A black woman looks lovingly down at her own heart in her hand.

Beggars Can Be Choosy

You might know the old term: beggars can’t be choosy. The concept behind that idea is that when you have no power, you have no right to reject what is handed to you. Many believe that this especially true when it comes to relationships and people with multiple sclerosis. There is a mistaken idea that we must be happy inside of any relationship because at least we have one. I am here to tell you: beggars can be choosy!

Relationships and multiple sclerosis

I have a very distinct memory of the first time relationships and multiple sclerosis came up. I was at my monthly lunch with other multiple sclerosis patients. A woman who is new to the group was sitting to my right. When I mentioned my long-term partner, she was kind enough to tell me that my relationship was not going to last. Her assumption was that no one wanted to stay with a woman who had multiple sclerosis. This was not done from her own experience. She was quite happy to brag about her own marital status. This was my first encounter with the idea that having multiple sclerosis made me disposable.

No longer desirable

When you are diagnosed with a chronic illness, people around you change. People’s assumptions and beliefs about your desirability become a topic for discussion. In all of these situations, the person with multiple sclerosis is seen as damaged goods. We suddenly become Love Beggars who are desperate for affection and acknowledgment. We suddenly become people who should be grateful for any romantic relationship. In the frame of a broken society, anyone who has a health issue is no longer valuable. It seems that the kingdom of love is based on how well one feels and how healthy one is. If you are ill or disabled, you fall outside of that realm. Particularly for women, you are thought unworthy of a good solid relationship.

Left alone

It is absolutely true that a medical diagnosis can have a devastating effect on relationships. There is enough stress and strain in a relationship. Add to that the pressures that come with a chronic illness, and it is not uncommon for that to break the bond between individuals. The fact that women are more often left partnerless is borne out through research. A 2009 study found that women were six times more likely to be separated or divorced after a medically devastating diagnosis. This particular phenomenon was known as gender abandonment.1 Being ill can be a reliable precursor to a divorce or separation in which the male partner leaves. If you ask around, this will most likely be what you find. Many more women with chronic illnesses are divorced as a result of the illness.

This is not to say you will not find male multiple sclerosis patients who were left because of MS. Regardless of the numbers, this is not just something that happens to women. Anyone who has been diagnosed and is in a relationship knows that it can fail based on having multiple sclerosis. We also know that relationships fall apart for reasons unrelated to MS.

We are not Love Beggars

I find that these studies and stories cast us as victims. Those of us with multiple sclerosis are portrayed as sad, pathetic people who should be happy with whatever. The preconceived notion is that the partner who is healthy is better than the one who is ill. That healthy partner is someone who is more worthy in the relationship. 'Grateful' is the word most often used for how we should be. We should be grateful that someone would put up with our illness and all that goes with it. Our partners are seen as sympathetic figures who deserve medals for being with us.

We are people with opinions and needs and desires

What those studies and antidotal stories can’t quantitate is how we feel. The possibility that we are individuals in an equal partnership is rarely addressed. Because of societal bias, our own power is snatched from us in the eyes of many. Did it ever occur to those people that multiple sclerosis doesn’t define us? We are people with opinions and needs and desires. Multiple sclerosis does not suddenly have us sitting up in the air on a teeter-totter forever waiting for our partner to stand up and leave us to crash onto the ground.

We are people living with multiple sclerosis. We should not be expected to grovel for scraps of affection.

No begging zone: we won't accept being treated poorly

Fast-forward four years later, and her prediction was correct. I am no longer with the same person. However, it is not for the reason she suggested. I chose not to believe that I was a powerless victim. I chose not to believe that I should be grateful for our relationship. I chose not to believe that I could be treated any old way and accept it as OK because I have multiple sclerosis.

We are worthy of good relationships

I was not ditched or kicked to the curb. I was the one with the boot who did the kicking. Don’t let your multiple sclerosis diagnosis fool you into thinking that you are an undesirable person. You are just as wonderful and desirable and worthy of a good relationship as someone without a chronic illness. Society may tell us differently and we cannot fall prey to this. It is up to us to support one another and to remind ourselves that we are not Love Beggars.

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