Overcoming the challenges of dating and relationships with a visible difference

You may worry about your appearance if you're approaching dating with a visible difference. Here are some tips to make starting a relationship easier.

It’s fair to say that most people, regardless of how they look, will have experienced challenges when it comes to dating, relationships and intimacy.

You may find that your appearance is an extra source of worry if you are approaching dating with a visible difference or disfigurement.

Here, we explore some things you can do to stop worries about your appearance getting in the way of starting new relationships.

Dating with a visible difference

Naturally, when we meet someone for the first time, the first thing we notice is their appearance. This is all we have to go on initially.

If you are dating with a visible difference or disfigurement, it is true that people will notice how you look and have thought about this. However, these thoughts will not necessarily be negative. Most people will be curious and wonder why you have a visible difference.

Dating is about much more than judging how someone else looks. Once you get talking, a date is a chance to see how you both get on, whether you have chemistry, if you make each other laugh and how you feel about each other. The person will want to hear about you – and you will want to hear about them. Anyone who judges others solely on their appearance is not worth your time.

What qualities are you looking for?

If you are worried that your appearance may put people off, it may help to think about what it is that you are looking for in a partner. Write these things down.

When you look at your list, how many of these qualities are about appearance? When we are looking for someone to share our lives with, appearance is only one small part of what attracts us to others. You will probably find that your list is mostly made up of personal qualities.

Common concerns about dating and new relationships

The following thoughts and feelings are common to most people going on a date, but they can be particularly strong if you are dating with a visible difference.

Have a read through them to see what resonates with you, then move on to the section below, which explores how you can control your thoughts and feel more confident about dating.

Will anyone find me attractive?

You may worry about your appearance and how other people will view this. If you’re not used to being complimented on your looks, or have been teased or bullied about your appearance, it is understandable that you may believe that you are unattractive, unlovable or not “good enough”.

As we’ve discussed, the quality of being attractive is about much more than how we look. Although this is the first thing your partner will notice on a date, anyone worth your time will be looking for much more than skin-deep qualities.

I’m so used to feeling rejected. Will I ever meet someone special?

Being on the receiving end of unkind remarks or being avoided is very hurtful and can feel like a rejection. You may begin to expect people to find you unattractive and anticipate being rejected.

Understandable as this is, it may help to be aware of the assumptions you make. Think about how you feel in a new situation. Have you already decided how people will act or what they will say? Recognising these expectations may help you to put them to one side and wait and see how people react.

“It is so easy to feel negative about your appearance, to wish things were different and to generally consider yourself unworthy of an intimate relationship. I experienced a spell in my late teens where I basically reduced my social contact with other people because I was afraid of being rejected. I felt completely unlovable particularly as all my peer group seemed to be in a relationship so decided that not going out was the better option. How wrong I was – my self-esteem plummeted and after several months I decided that going out with friends and joining new things was far more rewarding.”

Alison

I don’t know how to let someone get close to me

Some people feel naturally more shy or apprehensive about being open or talking about themselves. Some of the negative experiences you have because of your visible difference can add to worries about getting close to someone. You may find it hard to share your thoughts, feelings, dreams. If you haven’t discussed it much before, you may also feel uneasy about talking about your visible difference.

These feelings are natural. Your head might know you need to tell someone about the things that are meaningful to you and show someone who you are. But in your heart, it can take time to trust others. Recognising this can make it easier to gradually open up or explain how you feel to a potential partner.

“I find it very hard to meet a guy. I have been single for a long time. I think a lot of this is due to feeling scared to speak to a guy. I find flirting difficult with a guy I like, as I get tongue-tied or embarrassed. Part of this is to do with the way people have acted towards me in the past. I find it much easier to talk to a guy who I don’t find physically attractive, or I know they have a partner. It’s kind of like, I think ‘OK, so I can be myself with this guy, as I don’t have to try and impress him’.”

Lindsay

I’ve never been out with anyone before

The thought of being with someone can feel very daunting, especially if you’ve never flirted, gone out on a date, had a partner or had sex before. You might feel nervous, unconfident and not know how to behave. You may worry the other person is judging you or doesn’t like you. You may feel under pressure to act as if you are more experienced or blame yourself when things don’t go so well.

When it comes to dating, we all have to start somewhere. It is perfectly normal to have these feelings when you start having relationships. For some people, it takes time to relax and feel confident. Being brave is part of it – but also giving things time and taking it in stages can be helpful.

Take control of your thoughts

If the concerns above resonate with you, you might find that the following approaches to managing your thoughts make dating with a visible difference easier.

Be aware of your assumptions

Our thoughts are often based on past experiences. If you have had a negative experience of dating in the past, you may expect the same thing to happen again.

It’s really hard, but it’s important to try to approach new situations with a blank slate. Try to remember that this is a different person, you are in a different place and that you should give things a proper chance, without making assumptions based on what has happened before.

Be aware of negative thoughts

Being aware of our negative thoughts can help us find more balanced alternatives.

If you notice the thought, “This person will not be interested in anything I have to say”, you could replace this with something more balanced, such as, “I have lots to say that could be of interest to this person”. This second, positive thought is likely to make you feel much more confident.

It’s not easy and most of us need to practise this. Your brain may be used to hearing negative thoughts and you will need to train it to hear something positive by saying this to yourself over and over.

Be aware that thoughts are not facts

Thinking something doesn’t make it true or mean it will happen. However, thoughts can affect what you do or how you behave.

Thinking, “They won’t like me” could mean that you are more reserved or avoid eye contact because you are uncomfortable. The other person might read this as a lack of interest. Most of us like people who are interested in us so this perception could mean that the other person does not ask for another date.

In this example, our thoughts have made us behave in a way that makes us less approachable. What we thought would happen has happened – but not for the reason we think. Practising some of the earlier techniques can help you control your thoughts and act more positively.

Taking control of your appearance

Having a visible difference does not mean that you have no control over your appearance.

I always made sure that I had control over the aspects of my appearance that I could have control over (if that makes sense!). I couldn’t change my disfigurement but I could make sure that I wore a fashionable, flattering outfit, that my hair looked good, that I smelled nice and that I smiled. I’ve always loved my hair and everyone said I had nice eyes so I concentrated on those.

Alison

Putting on your favourite clothes, doing your hair or putting on makeup, perfume or aftershave are all ways you can control how you come across to others. Focus on those aspects you feel best about. Feeling as good as you can about your appearance can be a big confidence boost when dating with a visible difference.

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