Have You Bored – or Been Bored by – a Person with Celiac Disease?

celiac disease relationships wpMy friend’s fixation on her gluten intolerance puts people off. Should I let her know?

  • Advice Columnist,  Eleanor Gordon-Smith theguardian.com 1

A Reader Asks:

I have a dear friend who I’ve known for over 10 years. She’s very intelligent, beautiful insightful and emotionally intelligent. She’s expressed to me that she wants nothing more than to find a good partner and have children, and I think she’d be a wonderful partner and brilliant mother.

However, after spending a week with her on vacation, I think I began to understand why she’s had trouble finding and keeping a partner: she has a gluten intolerance and talks about it at length daily.

I want her to express her needs, but she doesn’t seem to realize that by giving so much airtime to her allergy, she comes across as high-maintenance and boring.

I’d just accept it as an idiosyncratic aspect of someone I love if it weren’t for the fact I see how other people are also put off by her fixation.

I suspect it is sabotaging her life goals. Should I let her know that her relationship with her illness is obscuring her wonderful personality? If so, is there a script I can follow to express these ideas to her that will limit how hurtful this conversation could be?

Eleanor says:

It’s possible your friend is trying to counter an isolating illness, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. Even if you find it tedious, don’t assume everyone else will too

‘People do all kinds of things in their relationships that the rest of us might find boring,’ writes Eleanor Gordon-Smith.

To a certain extent the temptation to over-discuss our illnesses is a way to counteract the fact that illness is, necessarily, frustratingly lonely.

When you’re sick, you can’t give other people first-hand knowledge of what you’re feeling. Others can’t experience what the symptoms actually do to your body, what the sensations are – there’s no way to get others to feel that reality.

All you can do is tell them what it’s like – describe it, talk about it – and even that can leave you with a sense of being marooned on an island when everyone else is on the mainland.

This is one of the biggest constants in how people talk about pain and sickness: there’s always something happening for them that isn’t happening for other people. To have something going wrong in your body is like constantly hearing a noise nobody else can hear.

  • It’s possible your friend has really suffered as a result of this intolerance.
  • Things like Crohn’s disease, celiac disease and many others can land you in pretty serious physical distress.
  • It’s possible that if she has been in pain a lot, or experienced the frustrating hunt for a diagnosis, her tendency to over-discuss it might be a way to counter the resulting loneliness.
  • Her body tries to stick her on an island, and she says not so fast: if I talk about it ad nauseam other people will be in it with me.
  • Or perhaps she talks about this so much with you because you’re a friend?

It can be a bit voguish in the broader culture to roll eyes at allergies and intolerances; “Man up and eat gluten” – as though food intolerances are signs of a weak constitution, like a consumptive Victorian orphan, and can be countered with a bit of fortitude and pluck.

If she’s received the signal from the rest of the world that her condition is something to be made fun of or dismissed, perhaps she’s going on about it with you because she trusts you won’t dismiss her.

Of course, it’s possible she’s just being tedious. Sometimes people just get stuck on output. They want to tell you the next bit in the saga of the infected toenail, or how exactly the food poisoning went, because to them these minor markers of uniqueness can feel exciting.

But even if that’s the case, the reality is you don’t know this conversational tendency is “sabotaging” her ability to have the kind of relationship she wants. There are plenty of people out there who don’t mind allergy chat, or who will see it as a welcome licence to share the details of their own health conditions. People do all kinds of things in their relationships that the rest of us might find boring. You could tell the model train collector not to go on about steam engines on dates, or you could hope they’ll find someone excited to join that conversation.

Perhaps you could find a way to lightly indicate that you find this conversation goes on a bit, if you think it isn’t serving the useful purpose of letting her vent about an isolating experience.

But there’s a distance between communicating that it is boring for you and communicating that it is an objectively boring way to behave and keeping her from her life goals. If you launch too quickly into the latter, your friendship might become a casualty of the conversation.

1 https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2023/sep/08/my-friends-fixation-on-her-gluten-intolerance-puts-people-off-should-i-let-her-know