EPISODE 7: Health and Romance

Published 11/16/23


For better, for worse; in sickness and in health. Surely, you’ve know these words, even if you’ve never recited them or it’s been a while. They’re part of traditional marriage vows. But what really happens when better becomes worse, from a health standpoint? Do medical issues impact our love connections … the ones we’ve found and the ones we seek?


“Health and Romance.” That’s this episode of “Dating While Gray: The Grown-Up’s Guide to Love, Sex, and Relationships.” I’m Laura Stassi.



The more I hear from listeners, the stronger I feel that at this stage of life, if health hasn’t impacted our romantic relationships on some level, we’ve been lucky. Take Rachel, for example. She was living in Connecticut when she called and left me a voicemail. Rachel’s in her mid-50s. After going through a gray divorce eight years ago, she’s been dating.


RACHEL 01:17

In the last couple of years, I’ve developed some chronic health issues that ate away at a very loving romance I was in, largely because my partner could see that they would limit his very active lifestyle in ways that he was not prepared to live with. We eventually parted ways, but I’ve continued to search for the man I will spend the second half of what I hope will be a long and full life with.


Although I know in my heart that I’m far more than the sum of these issues, and that I have much to offer to a life partner who is more taken with arts and literature and ideas and travel than purely physical activities, it has left me with a feeling that I have to apologize for these chronic health problems to any potential partner I might encounter. So I’m wondering if you can address this issue on Dating While Gray and reflect on the implications of physical ailments and limitations that for most of us, will increase as we age, even as our hearts and minds remain as expensive as an ultra-marathon.



You heard Rachel say her health issues ended the romance. But if you think things would have turned out differently, had she and her partner been legally married, you might be wrong. A 2015 study found a higher probability of divorce when a wife over age 50 gets a serious health diagnosis — though an older husband’s illness does not increase the divorce risk.


Hmm. I think that needs some unpacking for a future episode. As for Rachel, she told me in a follow-up email that she’s relocated to New York, in search of more dating options. But the stress of moving has exacerbated her health issues. She’s also struggling with how much to tell potential dating partners, and when.


That’s something that’s also on the mind of listener Shannon. I met with her earlier this year. When we hit a snag at the indoor venue we planned on, Shannon and I pivoted to the great outdoors.



So we are interviewing at the UNC Botanical Gardens. It is February and close to 80 degrees. And the birds are singing and the trees are blooming, and it’s just a wonderful place to be.



It was really pretty, which may have made it easier to talk about some difficult things.



I was married for 32 years. I have two sons and two grandsons. And my marriage ended around Christmas of 2018. I it took me a little while to start dating again. But when I did, I found that online dating was a real challenge because I didn’t want to put out there hi, my name is Shannon. I have Parkinson’s. But at the same time, I didn’t want to hide it. And so a big question for me became, when do you tell someone?



Do you think the Parkinson’s diagnosis had anything to do with the end of your marriage?



I would certainly hope not. But the distance increased considerably after my diagnosis, and my ex seemed not at all involved in my health care journey after that. He didn’t come to doctor’s appointments. He didn’t come when I was on a drug trial or received infusions. I’m sorry, some of the hesitation is part of the illness. So I’ll try to be careful there. But …


LAURA STASSI You’re doing great.


SHANNON: Thank you. When I would go for infusions for three years for clinical trial, he never went. I was the only person who was alone. And it became very obvious that I was increasingly alone in the marriage.



Did you initiate the divorce?



I did. I learned something a couple of days before Christmas that I decided I couldn’t live with. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.



On the one hand, it doesn’t sound like a supportive marriage, especially after you got ill. But on the other hand, you’ve been diagnosed with a pretty significant disease. It feels like it might be scarier to be alone, potentially, than to be in a bad marriage. No?



It’s certainly more challenging, but I will tell you mentally and emotionally, I am in a much better place. Now, I learned an awful lot about myself. I am a lot stronger than I gave myself credit for. And I’m a survivor. I’ve survived cancer, I have survived many things that, you know, life throws challenges at you, and you have two choices: Give up or keep going. And I’m the gonna keep going kind.



And what was your impetus for getting back online?



SHANNON In the first — probably year, I didn’t look at all. And then a friend suggested I try online. And I was looking initially for just someone to go out for dinner with, someone to spend time with, go to the movies, go to a play. Something like that. I was very hesitant to get into a deep relationship. Again, I think I’m more ready for that now. I think it’s really true that you need to give yourself time after a breakup before you jump right into the waters. But what I found was that through the dating apps, I wasn’t meeting very many really authentic people.



What have you been doing?



I tell people on the first date, because that’s who I am, I am very upfront. I am very honest. I was in a marriage where my partner was not honest. And I don’t like to hide things. But generally, when it comes out on a first date, that date wraps up pretty quickly. So the men that I have had just a very few dates with have been very kind and said that they need to process it. And then most of them just don’t reach out.


Occasionally one will reach out and say, you know, hey, thank you for sharing that with me. I’d be happy to get another cup of coffee with you. But really, I’m looking for a relationship with someone who can do everything I can do. Right now I can do pretty much everything anyone else can do. I just take breaks because of some of the physical limitations of the disease. But I know that it’s progressive, I know it will get worse. And that’s a lot to ask someone else to take on.



This is such a — I don’t know, conundrum, I think because as we get older, help becomes more of an issue. But it feels like you’ve been dealt a particularly rough set of cards. Because you know, right now, what your challenge is down the road. How do you want someone to respond when you tell them that you have Parkinson’s?



Oh, that’s a great question. I would like them to say, thank you for sharing that. Let me think about it. Because I do want them to process it. And I don’t want them to just say yeah, that’s not a big deal. Let’s keep going — because I want them to really understand what’s involved in it. But then I also would like them to think that, you know, within the next week or year, they could have a stroke, they could get a diagnosis, they could have an accident. And the older we get, the more likely we are to come up with some sort of a disease that haunts us for the rest of our remaining years. And that the joy of a partner isn’t always in doing fun and exciting things all the time. It’s that care that you take of each other when one or the other is in need. It’s just that I happen to be introducing myself by saying, hey, I will be in need.



Oh boy, that’s deep. I mean, that really is deep. So it’s not something that you put in your profile?


SHANNON No, I don’t put it straight in my profile.


LAURA STASSI But you feel like it’s really important to talk about this on the first date.



I do because I don’t want someone to feel like they’re starting to get emotionally involved and then I spring this on them. I don’t ever want anyone to feel blindsided by it.



Have you had any like, really uncomfortably negative reactions?



Yes. The last date that I went on, he proceeded to tell me everything that was wrong with him that I think was a way of making the decision mine. He proceeded to tell me that he was an active alcoholic and a control freak, and a drug user. And that was a bit much. And at first, I thought, well, you know, I’m asking him to work with some things, maybe I would need to work with some things. But afterwards, I almost felt manipulated — like, he threw a whole bunch of things; it means, that ball’s in your court now. And then when the date was over, he walked me to my car and then texted the next day and said, I don’t think this is going to work.



Okay, on behalf of people everywhere, that is just kind of odd, I think, because I don’t know, just hearing it from me, it almost sounds like he was saying, Hey, I’m not going to be able to be any kind of support to you, because I’m going to need way more support than anybody else might need. Perhaps



I kept looking at it different ways. Was he just being incredibly honest? Was he doing a form of one- upmanship that would make me step back and say, no, I’m not —  I’m not in for this. And then I look like the bad guy? Or was he trying to let me down gently so that I wasn’t rejected for having the Parkinson’s? I mean, you know how we wind these things around in our heads like, well, why would someone do that? — and to try not to judge them for it. And I danced around that a lot. But really, in the end, I kind of felt manipulated.



I’m sorry about that. Let’s say you were single before you were diagnosed, and let’s say you came across somebody’s profile, or went on a first date, and they said something to you, like, I have Parkinson’s disease.



I’d like to think that I would respond the way I would like someone to respond to me. I know that when it came to taking in my mother, who had Alzheimer’s, I was all in. When it came to taking care of my father, who is very physically disabled, I’m all in. In caring for my grandchildren, caring for my own children, caring for my friends who are ill, I show up. So I would hope that that’s exactly how I would respond, that hey, I’m that kind of caretaking person. And to be clear, I’m not looking for a man to take care of me. I’m extremely strong and independent. And I’m looking for someone to be there.



Parkinson’s disease — that’s the brain disorder actor Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with over 30 years ago. Symptoms usually begin gradually and worsen over time. Shannon is about seven years into her diagnosis. And so far, with medication and breaks when she’s doing something physical like gardening, she’s doing well. When I checked in with Shannon recently, she didn’t have any dating news. But there was a new development on the health front, and it wasn’t great. Still, Shannon’s outlook is as positive as it was when we met in North Carolina.



None of us is getting out of here. We’re all going through an end-of-life decision at some point. And some of us know when it’s likely to be, and some of us don’t. You know, I’m not sitting down and boo-hooing about this. I’m getting on with life.



Shannon, we wish you all the best.


Next, we’re talking with someone who’s been on the other side of the bad health equation.



And so when I found out that being married would have made a difference, I said, well, maybe we should get married. And he said, no, I don’t want to marry you for that reason. When we get married, I want to marry you because we have a lifetime ahead of us to grow old together.



More from Patrice after the break.





Patrice lives in Portland, Oregon. Like a lot of us, she married young, had children. She was in her mid- 40s when she got divorced. Eventually, she decided to wade back into the dating pool. She signed up for one of those free online trials and very quickly met Byron. He lived in a suburb on the eastern edge of the metro area.



We started out kind of slow. We did a lot of talking on the phone for a couple of weeks. I was struggling to make ends meet. I told him I was a single parent, and he was a single parent. And we had this rapid- fire back and forth through this filtered service. And then he asked me how many kids and how old, and he had already told me he had two boys in high school. And I told him I had a grade-schooler, one in middle school or in high school, or they were maybe 5, 8, and 13 or 14, something like that. And the emails stopped.


So I thought, okay, well, that’s telling. Byron was six years older than me and his boys, like I said, were older than my kids. And I thought, no surprise, he doesn’t want to date somebody with kids this young. And so my next email to him, I just said, I understand. I get it. But my, my free week is about up and so you can look me up at my workplace. It’s easy to find my name there. I’m the only one named Patrice. He wrote back and said, wait, I didn’t see your email until just now. I’m working.


So we connected offline, you know, out of that service and had phone calls for another week or two. He wanted to meet in person. He wanted to come to Portland and take me to dinner. And I hadn’t dated for several years. I was kind of afraid that he would expect me to pay. He wanted to eat at a place in The Pearl, which is an upper scale part of Portland.




PATRICE And I said, well, how about we meet for coffee or tea or a beer or wine, you know, something. I was trying to minimize. So we went back and forth on that a little bit. And he finally said, Look, I’m gonna buy you dinner. I don’t want to drive to Portland for a cup of tea. And we met there. We drove separately and met at the restaurant and it was, you know, storybook sweet. We were both kind of dressed nicely for a date. And he was very old-fashioned and, you know, pulled out the chair for me and ordered a bottle of wine.


And yeah, it was all very sweet. We had a nice dinner and kind of from then forward, it was pretty much a done deal. We dated for nine years. We lived apart. We mostly did things in Portland. But sometimes I went to Sandy. For the first several years we did child-friendly dates mostly.



So he lived in his house with his kids where that was their home base. You lived in Portland with your kids. That was your home base. Did you commit to each other verbally? We’re not going to date other people; we’re going to be in a committed living apart together relationship?



Yes, very much. You know, before things got intimate, I wanted to make sure that it was exclusive and barely before I started the conversation. He was there with me on the same page. About a year and a half after we’d been dating, he gave me a ring. And I had told him, we both knew we didn’t want to get married. We were both divorced. And yeah, our jobs and our homes and our kids, you know, everything was separate. I lived and worked in Portland, he worked very near where he lived. But he did give me a ring. And I told him if you ever decide to do that, I don’t want a diamond. And so he chose a ring the color of his eyes which were brown, so it’s kind of a topaz. And eventually, years later, the ring I bought for him had stones the color my eyes, which are blue.



Okay, I’m getting a little teary eyed. It sounds so sweet. I mean, it just sounds like it was perfect.



We were very happy. And you know, people kept saying, why aren’t you guys married? When are you going to get married? And we both were like, nah, not — been there, done that. Our plan was maybe when my youngest graduated high school would be around the time that Byron was ready to retire, and at that time, we would, we would reassess and at least move in together and maybe get married.


But my son was a junior in high school when — and so we were still living apart, doing our thing happily. Byron was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He was not a smoker, but he grew up picking tobacco in North Carolina, which he thinks had something to do with it. The year that he got sick, he was having some trouble swallowing. And we were at my daughter’s house, in fact having dinner and he was having trouble swallowing and left the room for a minute.


And I guess that had been going on for a couple of weeks. Since we didn’t live together, we didn’t share a lot of meals. But then one day, he said, I’m going to see a specialist; can you take time off to drive me because I need a driver? I had just taken some time off with him. And I feel terrible to this day because I kind of thought, he’s really, you know, you probably just have an ulcer because of your diet. You know what I mean? That I — I am not a medical person, but that was my diagnosis.



LAURA STASSI We all do it, believe me. Dr. Google. Did you all have any kind of legal paperwork about medical power of attorney or had you melded finances — or what was the kind of the legal status apart from the fact that you were not legally partners?



Yeah, great question. And I wish we had asked ourselves that much earlier because we had zero legal connection. We didn’t have any joint accounts at all. And the one thing we talked about was joining phone plans. But we each had kids on our phone plans. So we hadn’t done that even. At some point, I tried to take some FMLA from my job. And I was denied because we didn’t necessarily have to be married. But if we were legal, if we were in a legal partnership, that would have helped.


What happened was, somebody in HR kindly said, look, you don’t have any stand except to take your own leave for your own mental health. They didn’t want to hear about this person who had cancer, who I didn’t live with and didn’t have any — you know, we had, I had nine years of photos and Valentine cards and you know, lots of things we could show. And of course, my coworkers and everybody knew we were a couple, but …



Oh, that’s so interesting, though. That’s an important thing for everybody to know.



Yeah. I had had a series of dysfunctional relationships. I thought, this is a rare gem of a man. And it had never even entered my mind to walk away. And then several months later, when all the treatments had been attempted and failed and they told him that he had a limited time left, and he didn’t want to know what that estimate was. And we left that, that appointment together. And he said, we should have gotten married a long time ago.


And I said, okay, well, do you think maybe Christmas time? And he said, no, sooner than that. I want to get married as soon as possible. He moved into my house, which was logistically a little easier. It was closer to the hospital, and I had a ground-floor bedroom.


Were married in August, he died in October.


LAURA STASSI I’m so sorry.


PATRICE Thank you. You know, there were a lot of medical choices to be made. And at every point, I had an opinion. But I said, your body, you make the decision. And sometimes I wish he would have chosen — I wish he would have actually given up treatment sooner and enjoyed those last few months, because I think the treatment had impacted that. For me it didn’t seem like the right choice, but it was his choice.


LAURA STASSI His choice for home hospice.


PATRICE Yeah, I was fully supportive of that. But I had no idea how hard that would be. Like, just —

aside from the emotional difficulty, it’s a lot of you know, it’s hard work. It’s physical labor to take care of somebody on top of the emotional work.


LAURA STASSI Absolutely.


PATRICE Well, I got online again after two years, thinking I would just like somebody to go to dinner with, hear some music with, see movies. There’s no reason to get married again, I’m financially stable. When Byron died, and I got his retirement account – which, he had not reached full retirement age, but it was enough that I could cut back to part-time work. I actually had dated somebody who I met in person during those two years, before I went online, who I had some enjoyable outings with. But he wanted to get married, and I just thought why? You know. And that person was older than me and was facing some more health issues, which I admit were part of my thinking why. But I just didn’t feel in love with him to marry him anyway, so it wasn’t gonna happen.


But when I dated online, I said in my profile, not looking to marry again. So when I met David, he had come out of a difficult divorce, or a painful divorce anyway. He said too he wasn’t looking to marry again. But over our first date — was hours. We shut the place down, having dinner and wine in the corner. And I learned that he was a cancer survivor. My first honest reaction was, oh, kind of a scary, you know, my stomach kind of jumped or flip.



Yeah. And how did he just — you know, it’s, cancer survivor’s, a nebulous term. What — did he survive childhood cancer? Was he five years post a diagnosis? I mean if you don’t mind?



Yeah, no, I’m happy to include him. So we had also met in the spring, and he had gotten the all-clear from cancer the previous fall. So he was six months cancer free, very recent.



Wow. Yes. Okay. And, wow. I mean, okay. Kudos for him for bringing it up on the first meeting, but I think a lot of people, Patrice, me — would be like, wait a minute. Sorry. But clearly that wasn’t your response.



No. Well, I wasn’t looking for a husband. I really enjoyed his company that night. And, and we had a lot in common. His marriage ended when he was diagnosed with cancer. We started doing all the things we wanted to do, you know, going to movies and music and dinner. And now of course, both his grown kids, and my kids are fully grown and out of the house. There were less limitations on time because I’ve worked only part time. That was spring of ‘19. And New Year’s Day 2020, he proposed.



Was it out of the blue?



No, we had talked about it. When the marriage word first came up in our conversation, I just was like, why? And I had made it very clear early on, I don’t need your financial support — what kind of in general on my online dating, not looking for somebody to support me. And I’m not looking to support anyone. And as cold as that might sound, I just wanted it out there.



I’m wondering if your experience where you had such limited time with Byron maybe changed your mind when it came to, why not get married? I mean, you don’t have to get married, you don’t have to get married for financial support. You don’t have to get married for to raise children. But time is not infinite.



That’s exactly what happened. As we were dating, and those first few months, we both just absolutely had that policy of, you know, life — tomorrow’s not promised. Before Byron died, one of the last things he — not the last words but the last really deep, long conversation we had was, he wanted me to be happy and find whatever happiness meant for me. He wanted me to quit working or, or you know, don’t work until the day you die; kind of, take my retirement to live your life; find happiness. He never said, find a new guy or get married. But he just you know, I knew that he wanted me to be happy. And David and I both had that same outlook like, we’ve both seen how brief and fleeting life might be. For a while, he didn’t know if he was gonna survive his. He had colon cancer.



Do you ever have the fear that it’s going to come up again?



Yeah. Yeah, we’ve talked about that. And even before I talked about it with him, I kind of had that internal conversation with myself like, well, any of us could get cancer tomorrow. Anybody.



Apologies if this sounds rude, but how is your health? Do you feel like you have got a partner in him if God forbid, if you were to have a health crisis?



Yeah, I absolutely believe it. When he started talking about marriage and I was thinking what? Why? And he said, you know, I just — again, all the all the kind of maybe corny, love story kind of talk, but I love you and I want to be with you every minute, and I want to make it official to the world.



Here’s wishing much happiness and good health to David and Patrice. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that Patrice originally reached out to me because as a Dating While Gray listener from the get-go, she’s heard a lot of sad stories about online dating. She wants everyone to know that it can work. It did for her, twice. Hmm, tempting.


By the way, in the next Dating While Gray e-newsletter, I’m sharing links to the 2015 study about divorce and illness, plus two expert opinion pieces I came across. One is on when to share health news with a potential romantic partner. The other is issues around divorcing a spouse with a chronic illness. Join the e-newsletter list at datingwhilegray.com.


And then let’s all say a prayer. or a wish, or a toast — to good health.



Dating While Gray’s audio production and mix is by Steve Lack: Audio. For more on the show, check out datingwhilegray.com. That’s where you can find the latest episodes, plus the archive of previous episodes. You can also find links to send me questions, comments, tips and true stories through email and voicemail. You know I love hearing from you. While you’re there, sign up for the free Dating While Gray e-newsletter, delivered every Friday to your inbox. That’s datingwhilegray.com. Laura Stassi. Thanks for listening.



Transcribed by https://otter.ai