May 9, 2022 - Written By: Aston Martinez
Many people mistakenly believe that people with disabilities don’t desire sex and relationships, or that they are entirely unable to do so. This is, of course, a complete myth. People living with disabilities are human beings with human desires, needs, and preferences. Living with a disability does not remove the person from the very human elements of desiring a healthy social life.
Dating and developing healthy relationships can be quite the challenge in general. Just ask anyone, dating and finding romance can be one of the toughest social activities that most people strive to accomplish. Throwing a disability or a chronic illness into the equation of love can pose unique challenges that aren’t always as seemingly straightforward as typical dating woes. These challenges have a huge impact on both the disabled person and their partner regardless as to how strong the love bond is between them. Nonetheless, there are several ways for disabled people to cultivate healthy relationships in which they feel loved, valued, understood, and respected.
The Impact of Unhealthy Relationships on the Disabled Community
Unfortunately, domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and other forms of abuse tend to impact the disabled community at a significantly higher rate. What often complicates things is that abuse typically occurs at the hands of a person who is well-known to, and even loved by, the person with a disability. People with disabilities are often treated by the greater society as sub-human. This devaluation often results in social isolation, leaving the person vulnerable to being abused, taken advantage of, and even trapped, making it extremely difficult to protect themselves or flee their abuser.
According to a report published by the U.S. Department of Justice, the disabled community experiences violent crime at higher rates than other population groups, and in 2010, intimate partner violence constituted 13 percent of reported violent crimes against the disabled community. (Harrell, 2016) This is only the tip of the iceberg because the report accounted specifically for acts of violence. The other more common forms of abuse weren’t even included, such as:
Financial abuse from someone who intentionally withholds or steals money, or refuses to allow the person’s input and involvement in managing/spending household finances.
Emotional/verbal abuse that occurs when the person is gaslighted about their conditions/disabilities or speaks to them in a threatening or derogatory manner.
Sexual abuse in which the person did not provide consent for sexual activity regardless of whether or not there is violence involved (this is important to note since a person can also feel coerced into sexual activity for fear of facing worse consequences).
Abuse by withholding or damaging a person’s personal property, medical items, or assistive devices.
Medication abuse in which the abuser steals or withholds medical treatments from the person, or purposely over-medicates you.
Neglect in which the abuser purposely gets in the way of the person’s basic needs, such as food, hygiene, ability to communicate with others, and anything else needed for comfortable, safe and healthy living.
If you are experiencing any of the above forms of abuse, there is help available 24/7 through the National Domestic Violence Hotline. You can visit their website or call their hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, the hotline’s video chat can be accessed at 1-800-787-3224. In cases of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673. Please know that this is not your fault, love shouldn’t hurt, and you are worthy of a healthy and happy relationship.
While abuse is a serious problem in the disabled community, it certainly isn’t the only problem the disabled community typically faces. Chronic illnesses can make it more difficult for a person to participate in various activities with their partner, leading the disabled person to struggle with severe depression. Frequent doctor and hospital visits can also put a strain on romantic relationships. Additionally, when a romantic partner is called to become a care partner, certain intimate caregiving responsibilities can either bring a couple even closer together or it can tear them romantically apart.
If you are a person living with a disability, chronic illness, or a debilitating rare disease and are struggling to maintain an intimate relationship, or to start one, don’t lose sight of the fact that you are worthy of love. We all are. People living with disabilities and chronic illness are brilliant people. We are creative, solution driven and bring a rich perspective to life. There are a countless amount of human variations in this world - whether able bodied or disabled - the one thing we all have in common is the basic elements of the human experience. We all were born into this world and we all at some point will pass from this world. The human body is fragile in its design and life is fleeting. We are all capable of greatness, but we all are also prone to developing unhealthy feelings and behaviors under the stresses of life’s circumstances.
The Core Elements of Healthy Relationships
Relationships are extremely complex, so it’s difficult to pin down any sort of concrete formula for creating a healthy, life-long relationship. However, activists Sam Killermann and Karen Rayne created the R.E.S.T Model, which narrows down the four core pillars upon which healthy relationships should be built. (Killerman, 2021)
The first pillar is Respect, which involves both partners setting healthy boundaries, realizing each other’s importance to the relationship, and appreciating each other’s feelings, opinions, beliefs, and decisions.
The second pillar is Equality. This operates on a definition of equality that calls for both partners to be equal in “status, rights, and opportunities.” Equality involves not only equal access, but equal power in making decisions.
The third pillar is Safety, which is all about ensuring that both partners feel safe in their relationship/with each other. Both partners should feel confident in the fact that the other would never intentionally harm them in any way - including physical, emotional, psychological, or other harms.
The final pillar is Trust, which is “the belief that someone or something is reliable, good and honest.” Both partners should feel confident that they can believe each other and that they won’t be lied to, manipulated or exploited.
Keep in mind that each of these pillars casts a shadow, which involves behaviors that masquerade as healthy despite actually being unhealthy. These behaviors typically call for some sort of stipulations or conditions, or behaviors that make a person feel uncomfortable.
Tips for Cultivating a Healthy Relationship
Besides building relationships that are based upon the four pillars of the R.E.S.T Model, there are a few other tips that can help strengthen any relationship. The following tips require a couple to communicate in an honest and transparent way. To some this may feel a little nerve-wracking when tried in real life but is so worth the strength, love, and understanding that it adds to a relationship.
Always make it a point to communicate with clarity, compassion, and honesty, no matter the topic, and make sure that your partner feels comfortable verbalizing their feelings to you.
Have a sit-down meeting with your partner in which you both take time to learn about your medical condition(s), how those conditions impact you, the care involved in treating and living with them, and what that may mean for the relationship.
If one partner may need to take on the role of a care partner, it’s important to define exactly what the caregiving responsibilities involve, what challenges might arise, and how those challenges may be addressed. It’s also important to understand the signs of care partner burnout, which typically occurs when the abled person becomes overwhelmed with the caregiving responsibilities and begins to neglect their own needs and well-being.
Find ways to be intimate with each other that doesn’t always involve sex. Pain, medications, stress, and anxiety can all dampen a person’s sex drive, so it’s reasonable to assume that there will be times when sex just isn’t a comfortable option. No one should feel pressured into having sex. Instead, swap one form of intimacy and affection with some other. Some examples include, but are not limited to snuggling up on the couch to watch a movie together, taking up a hobby together, “parallel play” in which the two of you spend time together while doing separate activities, etc.
Encourage individuality within the relationship for both partners. It is perfectly okay to have separate social connections, interests, opinions, and goals. In fact, having that sense of individuality can help to raise self-esteem, promote personal independence, and encourage respect for each other’s differences.
Seek individual and/or couple’s counseling. Many people are hesitant to seek this option because they don’t feel that it is necessary for their relationship. However, it’s helpful to actually view this as a preventive measure as opposed to viewing it as a treatment administered to a failing relationship. By seeking counseling before the problems even begin, a couple can ensure that they know how to cope and address things whenever issues do arise.
Understand that this is an ongoing process. Things won’t always be perfect, and it takes two to make a relationship successful. Even when one person tries their hardest sometimes, sometimes the relationship is just not the right fit. Or, despite a couple’s genuine love for each other, their love languages may not be compatible. The ultimate rule of the game is that you have to be in it to win it. Don’t give up on the idea of having a healthy relationship!
In closing, it’s important to remember that just because disabilities pose unique relationship challenges, people living with a variety of disabilities find love and enjoy healthy relationships all around the world. As long as you approach relationships with kindness, respect and love, you can have a long, healthy, and happy relationship no matter the challenges. If your current relationship is causing you harm in any way, please reach out for help - no amount of love justifies abuse.
References and Resources
Harrell, E. (2016, November). Crime against persons with disabilities, 2009–2019 . bjs.ojp.gov. Retrieved May 4, 2022, from https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/capd0919st.pdf
Killermann, S. (2021, August 11). 4 things that make a relationship healthy or unhealthy. love is respect. Retrieved May 4, 2022, from https://www.loveisrespect.org/resources/4-things-that-make-a-relationship-healthy-or-unhealthy/
Perez, S. (2018, January 5). How unhealthy relationships impact the disabled community. One Love Foundation. Retrieved May 4, 2022, from https://www.joinonelove.org/learn/how-unhealthy-relationships-impact-disabled-community/
Aston Martinez is a writer, community-based activist, and aspiring public speaker. She lives with multiple rare diseases, and she's on a mission to bring more awareness and fairness to the rare disease community. She's also the VP of Content for Habit Nest and has a passion for writing fiction!