Dating Someone With Fibromyalgia
My date's lips are moving, but the subtle anecdote is obliterated by sirens of pain coursing through every inch of my body. A throbbing ache seeps down my legs, stabbing pains demand attention as they toy with my ribs and searing agony is wreaking havoc across my back and down the spine.
Throughout the encounter, I see their interest waning as my focus slips in and out as each wave of pain crests. After an hour, my inattention leads to a failed date.
I have lived with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition, for about 15 years. After many failed dates and poor first impressions, I learned to manage my love life with the condition. Chronic pain still influences every aspect of my life, but I refuse to allow it to demolish my chances at finding love. Dating someone with fibromyalgia doesn't need to be complicated.
What is fibromyalgia?
"Fibromyalgia is a rheumatic disease characterized by long-term, widespread pain and severe fatigue," said Rosmy Barrios, M.D., a regenerative health specialist in Serbia. "As it is not yet fully understood why people develop fibromyalgia, there is no specific test for it. Therefore, the disease diagnosis is usually made by excluding other possible conditions."
From age 14, I struggled with ever-increasing levels of pain, ranging from dull aches and stabbing pains to throbbing joints and excruciating nerve pain, as well as bone-crushing fatigue. The diagnostic process took eight years as specialists ran every test imaginable before settling on fibromyalgia.
Symptoms vary between patients, but the markers include increased sensitivity to pain, muscle stiffness, fatigue, sleep disturbances and difficulties with mental processing.
"Such a disease can severely affect not only the romantic life but life fundamentally," Barrios said. "Apart from the pain and constant fatigue that plagues the whole body, a person may be more prone to depression and anxiety."
Anyone can develop the condition but it affects approximately seven times more women than men, according to the United Kingdom National Health Service. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 4 million adults in the United States live with fibromyalgia, which has no known cure but can be managed with pain relief, therapy and lifestyle changes.
Effect on self-esteem
"People with health conditions can feel self-conscious and different from friends who can't relate," said Charlotte Fox Weber, a psychotherapist in London and author of "What We Want: A Journey Through Twelve of Our Deepest Desires." "There's often a grief for the way things used to be, and a health condition can feel like an identity shift."
If not kept in check, Weber said the situation can spiral out of control.
"There can be a guilt-ridden sense of trying to compensate for the burden in other ways, as though there's a debt for bringing a health condition," she said. "Paying for things, treating for lavish occasions can go too far if it comes from a place of believing that this is requisite."
There is a fine line between acknowledging the effects a chronic health condition has on loved ones and overcorrecting to "protect" people from its impact.
Mitigating the impact
Breaking the cycle was a trial, and the concept of being vulnerable while dating paralyzed me with fear. Many aspects of my life were dictated by pain levels, and one too many unhealthy relationships had chased away any hope of romantic fulfillment.
I took an extended break from dating to recover my self-esteem and identify the cracks in need of filling. Weber agreed this approach is necessary for self-preservation.
"This is a question to ask yourself about pretty much anything: Is it life-enhancing or life-diminishing?" she said. "If dating is life-diminishing right now, give yourself a respite and do something life-enhancing instead."
While no one should engage in dating before ready, resigning yourself to a life without love is unnecessary. After taking some time to rebuild my foundation, I adopted a cautious approach and used casual meetups to test the waters.
"Be strategic and clever in the way you date," advised Frances Kelleher, a dating coach based in Ireland. "For instance, have a video call with potential partners to see if there is a connection there before you waste a lot of time and energy getting ready and going out to meet them."
Using digital dates to ensure prospective dates demonstrate empathy and understanding prevents wasting my limited energy on bad in-person dates.
I also inform dates about fibromyalgia before meeting to raise awareness. No one is owed your health history, but openness eases the feeling of being a burden to others, because acknowledging its life-limiting effects reminds me it's not life-ending.
"Some cannot make love because of painful muscle spasms, but there are also those for whom the disease does not interfere in any way with their sexual life," Barrios said. "In any case, it is always advisable to enlighten your partner about your condition and ask for understanding and patience."
Fibromyalgia has played defense against my sex life too many times. Sometimes it makes my favorite positions impossible, and at other times, the pain is too overwhelming to allow pleasure to register.
Identifying my triggers, such as overexertion and extreme heat, allows me to manage flares and mitigate the impact fibromyalgia has on sex. Prioritizing less impactful positions, like missionary and doggy style, prevents sex itself from becoming a trigger for pain.
Acknowledging the limitations fibromyalgia inflicts does not amount to failure. Dating someone with fibromyalgia just requires compassion and the exploration of new pathways to pleasure.