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Trying to Date with Ulcerative Colitis

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I hate farts. I hate the smell and the sound, but with ulcerative colitis (UC), what I hate most is not knowing what might come along with them. Saying farts are ‘just gas’ is the privilege of a healthy digestive system. With UC, the immune system attacks the bowel walls and can create catastrophe. Therefore, farts can tend to be wet, and you often don’t find out until after they’ve happened. They are best done in the privacy of a bathroom, not anywhere near a first date. 

What is Ulcerative Colitis?

It’s not like dating is easy in the first place, and COVID-19 made it a lot harder. Add in UC, and you have enough worries to make you hide under the bed covers … alone. But somehow romance continues to happen, and people with colitis can still find great lovers and partners. I know because I did. 

One thing I’ve found helpful is realizing that often UC itself isn’t as big an issue as my fear about it. While I may not be able to control my bowel, I can address my fear and anxiety. When I go out, my biggest fear is having an accident. The worry alone can trigger bowel activity. Each spasm means a rush to the bathroom, often unnecessarily. I recently found a new way to deal with this. I swallowed my pride and bought some Depends. I hated to admit I might need them, but guess what? I didn’t. Just having them made me feel so much more relaxed that those nervous pre-emptive bathroom trips didn’t happen. Buying the Depends forced me to acknowledge my fear of an accident. It beat my prior strategy of stuffing my underwear with toilet paper! But I still don’t want a romantic partner to catch a glimpse of those ridiculous purple ruffles! 

Of course, dating is a heck of a lot easier (not easy, it can still be hell!) if your UC is in remission. I was lucky to be in remission when I first met Ron, my future husband. I liked him a lot right from the beginning, so I was in no hurry to raise any red flags by mentioning UC. But perhaps I should have braved it sooner, because by the time I was ready to come out about my colitis, the relationship had become serious. It felt like I was sitting on a huge secret. I was looking for a partner, and I figured anyone considering a future with me needed to know about the disease that has been such a big part of my life since I was a kid. However, I kept it quiet until I was sure he was into me. Well why not? It’s pretty personal. 

One area where UC issues can surface is during meals. I’d been doing well, so Ron and I ate out without angst about menu options. Previously, when dating during a flare, I’d worry about being judged if I said “no” to the wine or the hot sauce. Sometimes I said “yes” just to pass for normal (as if there is such a thing.) Looking back, I’m not proud to have been so influenced by my fearful assumptions of what another person might think. Did I really think that someone I’d just met gave a damn about what I ate or drank? And if they had, was that worth making myself ill? But that’s how crazy dating can make us. We can get so preoccupied with what we’re imagining about the other person that our connection to self flies out the window.

It was time to get real with Ron. We had a long car journey ahead of us, which seemed ideal for a revelation. At least he wouldn’t be able to run away. I was all knotted up with tension, afraid this could be a deal breaker.

“I have something to tell you, and it’s hard to say.”

Poor guy probably thought I was going to break up with him. 

“I’ve got this disease, ulcerative colitis.” 

He’d never heard of it. I explained as best I could. 

“I’m doing fine right now,” I was quick to reassure him, “but sometimes it gets bad.” 

When I was done, I blurted out, “Do you still want to be with me?” 

“Well of course. Why wouldn’t I? It’s you I want to be with. Any stuff you’ve got going on just comes with the territory.”

I was flooded with relief — and gratitude — for this wonderful man who seemed to accept me a lot more openly than I did myself. Of course he didn’t have a clue what living with UC really meant. But by the time he got to witness all of that, I was no longer worried that it would send him out the door. 

What I’ve learned through this is that our attitude toward ourselves sets the tone for the other person. The more comfortable I’ve become with dealing with UC, the better I can share about it and ask for what I need. This works in bed too. “Not that comfortable” describes the dating process, including sex with a new partner.

Here are some tips to help you feel more comfortable about dating with UC: 

  1. First, congratulations to anyone who’s even thinking about dating. It’s a big deal to be willing to get out there. It feels impossible during a bad flare, so when that desire begins to surface, take it as an invitation from life to get back into the game. 
  2. I’m a therapist, and after listening to hundreds of dating sagas, I can assure you that the other person is just as nervous as you are. You may be wondering, Even that super-relaxed, confident guy/gal wearing a fancy college sweatshirt? Yes, especially them. It may take longer for their vulnerability to appear, but it’s in there. (And if time has gone by and they haven’t expressed feelings to you, they may not be the best candidate for intimacy.) 
  3. The difference for those of us with UC is that our vulnerability and fears are right on the surface, triggered by every abdominal spasm. Here’s the best tool I’ve got: matter-of-factness. If you want to give your date a head’s up, say, “Don’t worry if I spend a while in the bathroom. I’ve got some digestive issues going on right now.” This can stop them from imagining you’re texting an ex in there. If you let out an enormous fart, smile and apologize calmly. If you’re asked more about your health, and you don’t want to talk about it, say that nicely and steer the conversation in another direction. Your calm, clarity and firmness will come across and be much more effective than a lot of explanation. You get to be in control of how much to share, and in the beginning, less can be more.
  4. Matter-of-factness works in the bedroom too. Naming your anxieties can get them out of the way. If fear of farting is at the top of your list, it may help to admit it. It’s unlikely to faze a passionate partner. And if putting a towel on the bed or consulting your doctor about the gas helps relieve your worries, go for it.
  5. If you’re lucky, you may have a close friend to consult for dating expertise. Therapists can be useful too. My guide through the dating jungle happened to be both. “No one understands this stuff,” my psychologist friend told me. Which was oddly reassuring, coming from an expert in sexual behavior. All any of us can do is try our best to be kind and honest. That’s how we want to be treated, isn’t it? If your UC sends a prospective partner packing, you’ve done a great job of saving yourself from a future nightmare.

Yes, dating and sex are scary, but that’s true for everyone. On the other side is fun and companionship, which makes it worth pursuing. UC gives us some unique challenges, but they can be overcome. And if you are doing your best to be brave, kind and honest, you’re setting up the right conditions to meet someone who deserves your company. 

I’m still not a fan of farts, but a safe, kind partner has made them a lot less scary. And sometimes, when it’s just gas, it has also been a cause for celebration.

Originally published: January 22, 2021
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