DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: About eight years ago, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It’s recurred about four times since. Doctors throw out the words “inevitable” and “incurable” when talking about my tumor, especially when talking about its recurrence. As a result, I effectively have an expiration date. Not necessarily a scheduled death date, but a date before which I’m best used. Metaphorically.
Anyway, my expiration date is about ten years out. But ten years is a hell of a long time to be alone. So I guess my question is… At what point in the dating process is it considered acceptable (or expected) to reveal that you have an expiration date?
Best Before 2028
DEAR BEST BEFORE 2028: Holy crap.
I don’t really know where to start, BB. I want to say I’m incredibly sorry that this has happened to you, but I realize that this is ultimately kind of hollow. I’m in awe of your attitude, that you’re making a point to live while you’re still alive; many people when finding out they have an expiration date – even if it’s years down the line – tend to give up. It says a lot about you and your strength. I have no idea what I’d do in that sort of situation.
(And honestly, having had to deal with my father’s and grandmother’s estates, the old joke of “max out my credit cards” isn’t really funny anymore.)
You’re right: ten years is a long time to be alone. And the fact of the matter is: none of us really knows when we’re going to die. Even having a certified expiration date – as in your case – doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to make it that far. You might get hit by a meteorite tomorrow morning. You might end up beating the odds and holding on for decades to come. So there’s always an element of risk when it comes to dating someone.
But those are – to quote Donald Rumsfeld – the unknown unknowns. You’re dealing with something known, and something that could very well directly affect both your quality of life and the life of a potential partner… and that’s the sort of information that someone considering sharing their life with you has a right to know about. Unfortunately, I don’t really have any easy answers for you. Rolling it out early on is going to scare a lot of people away. On a purely practical level though, there are going to be many false starts – flirtations that go nowhere, first or even second dates that just fizzle out because there’s no spark to be had. Having to explain each time about your health issues is going to be emotionally draining and possibly even scare off people who might otherwise be a match because… well, Hell, that’s a seriously heavy load to drop on someone.
It was hard as hell when my father told me he had inoperable cancer. I can’t even imagine if someone I just MET told me that.
Speaking strictly for myself, I’d recommend holding it back until the other person has gotten a chance to know you, to invest a bit more in you, so that they’ve started to think more about at least the medium-term possibilities of a relationship if not the long-term. At that point, their level of emotional investment, having gotten to know you as you rather than Man With Expiration Date, is more likely to make them at least consider how they feel without automatically hitting the eject button. But at the same time… I can see how people might see that as cruel and manipulative and might feel as though they’ve been led on by this. And there’s still no guarantee that even someone who was starting to think about where this relationship was going is going to be willing to stick around when you explain to them about your circumstance.
Even a strictly casual relationship is going to be tricky because unless you’re both unfeeling automatons, there’s going to be some mutual affection and caring going on. Knowing that somebody you cared enough to share your body with, if not the full extent of your heart, hid a secret like this from you can be incredibly painful. I could see an exception being made for a one-night stand, where you weren’t going to see each other again… but then again, plenty of relationships have started from one-night stands so…
Calling it a complicated situation is putting it mildly.
Because unfortunately, the specter of The Big C is going to scare a lot of people away. In a lot of ways, it means knowingly choosing to take part in the first act of a tragedy. Many people aren’t going to be up for that. They may not be strong enough. They may be too afraid of the inevitable pain of loss, or the complications that would arise. Someone who’s looking for a life-partner now may not have thought about the fact that being with someone (presumably) for life means being there at the end of life. It’s easy to not think about it when it’s presumably 70 or 80 years away. It’s another entirely when it’s within two years. Or five years. Or ten years. That can make it all too real for a lot of people. And they’re going to self-select out of the dating pool with you because they’re not going to be sure they can handle that or they want to deal with that so (relatively) soon.
I will say – in as much as there’s a bright side – there’s a bit of cultural confluence right now. A lot of YA fiction has tackled the question of dating someone with a chronic or even fatal illness. John Greene’s young-adult novel The Fault In Our Stars – about a pair of cancer patients who fall in love – hit peak popularity, complete with a movie adaptation not that long ago. One of the themes of the book is that love – even when it’s all too brief – is transcendent and makes even the pain of losing someone worth it when it comes with the experience of loving them.
I’m not saying it’s going to make tragic love stories the new must-have fashion in relationships, but I do think it’s going to prompt at least some discussion over what it means to love someone even when you know that it can’t possibly last as long as you’d like. And that, I think, is what you – and your future partners – should focus on; the transcendence of love and intimacy.
I wish I had an easy or uncomplicated answer for you, BB, but I don’t. The best I have are a lot of very complicated, very tricky options without anything resembling certainty or assurance. A lot of people are going to be unprepared to date someone in your circumstances. Even people who think they might be ready may well find that they aren’t able to handle it, no matter how much they may wish to.
All I can say is that the people who can, who want to try and who will fight tooth and nail to make it work… they’re rare. They’re hard to find. But they are out there. And when you find them, they are more precious than diamonds and gold. They are the ones who understand that loving someone, even knowing that you’re going to be saying goodbye to them some day much sooner than you’d like, is never wrong. And the power and intensity of that love, the time spent together and the memories that remain are always worth it.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)