Dating someone new means learning about each other's quirky behaviors, emotional baggage, and the past experiences that have shaped both of your lives. But what if this involves a health or medical secret you're hesitant to talk about?
Jill*, a 33-year-old from New York City, knows that finding Mr. Right also means telling him that she has bipolar disorder. Though she takes medication to manage her condition, she still lives with residual symptoms: She has trouble sleeping for more than two hours at a time, and can't shake her cigarette habittraits that she feels a date might question.
“Its the smoking and lack of sleeping; its hard to share your life with someone when you need to explain further why you do these things,” she says. Related links:
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Jill* knows that shell eventually have to confess her situation to a long-term partner. “Its something that will affect me if and when I settle down and have children, since I would not be able to take these medicines [while pregnant],” she explains. “Its never an easy thing to come clean with.”
Not every relationship hides a secret like this one, but plenty of people face similar decisions about how much they should tell a new companion. Some confidential information can't stay that way foreverif you take daily medication or if you have a condition with visible symptoms, for example. Other events in your medical history, such as addictions, mental illness, past surgeries, and health scares, can easily remain a secretbut should they?
If you're considering telling your partner about a health secret, here are eight tips to help you spill the beans.
1. Practice what to say
Before you drop a bomb on a potential mate, rehearse your speech with a trusted friend or visit a therapist to talk it through, suggests Ken Robbins, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
“Its good to have somebody as a sounding board in a situation like this,” he says. “How you handle this is not something your partner is likely to forget.”
Laurie Davis, an online dating expert based in New York and Boston, suggests asking a friend what sounds most intimidating about your condition and getting his or her advice on how to smooth it over. Getting a second opinion can help you decide how much to say (and when and where to say it), and running through your script a few times can make you more comfortable sharing your story.
“You dont want to overwhelm your partner but you want to be sure to give him or her all of the important facts,” Davis says. “You should definitely practice before you tell your match, or youll most likely fumble through the conversation uncomfortably.”
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 dont think I was ever able to shake off the feeling I was springing the information on him, usually when we were either out to dinner and he wanted to order a bottle of wine, or at a party where alcohol was introduced,” he says. “I often blurted out, ‘Oh, I dont drink. Sorry.”
That changed, however, as he got used to talking about his condition. “As time went on, and I got more comfortable with this side of my life, 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. “I realize my blurting-it-out style was my own insecurities about sobriety. I celebrate it now.”
* Some names have been changed for privacy.
Next Page: Never tell on a first date
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2. Never tell on a first date
“Never tell someone on a first date,” Davis says. “The results will never be favorable.”
Dr. Robbins seconds that, especially if youre worried that your health secret “is likely to define you before the person has gotten a chance to know you at all.”
That doesnt mean you should liejust let your partner get to know you first. “[Revealing too much too soon] may color how your partner sees you,” Dr. Robbins says. “It defines you before youre ready to be defined.”
Jenny*, a 25-year-old graduate student from New York, had a breast augmentation when she was 19. “I dont really bring it up, not when Im first dating people,” she says. “But Ive had people ask and Im always honest with them. I wouldnt see a reason to keep it a secret, especially if were getting serious.”
If youre worried that your health secret might be a deal-breaker, youll want to '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 wont have wasted too much of their timeor yours.
“Of course it can be painful, but if thats the case, its better to know before you get too involved,” Sussman says. “Its complicated if you withhold it and they find out too late. Dishonesty can ruin a potentially good relationship.”
Jill*, the 33-year-old from New York City, is currently in a long-distance relationship. However, she hasnt told him about her bipolar disorderyet.
“Too much too soon is not a good thing…. [But] I truly believe when you share a life with someone, you need to be in it together,” she says. “Men go bald; women gain weight after pregnancy. Its not all roses and Champagne.”
3. Be casual yet confident
So exactly how does one reveal a secret without just blurting it out? “Its hard not to kill the mood with your health secret, because its probably not something that can be easily segued from a topic you would normally discuss,” Davis says. She recommends a conversation bridge, such as, “I feel like were heading in a great direction, so I wanted to tell you something.”
Just dont overdo it: “You dont want to frame this in a way that ends up making a bigger deal of something you dont want made into a big deal,” Dr. Robbins says. In other words, make your delivery as drama free as possible.
Allison*, a 30-year-old marketer from Baltimore, tries to casually tell dates about her multiple sclerosis (MS).
“Usually Ill work it into another aspect of our conversation,” she says. “Its 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.”
However, even a casual, well-prepared speech doesnt always meet with success.
“One guy just clammed up and didnt want to say anything or go anywhere because, in his eyes, I might get hurt,” Allison* says. “And another guy became very controlling and tried to tell me what I should and shouldnt be doing for my health. Um, youre not my doctor, dude.”
Allisons dates probably have their heart in the right place. “Theyre trying to be helpful because they care about her,” Dr. Robbins says. He suggests that she have a confident, straightforward response about how she would like them to react; something like: “I dont see this as something that defines mebut if I need help, please leave it to me to ask.”
* Some names have been changed for privacy.
Next Page: Don't have this conversation in bed
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4. Don't have this conversation in bedor anyplace you associate with intimacy
Although this is a good guideline to follow when dealing with all types of relationship secrets, theres only one instance in which it is a hard-and-fast rule, Sussman says: “Dont wait until youre naked in bed with someone to tell them you have an STD.”
Thats true for any condition, Davis adds. But Dr. Robbins notes that if your health secret is a sexually transmitted disease (STD), youre going to have to open up to someone sooner rather than later.
“If its something thats going to have a direct effect on your partner, its something youre going to want to talk about sooner, as opposed to an illness that isnt contagious,” Dr. Robbins says. “If its something like hepatitis C, you really do have to talk about that very early.”
Amy, a 29-year-old graphic artist from Chicago, jokes that hepatitis C is the only thing she has in common with Pamela Anderson. But shes serious when it comes to telling boyfriends about her illness, which she got through a blood transfusion at birth.
“There is less than a 3% chance of transmission within a monogamous relationship, but Ive always been truthful and upfront about it, whether I ended up in a sexual relationship with someone or not,” she says. “They have a right to know.”
An ideal place to tell someone about your health secretwhether its a communicable disease or any other conditionis a park, Davis says. Just make sure theres no one within earshot.
“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.”
5. Seek out relationships online
If you tend to meet potential partners through online networks such as Facebook or Match.com, you shouldnt hint in your profile that youre concealing a health secret. However, if you're nervous about rejection or misunderstandings, you might be more comfortable dating someone with similar health issues.
There are many niche sites that cater to people with specific conditions, and theyre a great way to be up-front with potential mates who are in the same boat, Davis says.
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.
6. Know when to give your partner space
Even if you do your best to deliver a snag-free speech, its possible that 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 Ill 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 havent reached out to you. Let them know that they are still on your mind and you cant wait to see them again.”
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7. Dont take rejection personally
“A good person will listen and be kind and not judge, but if [your health secret is] something they cant live with, that doesnt make them a bad person,” says Sussman. “It just makes them a bad match.”
And there can be multiple reasons for a rejectionmany of which have nothing to do with you at all. “If your mother was an alcoholic and you date someone whos an alcoholic, you might have to make a choice that its not healthy to be involved with someone in recovery,” Sussman says.
Besides, your perfect match will accept you no matter what, Davis says: “If things were going well up until the time you told them, keep in mind that they rejected your health condition, not you. At the end of the day, it means that they were not the one.”
8. Accept support
Tiffany Sanchez Conover, 28, a store manager from northern Indiana, settled into a deep depression after her grandmother died. She slept all day, stopped eating, and became socially withdrawneven with her husband. Still, she kept her depression hidden, because she wanted to “figure it out on my own.”
“[Eventually] I felt like I had to tell him because I could feel the strain it was placing on our relationship,” she says. “A person can only take so much of their spouse not wanting anything to do with them before they start assuming the worst, an affair.”
Tiffanys husband was hurt that she hadnt told him earlier, but he was glad she finally confessed. “After I told him, he was as supportive as could be,” she says. “He would stay up late to talk with me just so I wouldnt feel lonely late at night, even though Im sure he really wanted to go to bed.”
Its especially important for married couples to be open to avoid hiccups in the relationship, Sussman says. “In healthy marriages, people lean on each other and are honest with each other,” she explains. “You can never lose by being honest.”
Tiffany knows that now: She and her husband recently went through a series of failed fertility treatments after finding out she likely cannot have children on her own. “I probably share too much now,” she says, laughing. “But it works for us. If I didnt tell my husband how I felt about it all every day, I probably would end up depressed again.”
A counselor also helped Tiffany to get through the initial rough patch. Therapy and support groupswhether online or in personare excellent options, according to Sussman. “Name the illness and theres a support group,” she says. “If you go to your supportive community, youll hear stories of how people have handled these things in the past.”