remember an acquaintance once telling me that she wasn’t going on a second date with a man because he had a chronic illness. Of course I was shocked because she was saying it to me of all people. But then I gave it some thought and realized that she herself had a number of issues someone else would not want to deal with including a diagnosis she was totally overlooking and mental health concerns. That is when I realized that pretty much everyone has something, whether physical or emotional. According to the CDC, six out of ten Americans have a chronic illness. When we get a diagnosis, it’s easy to feel like suddenly we are different and that someone will judge us. Unfortunately, we need to remember that actually having a diagnosis has become more normal than not. I know that an initial diagnosis can be a shock, trust me, I was there. Give yourself a little space after the shock to remind yourself that you are still 100% dating material and that this does not take you off the market or make you any less desirable. Half the dating pool is in the same boat.

It’s also important to look beyond yourself. Look around you for evidence of love with illness. People of all shapes and sizes, with all different types of abilities find love. On your toughest days, find that evidence. We are surrounded by it, so remember that it’s actually the norm. Think of friends who make it work and are in fact the “model” couple, a cousin who fell in love after an accident or diagnosis, even a public figure you might follow. You are not alone and it can be helpful to have evidence that this is possible.

It Can Give You A Leg-Up

We all wish we weren’t living with illness but hopefully we can all admit that we have learned and grown through the process. You now have deep wisdom and perspective to offer someone that you didn’t before- deeper compassion, more patience, life-skills, and inner strength. I’m not spewing toxic positivity here. I will always be the first person to be real about the challenges of illness. But let’s also be real about how much better of a partner you are with this new expanded personhood and life experience. It’s OK to wish you didn’t have this and at the same time see how you’ve grown. So please remember that you bring even more to the table now…and in the areas that matter most in relationships. As it turns out, in many ways this makes you even more eligible!

Don’t Lose YOU

You are still YOU. All the qualities you had before diagnosis still exist. Your sense of humor, intelligence, playfulness, kindness and anything else that you know about yourself. These are the things that make you YOU. These are the qualities that will attract your true partner, the kind of partner that you will be able to make beautiful memories with. Hold onto that and remind yourself every day of what makes you YOU. Most people struggle with self worth so if that’s challenging, I encourage you to find some guidance from a therapist or coach to help develop your self-worth. You are so much more than your diagnosis! Your “person” will see that.

Dating is More Meaningful

With your new appreciation for health and how fleeting life is, I believe you have the opportunity to not just continue dating but to have more joy doing it than ever before. When we learn firsthand just how short life is, we don’t waste time on frivolous things or arguments. We have the freedom to go all in, to be silly, to let our guard down, to love fully. Many people go a lifetime without that kind of experience. I wish you didn’t have to live with your new circumstances, but since this is the new reality, I encourage you to seize it by making dating more fun and more meaningful than you ever thought possible. Dating with a diagnosis could be a gift in disguise and you might just get the love story you thought was only possible in movies. 


Finally, I am cheering you on! I know dating after diagnosis can feel scary. But, I really do believe that you will discover that you are about to have a better relationship than ever before. Yes it will still take work, but you have a completely new lens on life. From personal experience I can tell you that the best is yet to come! So go enjoy! What seems scary right now might be the thing you’ve always been waiting for!


By Kaley Zeitouni

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