MS Poses Challenge to Dating, Meeting People

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by Patricia Inacio PhD |

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Meeting people and dating is challenging for people with multiple sclerosis (MS), but the experience of dating is highly personal and influenced by past experiences and beliefs, a small study reveals.

The study, “Dating with a Diagnosis: The Lived Experience of People with Multiple Sclerosis,” was published in the journal Sexuality and Disability.

MS is a progressive neurodegenerative condition that typically occurs from the ages of 20 to 40, a key period during which relationships, particularly romantic ones, are built.

But invisible MS symptoms such as fatigue, pain, and cognitive problems can affect an individual’s ability to establish social interactions. While past research has delved into the impact of MS diagnosis in marriages or long-term relationships, how the condition affects dating remains poorly documented.

In this study, a group of researchers in Ireland asked MS patients about their dating experiences to better understand their challenges and provide valuable information to healthcare providers.

A total of seven patients, five women and two men (ages 23–51),  were recruited via the social media accounts (Facebook and Twitter), website, and mailing lists of the MS Ireland organization.

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Most had relapsing-remitting MS, one had primary progressive MS, and had been diagnosed 4–16 years prior to the study. Researchers conducted two rounds of Zoom interviews in June and July 2020. Five patients took part in the first interview and two participants in the second.

The questions focused on four major themes: disclosing the MS diagnosis; perceptions of having MS; impact of the disease in dating; and online dating and the impact of COVID-19.

The outcome of the interviews revealed that deciding when and how to disclose an MS diagnosis to a potential partner is a personal choice, intimately linked with patients’ past experiences and based on perceptions of the potential partner.

Certain patients prefer to disclose their MS early, as “they believe there is no point in developing a relationship with someone if the MS is not something that the potential partner can deal with,” the researchers wrote. Others prefer to wait and disclose it later in the relationship.

Patients who have experienced rejection due to their diagnosis are likely to withhold and hide their symptoms for as long as possible. However, they acknowledge that not sharing the MS diagnosis until late in the relationship may “lead to other problems such as feelings of betrayal and mistrust,” the researchers noted.

Receiving an MS diagnosis is a challenging period for patients, who have to deal with the emotional toll and address potential misconceptions about the disease. Some patients expressed relief for being single at the time of the diagnosis, which allowed them to have time to deal with their fears and concerns first.

Also, information available to the public about MS was viewed as alarming and not helpful. The person with MS was viewed as the best source of information about their disease, with patients having to explain to a potential partner which symptoms are relevant to them and which are not.

MS symptoms, such as pain, hypersensitivity, or fatigue, can limit dating activities and require more planning to consider practicalities, such as automobile parking and availability of places to take a break. Also, the unpredictable nature of MS was viewed as a potential challenge for couples, which can be overcome only by a partner “who is patient, understanding and willing to learn how to adapt to the uncertainty of MS.”

Maintaining an open and honest communication was deemed important, to avoid potential misunderstandings, such as the need for last-minute plan changes. Also, involving the partner in management of the disease, including doctor visits and lab tests, may help the partner understand better the challenges of living with MS.

Online dating apps were used frequently by people with MS, as it provides an opportunity to meet more people and a way to get to know a person better before meeting them face-to-face. Online dating was preferred among patients who do not go out often.

However, certain patients found online dating more intense and emotionally challenging as it requires strength to “put themselves out there.” Also, some patients believed “online dating is not realistic,” as a person may be different in real life.

The lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic was a trigger to push more patients to start dating online, as the opportunities to meet people face-to-face were limited. More patients are now connecting on dating apps and websites.

Despite the small number of participants, this small study reported how “dating with MS is shaped by differences in values, beliefs and experiences,” the researchers wrote.

“From this research, it is clear that MS has significant impacts on dating and can make the process of dating and searching for romantic partners more difficult. Further research is required to further explore the phenomenon of dating with MS with a broader population and understand the potential role of healthcare workers in this area,” the team concluded.

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