The year was 2000 and everything I’d ever known about dating seemed to have changed since the last time I was “out there.” I tiptoed into the dating world via one of the match-up websites. It was like being a kid in a candy store . . . except this kid was 50 years old, had a chronic disease, and was pretty nervous about the whole thing.
I decided my profile wasn’t the place to reveal the fact that I had RA. Instead, I simply made it clear that my interests were more cerebral than athletic. As I checked out the men’s profiles, I ruled out anyone who clearly wanted a physically active woman as a partner. I focused on their values instead, hoping to find someone who saw the world the way I did. Tentatively, I began contacting a few men and I received some contacts myself. I decided I would tell anyone I saw that I had RA by the end of our first meeting. If RA was a deal breaker, I wanted to know right away.
Dating was a rocky road. Sometimes I had to remind myself that I had a great deal to offer despite having an autoimmune disease. I was smart, creative, self-supporting, kind-hearted and easygoing, I told myself. All that had to count for something, right? Anyway, I was not in a rush. I’d jumped into my second marriage and I wasn’t going to jump again. Instead, I tried to enjoy the process. Some of it was pretty funny. There was the sweet guy who, I discovered halfway through our coffee date, had been childhood best friends with my first ex-husband. Somehow, I knew that wasn’t going to work out. Then there was the guy I really liked—handsome, smart, and a musician—who told me on our fourth date that he’d served time in prison for some unsavory acts. Ummm . . . bye-bye! And I thought revealing I had RA was tough!
“What we need from our partners is compassion, understanding, and patience—the qualities we’d want in a partner even if we were healthy.”
Quite early in the process, I met a guy I really liked. We connected intellectually and spiritually, plus he had written a book and of course that was seductive to me. He wasn’t the least bit put off by my RA. We dated exclusively for months, but he wanted to get married and I didn’t, so we ended our relationship as friends and I went back to the match-up site.
RA was definitely a factor as I explored the dating world. I met one guy at a coffee shop and as we got to know each other, I felt intrigued. I found him attractive and his interests coincided beautifully with my own. As we talked, it was clear that we were both growing excited about the possibility of a relationship. Then he told me why his last relationship ended: his girlfriend had lupus and he couldn’t handle the limitations it placed on their lives. My heart sank. I told him about my RA and knew that was the end of our potential relationship. We parted sadly. Ironically, a couple of years later when I was again in the dating scene, I bumped into him, once more in a coffee shop. We recognized each other but had forgotten what we’d talked about on our date. As we chatted, we again felt that exciting connection . . . until he mentioned his ex with lupus and we both remembered why we’d never gotten together. Drat. We laughed as it all came back to us, but I wasn’t laughing inside.
Does it sound as though I met a lot of guys? I did. My coffee dates felt like a second job and I met so many men—69, to be exact—that I kept a list to keep from getting them confused. Some of them turned into friends I enjoyed getting together with for a meal or a game of Scrabble, but there was no one who felt like a potential long-term partner to me. I was quite burned out on the whole dating thing by the time I was 54. Then I met John, number 70. At the end of our first date, I told him I had RA.
“And I have Crohn’s,” he replied, and I knew he understood the challenges of living with a chronic disease. A year later, we bought a house in North Carolina and have now been together for 13 years. We’ve both experienced serious health crises during that time. We sometimes go to medical appointments with each other, something I highly recommend couples do to better understand one another’s illness. Being better informed has helped us to help each other.
I would never say both members of a couple need to have a chronic illness for a relationship to be successful. What we need from our partners is compassion, understanding, and patience—the qualities we’d want in a partner even if we were healthy. But it has helped to be with someone who truly understands. John knows what it’s like to be laid low by a flare. He understands that there always seems to be something new going on with these diseases, something that we have to deal with and need support to get through.
We all have to decide how to handle revealing our illness with potential (and current) partners as well as with friends. I tend to be a very open person who confides easily, but that may not be the most comfortable approach for you. What I try to remember above all else is that I’m not my illness. Think about those parts of yourself that have nothing to do with RA: your sense of humor, your love of family, your passion for music or art or books. It’s those qualities we bring to our relationships. They are the things that truly matter.