Tips for Dating After a Burn Injury

Written by Cindy Rutter, RN, BSN, LMFT on March 06, 2024

Romantic Relationships
Social Activities
Social Interactions
Intimacy + Sexuality
Body Image

Concerns about dating and sexual intimacy after a burn injury are very common, but they shouldn’t keep you from getting back out there and pursuing relationships. Regardless of how they look, many people will have had some challenges when it comes to dating, relationships, and intimacy. The question then becomes: if we are interested in dating and a relationship, how do we navigate these challenges and move forward?

Relationships are developed slowly between individuals sharing experiences and learning to appreciate each other as unique human beings. We all have different personality traits, quirks, habits, and baggage we carry. These things are what make us who we truly are. But what if dating also involves letting your potential partner know about a health issue or physical differences? When do you tell a potential date about the scars hidden under your clothes or discuss the scars they can see?

Dating as a Burn Survivor

If you don't take a chance and put yourself out in the dating world, you will never have the opportunity to go on a date or be in a relationship. It definitely can be looked at as a risk. As scary as that might be, it is the reality. Deciding when to tell a potential partner about your burn injury is entirely up to you, including how you want to word it and how much detail you decide to give. Sometimes, a good place to begin is to explain what happened and how long you have been dealing with your scars.

Individual's preferences differ about when to share personal burn injury experiences. You may fear it will deter a potential partner or be too personal to share right away, and decide to wait until mutual trust has been developed. That doesn't mean you should lie; just let your partner get to know you first. Revealing too much too soon may change how your partner sees you. On the other hand, some individuals may feel insincere if they don't share the information before letting the relationship move forward. This is a personal choice. One individual I know indicated on their online dating profile "survivor," which opened the dialogue with potential partners to ask, "A survivor of what?"When and how you talk about your burn injury will depend on how comfortable you are with sharing your story. There are several ways to think about how you disclose the fact that you’re a burn survivor and your body has physical differences, and there are pros and cons to each choice:

  • You could wait until it is the “right time.” But when is the right time? How exactly do you decide it’s the right time? Do you wait to see how the relationship moves forward?

  • You could choose to be completely open from the beginning and tell them your whole story. This choice could be overwhelming for someone when you meet them for the very first time, rather than giving them the opportunity to get to know a bit about you.

  • You could wait until they open the conversation, hoping they bring it up and ask you what happened.

None of these choices feel exactly right. It’s challenging to talk about sensitive topics, and sharing the facts of a burn injury and the scarring left behind is undoubtedly one of those very difficult topics. It is so natural to feel apprehension about discussing your physical differences with someone who may be a potential partner. However, one of the important keys to a relationship is open communication, and honesty will only benefit the relationship in the long run.

Before talking to any potential partner, take some time to assess your own feelings and thoughts about your burn scars. Having a burn injury can bring about a whirlwind of emotions: fear of rejection, sadness, anxiety, and more. If you have a good understanding of your own emotions first, it will be easier for you to express yourself clearly. First and foremost, you must have a relationship with yourself and be comfortable in your own skin.

Here are some strategies to consider if you’re thinking about starting to date after a burn injury:

  • Talk to other burn survivors who’ve started dating and see what worked for them—and what didn’t work. It is important, though, to remember that what worked for someone else may not work for your situation, and what didn't work for them may work for you.

  • Practice positive self-talk. Think of all your positive qualities. Practice your responses in front of a mirror.

  • If you are concerned about rejection, practice a response to that as well.

  • Practice with a trusted friend how you will tell a potential partner what happened.

  • Writing down what you plan to say can also be beneficial.

  • When talking to a potential partner about your burn injury, find a time that is unrushed and relaxed.

  • Find a private and comfortable place for the discussion, where you won't be interrupted. Create a safe space for both of you to share your thoughts and emotions.

Beyond Dating: Sexuality & Intimacy

Although there is never a perfect time to talk about sex, it is best to discuss your burn injury before becoming intimate. In any relationship, communicating about healthy sexual feelings is important, and expressing concerns can also relieve your own worries.

If you feel your relationship is moving in the direction of sexual intimacy, here are some suggestions for guiding a conversation:

  • If you haven’t done so before now, you may want to explain or show any physical changes to your body. The thought process here is if you chose not to tell them, then you could potentially give them a big shock and possibly ruin something that could be quite good—or just never get naked and definitely ruin something that could be good.

  • Be open and honest about potential concerns with your body. Discuss things you both can do to lessen these potential concerns. Understand that your skin has changed, and it may be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to touch. Changes in the texture of your skin are also common. It also may be tight and not stretch as easily as it did before your burn injury, impacting your mobility.

  • If something hurts or is painful, let your partner know. Talk about other things you could do that don't cause pain.

  • Be familiar with your body, what brings you pleasure and what brings discomfort. It’s important to understand what provides pleasure and reduces discomfort.

  • Sexual intimacy is more than just intercourse. Understand that there are different ways of giving and getting sexual pleasure. Be open to this discussion with your partner.

No matter how you approach the possibility of dating, there are always going to be some people who will no longer be interested in you after you disclose that you are a burn survivor and your body has physical differences. It can be very difficult to hear, but ultimately, it's going to fall to the other individual and their particular preferences.

A good person will listen and be kind, but if your burn injury is something they can't live with, that doesn't necessarily make them a bad person. Personally, I’d be grateful to someone honest enough to say it wouldn’t work for them, rather than wasting my time and theirs.

When you find your partner, they will accept you for who and what you are. There is so much more to you than your physical appearance.

I want to leave you with a letter written by a gentleman named William in the early 80s. As you’ll see in the letter, he is deeply in love with his partner Ann, who is burned over two thirds of her body. I have used this letter over the years in many talks and presentations about sexuality and intimacy following a burn injury.

Intimacy After a Burn Injury

Dear Ann,

This is a letter to you to tell you how I feel. As you know I had some familiarity with burns when we first met. Your scars from the burns on your face and hands were quite visible; the ones on the rest of your body were not. Burns over two-thirds of one's body take a long time to heal. I saw the burns first because they were there…. just as when I meet a very tall or short person for the first time, I notice the most obvious features first. Then, as I get to know someone, I learn more about their likes, dislikes, job, intelligence, fears, loves, and dreams…so they grow, in my mind, to be a complete person.

So, I grew to know and be attracted to you.

We were attracted to each other from the first, although you guarded yourself from letting me know you for a while. I'm the same way about my feelings. Perhaps most of us are. We fear rejection, so we keep our distance until we are sure. And, of course, there are no guarantees, so we eventually let down the battle defenses. At the party that night, we were feeling happy, so we went home together and got to know each other. We woke up feeling closer. It took a couple of years to learn a lot more about each other since only in intimacy can you really let out a lot of feelings.

But this letter is about burns, love, relationships, and sex. Let me put it bluntly. You turned me on…the way you talked, moved, and reacted to others and especially to me.

One of the most attractive things about others is when they are attracted to us. I was attracted to you, physically at first and otherwise, as I learned more about you. We meshed great physically. We could hold on to each other or wrestle and tickle each other and love it.

I know you. Let me tell you about scars and how I feel about yours. I love their texture. I figure I'm lucky. Most people have one or two textures to touch on their partner. I have ten or more. There is the soft, smooth part below your hips, on your legs, which weren't burned. There is the soft, slightly rougher part on your thighs from whence came some of your grafts. There's the tough but smooth part under your arms, which wasn't released, and so is still tight when you raise your arm. There's the checkerboard pattern on your grafted upper arms, which feels like I'm running my hand over goose bumps. There's the area on your shoulder, which didn't heal too well and is soft but has little hills and valleys. And there's the cheekbone area where the fat was left out and, so the skin is closer to the bone. And there are a dozen more. But I don't think about it quite the way I've described. I just think about each part as part of you. As the saying goes, we're the sum of our parts, good and bad.

If I had known you before the burn, knowing you would be a re-learning process. I'd have to change the new parts of you, in my mind.

But if I knew you then as I know you now, the greatest part of you would be what you are….honest, tender, sensual, caring, and a great cook. If I would have known you only in a physical sense and not in a close emotional sense, then yes, I would have to re-learn everything about you.

But this isn't only about burns. All the ads and stories and movies and television programs emphasize only the superficial: "Ooh, I'm two pounds overweight….." "Porcelana gets rid of those age spots…" "Which hands are mine, and which are my daughter's?" Part of what the rock generation of the '60s and '70s and the punk rockers of the '80s were trying to say is, "Know me as a person, first, last, and always." The punkers make their outward appearance so bizarre that people are forced to look at them as a person. Unfortunately, very few people can get past outward appearance.

They say, "Hey, there are so many normal looking kids. I don't think you are worth the effort." Well, that's their problem. And it's part of our problem, too.

The next part of this letter is about questions that go through your mind—some that you tell me about and some that you don't.

  • Myth #1: "Because I have scars, you hit on me because you thought others wouldn't want me. Others have hit upon me and tried to pick me up for that reason." Well, there are boys and men like that, but you and I were attracted to each other for the right reasons. The men and boys who go for "easy pickings" have a low opinion of themselves number one, and number two, they're not much as people.

  • Myth #2: "You like me, but you are only staying with me out of pity." Well, that might be part of some people's makeup, but what a waste that would be of my life and yours. Relationships based on pity are doomed.

  • Myth #3: "When we love or argue or fight or enjoy, the burn plays a large part in what you say or do." Well, only in as much as you can't raise your arm to full extension (because of a tight band of tissue) to slug me and because of how it makes you feel sometimes.

By and large, when we're together, I don't notice people staring unless they are obvious, and if so, I just stare back at them. I know that most of their intentions are benign and not hateful, so it's only a sense of proportion and taste that I am trying to instill in them.

I fell in love with your scars, your shorter nose, your skin and your sense of life…your smiles, your frowns, your ups, your downs. They are all part of you and part of who you are. And I like and love who you are. This is not to say you are perfect, but nine out of ten ain't bad!

As to being unsure of our relationship, relationships are built from scratch, and the more we share together, the stronger the relationship becomes. That's true for everyone. The burn doesn't have anything to do with the survival of our relationship.

That's determined by how we care for each other.

Love always,


Author Bio

Cindy Rutter has been an advocate for Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors and involved in the burn community for more than 40 years. Cindy has been a burn survivor for 66 years and is the former nurse manager of the burn unit in San Diego. 10 years ago, she completed her master's degree to become a psychotherapist and is currently in private practice in San Diego.