Navigating the rocky road of dating and relationships is challenging enough when you're perfectly healthy. Having a degenerative disorder like multiple sclerosis (MS) can throw up additional barriers at every turn, from deciding whether to disclose your status on a first date to grappling with issues of intimacy down the road.
Though the path to a satisfying relationship may require unexpected U-turns and alternate routes, make no mistake: People with MS can and do date, experience intimacy, and thrive in long-term relationships.
In some ways, each person with multiple sclerosis lives with a different illness. Although nerve damage is always involved, the pattern is unique for each individual with MS.
Specific experiences with MS may vary widely, but doctors and researchers have identified several major types of MS. The categories are important because they help predict disease severity and response to treatment.
For a glimpse of what adults with MS can expect en route to building and maintaining relationships, we turned to the experts: adults living with MS, and the professionals who help them along the way.
How Soon Do You Tell?
We all have skeletons in our closet. But we don't always know when to let them out.
"I don't think secrets are a good thing. But when you go out with someone for the first time, you don't owe that person much of anything," says clinical psychologist Rosalind Kalb, PhD, director of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Professional Resource Center. "But as soon as you've decided that this person is worth more of your time and attention, I think it's important to start sharing all kinds of information about yourself."
Even then, you can't guarantee what kind of response you'll get. That's what 28-year-old Michele Mullis, who's had MS for five years, has learned.
"Telling someone about your MS is a struggle for many reasons. When you're first getting to know someone, it's not a discussion that's pleasant or fun. There are a lot of education-type questions that are asked. It's a big process to go through with someone you may or may not like," Mullis says.
That's why she waited three months to tell someone she was dating about her MS.
"He was completely offended that I would hide it from him. I think he felt like I was being deceitful. Subsequently, he didn't want to date me anymore," Mullis tells WebMD.
Now, she handles things differently.
"As I've matured, I've become more comfortable with myself and who I am, and sometimes I've told people on the first date. I also date people significantly more mature and educated," Mullis says.
She also admits to having a different view of dating, which she attributes to both a growing maturity and an acceptance of herself as someone who has MS.
"I definitely feel like I am more comfortable with who I am and, subsequently, I have fewer expectations from others. I realize I have to make the decision to make myself happy," Mullis tells WebMD. "I'm not seeking a man to fulfill those needs."