I had been dating Andrew for 33 days and had been constipated for four. I looked three months pregnant, had spent the last two days at his apartment, and was sitting on his toilet, giving it one final push.
Over the course of that weekend, we’d collectively consumed the following: a three-course dinner with friends; brunch that included two bagels and shmear, two potato latkes, a shared piece of babka, and a quart of pickles consumed by moi; an entire bag of chips and guac and homemade tacos for Saturday dinner; a heady amount of liquor at a club we both hated; Sunday brunch of eggs, potatoes, toast, and sausage; and a Sunday night dinner of chicken, penne, a roasted vegetable I can’t recall, and salad. And all of that—all of it—had yet to leave my bowels.
As far as doing my business goes, I am generally pretty regular. I love routine, and therefore have my mornings down to a science: I make coffee at home, go to yoga, get to work, have a breakfast of oatmeal or yogurt, and, about half an hour later, have a bowel movement. A few highly specific things throw me off, and I can name them all on one hand: lack of a morning coffee; travel by plane; inexplicably, eating a bagel on a weekday; and men.
When Andrew and I started dating, I felt the constipation looming. I tried everything to get myself to maintain a regular bathroom schedule. I took fiber supplements, drank green juice, and guzzled coffee to no avail. My aforementioned office poops came to a total halt, especially on mornings when I went to work from Andrew’s. Nor could I manage to successfully go at his apartment, where I tried a number of solutions: I timed my coffee consumption with his departure to work in the morning so that the “I’ve gotta go” feeling would hit after he’d left. Didn’t work. I asked if he would buy a Squatty Potty, which has previously proven to be life-changing for me, as I have short legs and he has a high toilet. He waved me off and said, “It takes up too much space in the bathroom,” which is a terrible excuse for someone who lives alone in a relatively large apartment. Once, in an act of pure desperation, I dragged a residual box from his coat closet to the toilet, attempting to turn it into a makeshift crouching device. I sat and focused hard for 10 or 15 minutes with the tap running (to mask out any errant sound effects), and nothing happened. No matter what I tried, it did not work. I could not go.
The great irony is that Andrew and I have always spent a lot of time talking openly about our respective digestive ailments—how our poops go, whether we feel nauseated, that sort of thing. He is not only aware of my bathroom habits, but, like a great partner should, is invested in them. So I will say from the start that it is not that I intentionally, or consciously, did not poop with, near, or around him. What I’ve realized is that for a variety of reasons, dating someone new always seems to throw off my digestive regularity.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), your digestive system is supposed to work like this: We chew and swallow food and liquid. It goes through the esophagus and into your stomach, where it’s combined with digestive juices and empties into the small intestine. As food moves through the small intestine, nutrients and water are absorbed into your bloodstream, and waste moves on to the large intestine, where it is turned into stool, moves to your rectum, and stays there until pushed out in a bowel movement. Ta-da. I have learned the hard way that a new relationship is the perfect storm for screwing all of this up.
First, we should talk about stress. Your body interprets nervous butterflies, excitement, and uncertainty the same way it does any other kind of stress, which often causes gut spasms, as SELF previously reported. Where those spasms happen determines whether you’re left with constipation or diarrhea. If the spasms cause your entire colon to contract, everything will be pushed out quickly—diarrhea. If the spasms only happen in one area of your colon, it can hold everything up—hence, constipation.
“People always think about acute stress [as a GI trigger], but chronic stressors play a big role as well,” Kyle Staller, M.D. M.P.H., an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Center for Neurointestinal Health and the Clinical and Translational Epidemiology Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells me. When it comes to nerves, a new relationship is more like a marathon than a sprint. There is no peak point after which the anxiety of it fades and, quite frankly, no moment of relief. You basically just have to live with the fact that you will be a little bit nervous all of the time. This might even go on until you stop caring what your hair looks like and you’ve inspected several mysterious red bumps on your partner’s behind, which usually takes a few months.
There’s also something to be said for the obvious awkwardness of pooping near a new person, and that awkwardness playing out in the form of constipation. “Normally, you might get a signal that says hey, it’s time to think about finding a bathroom for a bowel movement, and you are unconsciously like, no, I’m staying the night at this gentleman’s place, and you suppress that,” says Dr. Staller. It’s the same reason why I leave the tap running. I have a friend whose preferred tactic is to continually open and close bathroom drawers until she’s successfully done her business. As confident and comfortable as one might feel, the mind-body connection is stronger. I could talk about my poop with Andrew all I wanted—I could show him my distended stomach and complain about my constipation—but the truth of the matter is that I did not want him to hear it, or see it, or smell it, and that was enough to make it not happen at all. He was a stranger, a new character in whatever story this is, and there was no fooling my brain about that.
Though I tend to get constipated when I start dating someone, for some, diarrhea is a more standard stress response. One friend mentioned a dating prospect that made her particularly nervous, specifically about the question of whether the guy liked her back. After the first date, she started having a daily 11 A.M. bout of diarrhea. “I’d take a sip of coffee and be like, nope, gotta go. I normally don’t really poop after coffee, or at work…it’s usually later in the day. And after a month, the second the relationship officially ended, my 11 A.M. bathroom trips stopped.” (My dutiful editor asked me to double-check that there were no additional factors that may have contributed to her daily bathroom trips. No, the friend assured me. There were not.)
A straight male friend told me something similar: He had been seeing a woman, going on dates during the week and hanging out on the weekends. A few weeks in, he realized he wasn’t interested in a relationship with her, but continued to casually see her and sleep with her. “We hadn’t had the ‘what are we’ talk, but knowing how I felt and still continuing with it anyway gave me an IBS spurt.” It turned out that his half-hearted actions were not sitting with him. Literally.
And it’s not just the stress of a relationship that makes us sick. As far as a change in routine goes, dating incites a lot of it in a short amount of time. The NIDDK says that constipation can be caused by changes to lifestyle and daily routine, of which I now had several. In the beginning of a relationship, you go out. It’s what you do. You eat at restaurants and drink at bars. Even when we stayed home and cooked, it was more of a production, and far more decadent than my usual turkey burger for one.
There were more: Andrew stays up late, so I did, too. It took me two months to get a good night’s sleep in his bed simply by virtue of it not being my own. My once-cherished morning routine was now nonexistent. As SELF previously reported, activity helps to keep things moving. Well, I hardly ever made it to yoga. Even my added fiber intake wasn’t going to cut it, because fiber works best with water, and I was constantly dehydrated from the amount of liquor I was drinking. Dating Andrew, in the fecal sense, was a recipe for disaster.
At the time of this writing, still irregular, I asked Dr. Staller what I should do to poop without sucking the fun out of a new relationship. One would think the two could coexist. His solution: A dutiful commitment to a good night’s sleep, a stimulant like coffee, and then breakfast. “If you’re someone who has a tendency to be constipated,” he says, “you should imagine your window for having a bowel movement to be relatively small. Meaning: If you don’t pay attention to the urge and say, ‘all right, I’m going to have a bowel movement,’ it may not happen again for another day.”
After this conversation, I spent a lot of time trying to be more in tune with my bowels. When I’d feel “the urge” coming, however small, I’d make a run for it, and so far, it’s worked. A couple of months in, it was clear that my poop wasn’t the only thing that had been thrown off. There were other pendulum-like swings, too: I gained a few pounds and then lost them again. For the entire first month of our relationship I had bags under my eyes, but now I go to bed when I’m tired while he stays up and reads. I thought my face would be permanently swollen from all the salty food and the lack of sleep and water, but it has finally returned to normal after I found ways to return to my normal: For movement and mental health, I attend a new age breathwork class and get to yoga twice (or once) a week. I make it a point to eat more raw vegetables. Recently, I even started taking adult ballet.
It turns out that the body responds to dating not unlike the heart. There is a physical adjustment period just as much as there is an emotional one.
One month later, on a Saturday morning, Andrew went out to brunch and I stayed at his apartment to work. Breakfast, coffee, writing. Finally, alone in the apartment, I went.
When Andrew came home, I told him the good news. “I’m so proud of you,” he said, and patted me on the back. Later that week, he told me he’d gotten me a gift. He opened the bathroom door, beaming, and there it was. A push present, of sorts. My very own Squatty Potty.
The success of a relationship is highly dependent upon a few things, and I’ve learned that, for me, two of the most important factors are the ability to maintain a sense of self and the willingness to healthfully compromise. Beginnings are weird, but ideally, we find ourselves again.
Now, I poop in his bathroom all the time. It feels like a miracle, but I’ve been regular again. Slowly, we adjust.
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