Dear Rosie & Sherry,
I thought I met the perfect person, but as I got to know him, I found out he is not so perfect... medically. Obviously a partner's illness would impact my life, and the lives of my future children. Some illnesses bring pain, inability to work, untimely death and more.
Of course, anything can happen to anyone in life, and in this case it’s just that I was informed earlier of what challenges are to come in the future.
My question: How should a partner's illness affect the courtship, and ultimately my decision to be or not to be with that person?
This is a very personal issue and we certainly cannot tell you what to decide if you are dating someone who has a mental or physical illness or a family predisposition to one. However, we do have suggestions about what to do before you decide whether to marry (or even to continue dating) someone with an actual or potential medical condition.
The keywords here are "knowledge" and "honesty."
Become as well-informed as you can about the illness or condition, including whether or not a condition that is "in the family" may be inherited (many illnesses that you may believe can be passed on to descendants are in fact not hereditary), the manner in which the condition manifests itself over the course of time, the individual prognosis for the person you’re dating, available treatments, the actual treatment the person you’re dating is undergoing, medical recommendations for lifestyles that can minimize difficulties, the costs of treatment, the availability of medical insurance and private and government funding for treatment, the affects an illness or condition may have on fertility and ability to bear children, how the condition will affect the patient's ability to have an emotionally healthy marriage and be a good parent, if and how it will affect the person’s ability to work, and how it will affect lifespan and overall quality of life.
You can find out much of this information by speaking with the physician and other medical professionals who are treating the person you’re dating. (Though you may need the patient’s permission due to confidentiality issues.) You can also contact the boards of the medical specialties to ask for information, and of course there is lots of material at the library and on the Internet.
Just one word of caution about sources such as libraries and the Internet: Most of the information you will read will be accurate, but since anyone can post something on the Internet or write a book, there is some amount of misinformation out there and it is a good idea to confirm the “results of your research” with a medical professional.
We also recommend that you speak to other people who have coped with the disease, and with their family members, to learn the challenges they have faced and how they have dealt with them. There are many support groups that can put you in touch with people who will be willing to share their experience.
We also believe it is extremely important for you and the person you are dating to have some honest discussions about the disease and how it will affect your lives together. How do they feel about their current treatment? Is it difficult to follow? What is the extent to which they expect to continue the treatment, or seek new alternatives? What do they feel about medical recommendations that affect their lifestyle? If it is possible they may become physically dependent on someone else in the future, how do they feel about this? If you marry, how much do they expect you to be involved in their medical decision-making, treatment, rehabilitation, and physical care? What do each of you feel about these expectations? Finally, are their any negative aspects of the situation -- that your partner as an individual and you as a couple -- are able to turn into something positive?
A final step is to speak to a learned rabbi, focusing primarily on learning the implications Jewish law has on your decision to continue to date and get married. You or a medical professional may have to provide factual information to the rabbi before he can make a well-informed decision, and he may refer the case to a rabbi who specializes in medical issues.
Unless there is a Jewish legal issue that has to be resolved, ultimately, you are the one who will have to decide if the degree to which you care for the other person, and the quality of the relationship between you, counterbalances any negatives. We know that such a decision may not be easy, and we hope that the Almighty blesses you with the insight to make the best choice possible.
Rosie & Sherry