DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: When do you disclose a borderline invisible disability when dating? I’m a woman in my late 20s who has finally entered the world of online dating. I was born with a medical condition that causes random muscle twitches. It doesn’t really dramatically impact my life, I just come across as clumsy and occasionally need help with things that require fine motor skills.
I would say only about 10% of people I have met have noticed and asked me about it. Most people either just assume I am extremely nervous. You will, however, notice if you touch me.
So when’s the right time to tell someone? And How? Most of my life, I have mentioned it to people when it becomes relevant. The thing is, that conversation normally happens after a couple months of knowing me and I don’t see that as realistic for dating.
Shaking Up My Dating Life
DEAR SHAKING UP MY DATING LIFE: As a general rule of thumb, I’m a believer that disclosing sooner rather than later is a good thing. However, and this seems to be a theme today, folks tend to treat it as an all-or-nothing affair; they either dump the full details all at once right at the start, or they hold onto it until they have to disclose.
Sometimes this is a good thing; there are some things that people should know about right away so that they can make an informed decision. Being non-monogamous or polyamorous, for example, is something that people generally want to know about off the bat, especially if that person already has a partner – especially a committed partner. Similarly, folks would likely want to know if you have a condition or circumstances that’s going to seriously affect you, them or your relationship together in a significant way. If, for example, you have kids, especially if you’re the primary caretaker, that’s something worth letting people know up front. Or someone who’s seriously allergic to pets may want to know if you have a cat or dog.
However, there are also times when it’s better to run folks on a need-to-know basis, especially if that information is particularly stigmatized or won’t be an issue that will directly affect them. In those cases, I think it’s acceptable to have sort of tiered series of disclosures; you don’t hide that information, but you don’t necessarily roll it out in its entirety right at the start. Instead, you give more information as it becomes relevant or as your relationship progresses. This allows you to gauge when you’re ready to talk about it or if you even want to let the relationship get to the point where you would want to disclose it.
In my opinion, SUMDL, I’d put your condition in the latter category. Since the majority of people in your life don’t even notice the condition – or notice it enough to ask about it – then I think you’re safe doing a tiered roll-out. The first tier would be akin to how you presented it to me in your letter. This is the sort of thing that can fit easily into a dating profile. Hinge’s prompts or OKCupid’s questions offer organic opportunities for that first tier: you’re a little clumsy and have issues with fine motor control at times. The next tier of disclosure – you’re not nervous, you just have random muscle twitches – comes around the point when it’s most likely to be relevant to someone you’re dating: when physical contact – casual or otherwise – is going to be an ongoing thing. This is when you can say “yeah, I have a condition, so I get random muscle twitches at times. It’s not a big deal.”
The benefit to this tiered information is that it allows you to not only decide who gets to know this aspect of you, but also to gauge whether they’re worth letting things continue to the point where you would want to disclose this information. Similarly, this gives them the chance to get to know you as a holistic person. Unfortunately, we live in a society that’s pretty ableist, and many folks will hear “invisible disability” or “medical condition” and stop listening; many will leap to any number of incorrect or even offensive conclusions about you, your condition or what it means to them. By taking things in stages, you’re able to get a feel for them as a person, while not putting yourself in a position where they see you as a label or stereotype, rather than as an individual.
When you do roll it out to them, it’s important to not do so as though this were something shameful or a critical flaw. Obviously, it isn’t. However the way we reveal information about ourselves helps sets the stage for how others are likely to react to it. One of the things we often forget is that people will look to us for cues about how to react when explain things about ourselves to them. If you explain this like you’re revealing a divine curse that had been laid on your bloodline, then people will respond in a similar manner. If, on the other hand, you present it matter of factly – “yeah, it’s a thing, it’s a little annoying at times but it doesn’t dramatically impact my life” – then you’re priming them to see it the same way you do.
Unfortunately, however, there’re some folks who will respond in… let’s just say less than ideal ways. This can be frustrating, even painful at times. However, that initial reaction is often a matter of social conditioning; it’s what they do next that’s a more accurate indication of who they are. Again, this is why I’m a fan of the tiered level of access; this lets you decide whether you’re willing to give them a chance or not. If you feel that they’re someone who’s generally a good person and this was a matter of surprise or unfamiliarity, then you may decide that its worth letting them have the opportunity to power through the initial response and get to a better place. On the other hand, you may decide that no, that was precisely how they feel. In this case, you’ve given them a single point of data in the cloud of who you are, not the sum totality. They, however, have told you everything you need to know about them, and you’re free to kick them to the curb like last week’s compost.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com