Having a happy healthy relationship will always be a lot of work and culture isn’t shifting fast enough to address body insecurity in a significant way but some of us face additional challenges and unfair setbacks.

If you recently got an ostomy or you and your doctor are considering surgery as an option, dating with a stoma bag might seem like uncharted territory. After all, in the sea of dating coaches and Cosmo advice articles, there are few pieces that address specific concerns. It’s kind of a niche topic.

Okay, we hear you say, but why is FindMeCure discussing dating? Ah, we’re glad you ask. Over the last months, one of our priorities was providing you with useful, impactful content about Crohn’s and colitis. From early signs of autoimmunity to the psychological effects of a new diagnosis, we wanted to be there for you and offer some really thoughtful tips. Recently, we opened a discussion about life with a stoma bag and in doing research for the article, we stumbled upon quite a lot of questions about dating and romance.

Is dating an option after surgery? Will my partner still find me attractive? Will I learn to accept my new body and feel sexy again? These are some of the concerns you seem to have around dating.

Like we said in a previous discussion about IBD and disordered eating, chronic illness can have a huge impact on your self-image and become the cause of anxiety that should never be downplayed or trivialized. We believe that a healthy social and emotional life is part of a holistic approach to health. There are enough links between emotional distress and physical ailments to dismiss mental wellbeing as secondary to good health.

So, in an effort to alleviate some of that anxiety, today we’re going to address your concerns around romance and dating with none of the vagueness you might have encountered and without shying away from the difficult questions. We would love to hear from you in the comments – your feedback is helping us create relevant content and make a difference.

Dating is on the table… even if your favorite meal isn’t

There are as many recoveries from ostomy as there are ostomates out there. Some of you only need one surgery and that’s it. Some of you get a j-pouch later on and everything works out fine. Some of you go back to your everyday lives healthier than ever and ready to eat whatever you want. Some of you need a few more surgeries and take a bit more time to adjust to your new life situation.

Whatever your recovery, however, one thing you can be sure of: eventually, you will be able to have fun again. Some of the best moments in life happen in the midst of chaos when we’re struggling or facing a challenge.

Limitations you might have are not necessarily a ban on everything fun and cheerful. Give yourself time to come to terms with your new body – not just the bag, but also your diet, your new activewear, your new wardrobe (everything high-waisted is your friend), your new bathroom habits. Get used to your schedule and really listen to your body. You’re good to get sporty around 4-5 weeks after surgery, so you might want to take up yoga to establish that mind-body connection and get to know your limits gently.

Even if yoga turns out not to be your thing, do something every day that makes you view your body in a positive light and be thankful for all that you are capable of. A good romantic relationship starts with yourself and your confidence. Rejoice in your strength and how far you’ve already come.

Let go of any guilt you might feel for coming across as a picky eater on a date, especially if you don’t feel ready to tell that new person about your ostomy.  

Learn to be (even more) assertive about your boundaries and preferences – it’s okay if you feel more vulnerable now and need to take things slow where you would’ve been more daring. Your bag may come with a shift in your emotional reality and you are entitled to your new boundaries. Anyone worth keeping will respect that.

We all have bag(gage)

You might be wondering when would be a good time to tell a new person about your bag. Do you blurt it out on the first date, maybe even in your dating profile, or do you wait for the clothes to come off? Only you can decide what you feel comfortable with.

In a piece for Cosmopolitan Lisbeth Strutt suggests a method of getting a peek at a potential partner’s reaction by sending a picture (yes, that kind of picture). This is a bit daring you might not feel quite there yet with your person or you might want to know how they feel before you even get to a second or third date. Try sending them a tamer picture instead – one of you getting ready for the date, your stoma bag showing a bit over the hem of your jeans or your skirt; or if you feel confident enough for a crop top, wear one as soon as the timing allows.

A visual approach is a good option because unless they know someone with a stoma bag, are an ostomate themselves or have extensive knowledge about it until they see it on you, your bag is in the realm of the theoretical. They might think it’s strange until they see it and realize it’s just a bag.

The way you talk about it is no less important than when and how you decide to tell them. The truth is, we all come with baggage. Your person might be divorced, widowed, a single parent, cheated on by every previous partner, have a history of abuse or addiction and you might have to learn how to navigate their own issues and traumas. It’s the reality of life – none of us are clean slates.

But if you think of your bag and the limitations that come with it as a burden, you prevent yourself from experiencing the fulfillment of having someone understand and care for you. Someone worth keeping will want to learn and adjust and will appreciate being trusted with something so sensitive.

“But what if they become too careful?”, we hear you ask. “What if they think I’m fragile? Feeble is not the new sexy…”

If you’re in good health and you enjoy this sort of things, going out on an active date can be a great way to communicate to your person that a) you know how to have fun and b) you’re not frail but in fact strong and capable and they don’t need to be excessively cautious. As an added bonus, sharing adrenaline-boosting experiences promotes attraction. So, take your date to a dancing class to reap the benefits of post-workout endorphins or if you’re feeling adventurous, try rock-climbing.

O-stomy and O-rgasms

We promised to spare you the vagueness and beating around the bush, so here we go. Sex with a stoma bag is very much achievable even if right now you’re a week post-surgery and it doesn’t seem like it.

Vlogger Emily Parris suggests that the earliest you can have sex after surgery is when you have the green light to exercise. Ideally, you should be able to talk about it with your doctor but if for some reason you’re not, as soon as you’re capable of jogging or squatting, your body is ready to have sex too if you so choose.

Don’t feel pressured to get (back) into it, though. If you have a long-term partner, they should be supportive enough to understand that maybe even a few months after surgery you still don’t feel ready to get intimate. Additional fears of sexual dysfunction and potential infertility might plague you and make you prioritize other everything else above intimacy with your partner. Although much more research into ostomy and sexual dysfunction is needed, what we have now seems to suggest that the rates of dysfunction in men with ostomy are as low as 2-4 %. Keep in mind that sexual issues can be psychological or the result of a longer recovery period and you’re most definitely not doomed to a sexless life.

Hannah Witton, a vlogger, and an ostomy activist brings up another, less talked about issue in one of the videos on her YouTube channel. Abdominal surgery, she reminds us, cuts through major muscles in the abdomen and women need those muscles to orgasm. It takes some time to strengthen those muscles after surgery, so if you can’t go back to usual don’t panic – orgasms are still on the table even if you have to wait a bit longer for your body to recover.

As for the practicalities of having sex with something attached to your body – there are options. High-waisted underwear, lacey belts, and pockets for your bag and getting creative with positions will have to do the trick. Spontaneity might not work for you and sometimes taking a moment to empty your bag might change the mood but you can still have a great time in the bedroom.

For more detailed information on sex after ostomy, check out the “Intimacy After Ostomy Surgery” Guide from the United Ostomy Associations of America.  

Perspective is everything

Your stoma bag can be a blessing in disguise for your love life. Instead of anxiously waiting for an opportunity to mention your ostomy and see if it’s a dealbreaker for your date, it should be the other way around – if they’re not cool with it, that’s a dealbreaker for you.

Someone who can’t accept you as you are and be supportive about a surgery that probably saved your life is not someone you ‘lose’ but rather a bullet you dodge. Your stoma bag can actually help you to weed out the people who would never be able to offer you a healthy relationship anyway. Your date’s reaction to your ostomy can become a litmus test of character and put you on the path of meeting someone who will love you for you and be thankful for the bag that keeps you healthy and allows you to spend quality time together.

So, own your challenges and conditions. Don’t ask to be accepted but rather expect your date to rise to the occasion and prove they are boyfriend or girlfriend material. Lead with your personality and be mindful of how you frame your ostomy.

Remember that your feelings are valid but the information they carry may not be true. It’s okay to feel like it’ll be next to impossible to meet the right person or you’ll never feel self-confident again but feelings are not good predictors of the future. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you’re feeling for as long as it lasts – every change comes with its own path to acceptance.

And, if at some point you want to see what else is there in the medical world, you can browse clinical trials on FindMeCure. Even if you’re not looking to participate in one, staying informed about the latest innovations can be a great source of hope and positivity. Clinical research is continuously improving the lives of patients and you never know when the next big breakthrough might happen, so keep your eyes open.

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