A Partner Each Could Relate To

By the time Ashley Nicole Hooper and Sean Michael Balaban met on Valentine’s Day in 2015, both had learned how challenging it can be to maintain a relationship while also dealing with chronic health conditions.

Ms. Hooper, 30, has ulcerative colitis, diagnosed in college. Mr. Balaban, 33, has Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease, diagnosed when he was 11 and 16.

“It can be quite difficult when trying to find a partner that can understand and relate to the nuances of managing these conditions,” Ms. Hooper said.

The two became acquainted at a party hosted by Mr. Balaban’s rugby team at Moose Lodge 1558 of Jacksonville Beach, Fla. He approached Ms. Hooper after overhearing her say that she couldn’t drink beer when someone offered to get her one. “I slid right in,” said Mr. Balaban, who is also unable to drink beer.

Added Ms. Hooper, “We quickly had something to bond over and were immediately attached at the hip.”

They spent the rest of the night exchanging playful banter and arguing about baseball (he is a Yankees fan and she supports the Red Sox). “I learned that Sean’s confidence can be a bit extra at times,” Ms. Hooper said. “Sean learned that he would never win a game of Ping-Pong against me for the rest of his life.”

When they headed to their cars, Mr. Balaban asked Ms. Hooper for her phone. “I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘I’m trying to give you my phone number,’” Ms. Hooper recalled.

A week later, the two went on their first date to the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., and within a month, they became “official,” both said.

“You’re not seeing anyone else, right? I’m not either,” Mr. Balaban recalled saying to Ms. Hooper. “OK, we’re exclusive.”

Mr. Balaban, who is from Port Washington, N.Y., graduated from St. John’s University with a bachelor’s degree in sports management. He works for Dun & Bradstreet, a data and analytics company, as the director of growth marketing.

From Marathon, Fla., Ms. Hooper holds a bachelor’s degree in event management from the University of Central Florida. She is a talent and leadership development program coordinator at HubSpot, a company that specializes in customer relationship management software.

[Click here to binge read this week’s featured couples.]

As they dated, the ability for each to share personal medical developments with the other helped to deepen their bond.

“I felt more comfortable talking about my health issues than I ever had in past relationships,” Ms. Hooper said. “I used to try to hide any pain or discomfort and pretend I was always feeling good. I didn’t feel this embarrassment or even shame that I previously had felt.”

“Being with someone who gets it, like actually gets it, is so special,” she added.

On Nov. 28, 2020, Mr. Balaban surprised Ms. Hooper with a proposal at Guana Tolomato Matanzas, a nature reserve in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Following a walk on the beach with their four-year-old Vizsla, Boomer, they were met by family and friends who were in on his plan.

“My friends gave Boomer a big diamond ring toy to give to me,” Ms. Hooper said. “That’s when Sean dropped down on one knee and proposed.”

The two, who live in Jacksonville Beach, married at the Lodge & Club at Ponte Vedra Beach in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., on March 26, their seventh anniversary of becoming a couple. Rindaanne Riccio, Mr. Balaban’s college friend who was ordained a Universal Life Church minister for the occasion, officiated before 157 guests, who were vaccinated or Covid-tested.

For the ceremony, Boomer served as dog of honor. “We wanted to make him best man, but my maid of honor, Taylor Helms, is single and said, ‘Please don’t make me walk down with the dog,’” Ms. Hooper said.

At a reception that followed, the couple shared a giant gluten-free cookie sandwich instead of cake, and Dippin’ Dots, a favorite ice cream snack of the bride and her father, were served on the dance floor. Later, guests were treated to a beach bonfire and taco bar.

“Everything went without a hitch,” Mr. Balaban said. “And Boomer laid in the sand wagging his tail like a metronome the whole time.”