Dating someone new means sharing idiosyncracies, emotional baggage, and experiences that have shaped your lives. But what if that includes a health secret? Jill*, a 33-year-old New Yorker, knows that finding Mr. Right also means telling him she has bipolar disorder. Though she takes medication, she still lives with symptoms like insomnia and a nervous smoking habit. So how much should you reveal about a health secret? If you’re considering spilling the beans, here are eight tips to help.
*Some names have been changed for privacy.
1. Practice what to say
Rehearse with a friend or therapist, says Ken Robbins, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Laurie Davis, an online dating expert, suggests asking a friend what sounds most intimidating, and then smoothing it over. Mark Snyder, a 32-year-old writer from New York City, used to dread telling a new boyfriend that he was a recovering alcoholic. “I often blurted out, ‘Oh, I don’t drink. Sorry.’” However, as he got used to talking about his condition, "So did the ease with which I told a man not to expect a tequila-scented smooch at the end of the night,” he says.
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“Never tell someone your secret on a first date,” says Davis, who is based in New York and Boston. That doesn’t mean you should lie, but revealing too much too soon “may color how your partner sees you,” Dr. Robbins says. “It defines you before you’re ready to be defined.”
If you’re worried your health secret might be a deal-breaker, ’fess up by the fourth date, says Rachel A. Sussman, LCSW, a New York City therapist and relationship expert. That way, if your secret does make a big difference, you won’t have wasted too much of their time — or yours.
Davis suggests saying, “I feel like we’re heading in a great direction, so I wanted to tell you something.” Be sure your delivery is drama free; don't make a big deal about it, Dr. Robbins says. Allison*, a 30-year-old marketer from Baltimore, casually tells dates about her multiple sclerosis (MS). “I’ll work it into another aspect of our conversation,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to tell someone I have MS as a side note in a conversation than to sit down and have a formal discussion focused solely on MS.”
Amy, a 29-year-old graphic artist from Chicago, always tells boyfriends about her hepatitis C, which she got through a blood transfusion at birth. “They have a right to know,” she says. Any talk about your condition — whether it’s communicable or not — should take place in a neutral spot, like a park, Davis suggests. “Do not tell your partner during intimacy. Telling your partner your health secret means you are opening up to them, trusting them, and becoming more vulnerable,” she says. “The place you choose to tell them should reflect this.”
If you’re nervous about rejection, you might be more comfortable dating someone with similar health issues. Many sites cater to people with specific conditions, and they’re a great way to be up front with potential mates who are in the same boat. Daters with STDs can check out STDFriends.com or PositiveSingles.com, while Whispers4u.com is a great site for people with disabilities, according to Davis. NoLongerLonely.com helps those with mental illness seek partners. “However, you should discuss the volatility of your specific condition with your doctor before signing up,” Davis says.
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Even if you deliver a snag-free speech, it’s possible there could be an awkward moment. “(If that happens), say, ‘I can tell by your expression that this is a lot to digest and I completely understand, and I’ll give you the time and space to do that,’” Sussman says. Then, offer some physical distance but stay in contact, Davis says. “Give them the following day to breathe and think,” she suggests. “Call them on the third day if they haven’t reached out to you. Let them know that they are still on your mind and you can’t wait to see them again.”
“A good person will listen and be kind and not judge, but if (your health secret is) something they can’t live with, that doesn’t make them a bad person,” says Sussman. “It just makes them a bad match.” And, there can be multiple reasons for a rejection — many of which have nothing to do with you at all. “If your mother was an alcoholic and you date someone who’s an alcoholic, you might have to make a choice that it’s not healthy to be involved with someone in recovery,” Sussman says.
Tiffany Sanchez Conover, 28, a store manager from Indiana, fell into a deep depression after her grandmother died. She didn’t tell her husband how she felt because she wanted to figure it out on her own. Eventually she caved and welcomed his support. “He would stay up late to talk with me just so I wouldn’t feel lonely late at night,” she says.
Married couples need to be open to avoid hiccups in the relationship, Sussman says. A counselor helped Tiffany cope, and Sussman says that therapy and support groups — whether online or in person — are excellent options.