I’ll never forget the hideous words uttered to me by a guy I was dating several years ago. We hadn’t been seeing each other for very long and I was eager to make a good impression. But then he said this:
“I’ll cook you dinner at my house.”
Most women, I assume, would find this terribly romantic. A man, a home-cooked dinner, a cozy evening in. But for me this invitation was my biggest nightmare.
Because I also had another factor to bring to the evening, albeit one that was far less romantic: IBS.
I’d be sitting at his dining room table, with no background chatter to mask the noises my stomach would make as it bubbled away nervously. No obvious distractions for when I might need to dash to the toilet (several times per hour).
No immediate escape plan should I enter into an uncontrollable flare-up where my digestive symptoms ruin the night altogether.
Nope, unfortunately for me, this would-be night of romance was my idea of dating hell.
If you have it too, then you probably have also experienced something like the nightmare situation I found myself in. Nothing makes you feel sexier than worrying about your bowels, right? (Can you detect the sarcasm?)
But while dating with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) can be rather tricky, it’s not impossible. I’m now in a long-term relationship with a wonderfully loving man who has changed my outlook on the condition and how I view it with regards to my romantic life.
It really doesn’t need to interfere, so here’s what you need to remember when you’re dating and managing your digestive symptoms.
1. Take control
When it comes to IBS, we all know that, unfortunately, we often have very little control over the symptoms themselves. We can minimize a flare-up by steering clear of our triggers, managing stress, and exercising regularly. But the unpredictability of the condition means that you can never be totally sure. So, when it comes to dating, take control of the three elements you can have the ultimate decision over: where, when, and how. Suggest restaurants you know you can eat in, pick a noisy place so you don’t have to worry about tummy grumbles or wind, and make sure you’re as prepared as you can be.
Not feeling awkward in your surroundings (and knowing where the toilets are) can help put your mind at rest, especially when the relationship is very new and extra scary.
2. Be honest early on
“I have IBS, which means I might spend large periods of this date in the toilet.”
Admittedly, this isn’t an ideal opening line. But when the moment is right — whether it’s the first date or the second — I’d be honest about your digestive troubles rather than keeping them to yourself until further down the line. It’s always easier to broach the subject early on. For one, it’s a great test of their character when you see how they react. And secondly, it’ll also mean you’re not keeping a secret, which can often be just as stressful as managing your symptoms.
Being open, honest, and upfront can help you feel much more relaxed on subsequent dates. Considering about 15 percent of people have IBS, you might even find that your date has it, too. My current boyfriend put me at instant ease on our third date. He (unfortunately or fortunately, you can be the judge) ate something a bit dodgy and was open about his own digestive troubles. It helped reassure me that he wasn’t judging me for my own bowel issues. It also reminded me that we all have stuff going on internally we don’t always want to share initially!
3. Accept that not everyone will understand
Just like no two dates are exactly the same, no two people will react exactly the same way to the condition. Some people are terribly sympathetic, others reciprocate by sharing their own experiences, and some don’t even know what IBS is. And then there are those who will trivialize your symptoms.
I remember mentioning my “sensitive stomach” on a date once, only to be answered with an eye roll and the comment, “Oh, so you’re one of those hypochondriacs, then.”
Suffice it to say there wasn’t a second date. But while it was a little upsetting at first, it made me realize that not everyone will understand. Your date’s initial reaction can offer helpful insight into someone’s character.
4. Don’t feel embarrassed
Remember that everyone has aspects of their body and character they love and aspects they aren’t so keen on. But, altogether, they add up to make you — so own it! You shouldn’t feel embarrassed about your IBS. It’s just another part of you and the right person will understand that. True, living with IBS isn’t wonderful all the time, but you should have confidence in your own wonderfulness.
5. Be kind to yourself
The symptoms of IBS — gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation — are nuisances that everyone has experienced from at some time or another, if not on a regular basis. While they might not have to deal with them at the same intensity you do, they understand they’re not a reflection of you as a person. The fact that everyone has had experience with the unpleasantness of the symptoms means they’ll not be judging you as harshly as you think. If you do end up spending more time in the bathroom than you want to, most (good) people will be sympathetic to your quandary. Make sure you apply the same kindness to yourself.
6. Ask for help
I remember one absolutely awful dating experience with my first boyfriend. We set off for our first holiday at his family’s home in Europe. I had no idea what the bathroom situation would be like, whether we’d have our own en suite, or if we’d be sharing with the rest of his family.
But nothing could’ve prepared me for the situation that awaited. Not only did the toilet door have a transparent pane of glass running the length of it (with a flimsy curtain to protect your modesty), but there was also a hole in the wall fireplace that led through to the hallway, where everyone would congregate before and after meals.
I spent the entire week trying to sneak off to a public toilet and keep my troubles a secret. I should’ve asked for help or confided in someone because worrying about where I could use the toilet only made my symptoms worse. Plus, if I’d asked for help, someone might’ve been able to give me an alternative option to make me feel more comfortable. Following the trip, I vowed never to keep things to myself again!
7. Choose your outfit wisely
Obviously, when you’re venturing off to a first date, you want to dress to impress. But as someone with digestive issues knows all too well, you often have to dress for your IBS, too. Pick something you’re going to be comfortable in and feel good in. I highly recommend not wearing tight jeans. I’ve been in the unfortunate situation so many times where the food in a restaurant has reacted with me and I’ve had to peel my jeans away from my stomach to relieve the agonizing pain. Tight clothes and IBS don’t always mix.
I always recommend having a ‘go-to’ outfit for dating you know you’re going to feel sexy and comfortable in. For me, it’s a little black dress that’s a size bigger than I normally wear. I accentuate my waist using a thin belt, but if I start feeling my stomach growing, I can quite easily whip the belt off and enjoy the floaty, light material that covers any bloating and isn’t tight around my tummy.
8. Know when to laugh
Obviously, for the most part, IBS isn’t a laughing matter. It’s hardly hilarious when you’re cramped over the toilet for the fourth time that morning wondering if you’ll ever be able to leave the house because you’re having a flare-up. Nor is it funny to keel over in pain because you have trapped wind or severe bloating. However, in order to let your personality shine through behind the serious protective blanket that IBS can form, you need to know when to laugh.
Laughing and poking a bit of fun at your own IBS can actually really help you overcome the internal embarrassment it can often create. If your stomach makes a funny sound, find a way to lighten your mood a little, rather than stress out about it: “I’ve got a lion in my tummy today” or “My stomach says pass the salt, please.” Sometimes, laughter is the best medicine!
Dating is daunting, challenging, and full of awkward moments — for everyone. IBS can be an added complication sometimes, but it can also be a very good (albeit unintentional) dating filter when you see how people react. And while not everyone will understand, I can assure you the right person will.
Scarlett Dixon is a U.K.–based journalist, lifestyle blogger, and YouTuber who runs networking events in London for bloggers and social media experts. She has a keen interest in speaking out about anything that might be deemed taboo and a lengthy bucket list. She’s also a keen traveler and passionate about sharing the message that IBS doesn’t have to hold you back in life! Visit her website and tweet her @Scarlett_London.