Navigating Relationships with Food Allergies
Updated: Dec 31, 2022
I remember as a little girl, dreaming about the day I’d get my first kiss and be in my first relationship. I constantly drew pictures of what I imagined my future family would look like and wrote countless stories of people falling love. One day, my aunt told me the devastating story of a family friend with a peanut allergy who died from anaphylaxis after kissing his girlfriend who had consumed peanut butter hours before. I quickly realized that that could be me if one day I kissed someone who had consumed dairy. My excitement to grow up and have dating experiences was now coupled with anxiety and fear.
After hearing of what happened to our family friend, I knew that my first kiss couldn’t be spontaneous. Studies have shown that allergens like peanuts stay in the saliva for one to four hours, so I needed to make sure that whoever I kissed hadn’t consumed dairy for at least four hours (Maloney et al., 2006). I also wanted to make sure that the person would brush their teeth and wash their face thoroughly beforehand to be extra cautious. Lastly, I knew that I needed to trust whoever I was kissing.
Finding someone to meet all these requirements just to keep myself safe and have a somewhat normal teenage experience felt like an impossible task. I was understandably nervous and frustrated. All of my friends had had their first kisses already and didn’t need to have an awkward conversation about their allergies beforehand. I just wanted to be a normal teenager.
To be quite honest, I don’t remember much about my first kiss except that it was with someone I trusted and had been talking to for a while. He knew about my allergies and I had talked with him about the importance of avoiding dairy before seeing me. I am grateful that to this day, I’ve never had a reaction from kissing, but I think that is mainly due to me communicating my allergies beforehand and being extremely cautious. The reality is that when you have life-threatening food allergies, you can’t be as spontaneous as your non-allergic friends might be—and that is ok! You have to do everything with your safety as your number one priority.
Once I got older, the idea of being in a long-term relationship and managing my allergies safely started to become more anxiety-inducing. Finding someone who cared enough about me to avoid my allergens and take extra precautions before being with me felt daunting. I had watched every single person in my life indulge in foods I couldn’t have--things like cake, pizza, and ice cream that are so central to the American diet and important parts of celebrations, holidays, and birthdays. I wondered, “How could I ask someone else to avoid dairy and sacrifice all of these foods that they love just for me?”
In the beginning of my senior year of high school, I entered my first serious relationship with someone who I had been best friends with for years. He knew about my allergies and how severe they were, but there was still a big learning curve for the both of us. He has no allergies and loves many foods that I am deathly allergic to, like cheese and pastries. We had to learn how to find a happy medium that kept me safe and comfortable but also allowed him to still eat the foods he loves. For us, that means that when we are together, he avoids all dairy products. When he is anticipating seeing me within several hours, he will also avoid all dairy products. He also brushes his teeth, uses mouthwash, and washes his facial hair to get rid of any remaining allergens (beards can hide lots of food allergens, so be careful!) before seeing me. Because we don’t live together, when he is at his house, he’s able to eat whatever he wants and only needs to avoid dairy when he is going to be with me.
I have had to learn how to talk about my allergies, educate people about what happens to me in an allergic reaction, teach people how to use an Epi-Pen, and highlight which foods and items are not safe for me. I’ve also learned to get creative in the kitchen and show my partner and his family all of the amazing dairy-free foods I can eat. Food allergy education is an ongoing process but all it really requires is two people who care about each other and are able to communicate. When you are in a relationship with someone who genuinely cares about your well-being, they won’t complain about your allergies and will understand that it is a medical condition that is outside of your control. They will be supportive, try allergy-friendly foods with you, and want to help you feel safe.
After over 5 years of being with my partner, I feel comfortable going to his house and having his family cook for me—something that is so normal and taken for granted by many people without food allergies. It has taken me years to feel comfortable enough to trust him and his family to cook for me and understand my allergies just because of all the terrifying anaphylactic experiences I have had, but it is so rewarding and I am so grateful to have gotten to this point.
I hope that my story encourages other people with severe food allergies and helps you remember that you’re not alone! There are people out there that will support you and go the extra mile to ensure your safety—don’t lose hope. Always make sure to have 2 Epi-Pens with you regardless of where you are and who you are with, educate those around you about your food allergies, and don’t be afraid to be your own advocate. Even if it feels awkward to bring up your allergies, it is your life we are talking about!
“Peanut Allergen Exposure Through Saliva: Assessment and Interventions to Reduce Exposure.” J.M. Maloney et al. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 2006. Vol. 118, no. 3, pp. 719-24. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0091674906011924.