Sunday, February 17, 2019

Dating and MS: Loving and Risking Heartache

I used to feel such relief that I was married and didn’t need to be out in the dating world.  It sounded horrible, and I enjoyed having my relationship set with the expectation there’d be no divorce.  Then I started having health issues and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis after 15 years of marriage.  
When a married person is diagnosed with MS, the rate of divorce is about the same as the general population, but the gender disparity is enormous. A study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that women diagnosed with MS are six times more likely to get divorced than men diagnosed with MS.  Women tend to stay with their husbands when the man encounters cancer or chronic illness, and marriages tend to end when the woman is diagnosed.  This statistic doesn’t even address the situations where people stay in a marriage with a caregiver partner involving abuse.  People with MS are more likely to be victims of domestic violence including mental, verbal, financial, sexual, and physical abuse and neglect. The fear of being alone or the ability to live independently overrides the pain of living in an unhealthy relationship.
I know my health created issues in my marriage. I enjoyed being a strong, caretaking woman, and that worked in my marriage for many years.  Then MS entered my life, and the dynamics changed.  I changed.  My diagnosis not only added a level of fear for the future, it shifted my perspective on life.  It motivated me to do everything in my power to enjoy life, be as healthy as possible, and learn healthier relationship skills.  Improving my emotional and physical health made the cracks in our marriage glaring. Ultimately, we weren’t able to grow together, and we divorced.  
With years alone and working on improving my life, I recently delved into the dating world.  It was intimidating and made me feel vulnerable.  The landmines to navigate increase when dating and living with MS, and the potential heartache is scary.  
I’m learning that my emotional wellbeing is fragile and can be easily hurt with people who don’t have healthy relationship skills. While I don’t want to judge or demand perfection from people, I am trying to assess whether a relationship that will be good for both of us is possible.  It takes time to get to know someone to see beyond the chemistry, and I’m going to get attached before that point happens in any new relationship.
I’ve come to believe that learning how to recover from rejection is more my style than trying to protect myself from feeling heartache.  Protecting myself feels like withholding, and I’m not comfortable starting a relationship feeling like I’m hiding.  I want to enter a relationship with an open heart and provide full disclosure for possible deal-breakers. I know that some people may take advantage of that or judge me as foolish, but I don’t know of any other way to be genuine and true to myself. 
As such, I embraced dating as an opportunity to meet people and learn more about what matters to me in a relationship.  
I’ve consistently disclosed I have MS on the first date when the match looked promising.  I describe it as a fact of my life that may be a deal-breaker for them, and I let them know it’s okay if it is.  My logic is that I don’t want to waste time with someone who isn’t up for it. I’d rather they have the opportunity to decide early if they’re up for it rather than wait and learn later.  Waiting to disclose would feel like I’m hiding or feeling shame about the facts of my life and health.  I have more information about my possible declining health than others, but the fact is none of us knows what the future holds for us. 
I dated one person who ghosted me after three months of seeing each other.  It was surprising to me in the moment, but it’s not surprising in hindsight.  After a few days of feeling hurt, I shifted to being grateful that he’d ended it for us.  It helped me see which behaviors should be deal-breakers for me. I realized I’d put chemistry ahead of things that matter to me, and I’d dismissed things that won’t lead to a relationship that is good for me.  
Moving forward with a new relationship, I’m planning to review the list of relationship questions I’ll ask periodically.  These questions will be different for each person, and I’m working on feeling confident in mine as reasonable.  If my expectations are too much for someone, it means that person isn’t right for me.   If they end things with me, I’m working on seeing it as them doing me a favor rather than feeling rejected.  
I’m also working on not putting too much pressure on myself to figure out forever right now.  I think anticipating what the future holds and having discussions about how our lives might meld are necessary. These are the fun discussions about our bucket lists, careers, hopes and dreams.  These are also the vulnerable discussions about how my health affects me now and how it may lead to disability someday.  None of us have guarantees for the future, and I’m trying to plan my future with a range of health situations.  I may be exactly as I am now with continued common aging issues, or I may need to live in an assisted living facility with daily care.  For now, I anticipate my future will be somewhere in between. I’m likely to need a cane or walker someday, but I’m optimistic I’ll be able to work until early retirement age and live independently.  I could be completely right, or I may be completely wrong. I’ll know more as each year passes. 
We all have aspects of our lives and personalities that are deal-breakers for someone else.  We are also all worth loving.  The right person for me will acknowledge my health, will want to meet my needs, and will see my MS as a part of me that makes me the person I am. A rejection from someone is something to receive as a gift. They’ve let me know they aren’t right for me, and they’ve freed me to find someone who is. 

1.    Gender disparity in the rate of partner abandonment in patients with serious medical illness.
Study Source: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
November 10, 2009
Summary: A woman is six times more likely to be separated or divorced soon after a diagnosis of cancer or multiple sclerosis than if a man in the relationship is the patient, according to a study that examined the role gender played in so-called "partner abandonment." The study also found that the longer the marriage the more likely it would remain intact.

2.    Relationship Between Domestic Violence and Multiple Sclerosis
Margie O’Leary, MSN, RN, MSCN; Sherie Lammers; Anne Mageras, BSW; Marilyn Boyd, MSCN; Rose Constantino, PhD, RN; Rock Heyman, MD
International Journal of MS Care

3.     Caregiver Abuse and Neglect of People with Multiple Sclerosis(P06.198)
Elizabeth Morrison, Aileen Wiglesworth, Dara Sorkin, Laura Mosqueda
April 26, 2012; 78 (1 Supplement) 
First published February 8, 2016,