I disagree with Dr. Phil. Inter-abled relationships can and do work! My spouse and I are living proof.
Recently, Dr. Phil had an episode on which he featured an inter-abled couple. i grew up watching Dr. Phil and I have been a fan of his for many years; however, I was deeply troubled by the fact that Dr. Phil made the statement on this episode that inter-abled relationships do NOT work. He further argued that, one hundred percent of the time, a relationship between a person with a disability and an abled bodied person fails.
I vehemently disagree with Dr. Phil. My spouse and I are living proof that inter-abled relationships can be fulfilling and beautiful for both people involved. This article was originally published in February of 2019 in CAPTIVATING! magazine and I am so passionate about this issue that I wanted to share it again here on my personal blog. It has seven tips that are helpful for all couples, but especially for couples living life with a disability.
7 Relationship Tips for All Couples, but Especially for Couples with Disabilities or Inter-abled Couples
By: Rev. Rebecca L. Holland, B.S. English Ed. & M.Div.
It’s no secret that dating is hard or that relationships can be both incredibly challenging and rewarding. This can be especially true if one or both members of the relationship has a disability. Trust me- I know
My name is Rebecca and although I’m now happily married, I remember all too vividly what it was like to navigate the dating world as a young woman with a visual impairment, chronic ocular migraines, and C-PTSD. Dating is confusing enough without adding all the extra concerns that a disability often brings with it.
Now, as my spouse and I prepare to celebrate our second Valentine’s Day together as a married couple, I can’t help but be reminded how far we have come together and how far we still have left to go. Some days we work really well together and other days our relationship is more strained.
One thing that I have learned is that no one can tell you what is right for you and your relationship. Other people can offer advice but no one knows what it is like to be the person you are in this exact moment in your exact relationship. Every relationship is special.
I think about relationships a great deal for my job. As a minister in the United Methodist Church, an important part of my job is pastoral care and counseling. Furthermore, before I sign any marriage license, I always require that the couple meet with me in order to undergo premarital counseling. In my five years of full time ministry, I have had the opportunity to work with many different couples. I have worked with multiple couples in which one person developed a disability later in life. I have also worked with couples in which one person became suddenly and unexpectedly disabled and couples in which both partners were disabled.
I have also read and extensively researched this topic for my job (I am the chair of Disability Ministries for the Susquehanna Conference) and have many friends who have disabilities. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I would like to share seven tips that I wish I would have known sooner as a person with a disability.
I hope these tips and ideas will inspire and encourage you. If you find something useful in my words, please take them and use them in your own life; however, as I said previously, each person and each relationship is unique. I know that not every piece of advice will apply to everyone because each person is unique just like each relationship is special; nevertheless, I hope that you will find something useful here that will help to inspire you to live life to the fullest.
Tip #1: Banish Shame
When I first started dating my spouse, I hid the fact that I had a disability. I was ashamed of my poor vision. I did everything that I could to hide my sight loss from him.
Like many people, I have developed a plethora of ways to hide the full extent of my disability from the world. I was afraid and ashamed. I worried that he would not be interested in forming a relationship with me if he knew all of my health problems. In the past, prospective mates had told me, “I’m sorry. I don’t want to date a blind woman.”
Even as a newly married couple, I see the looks that people sometimes give to my spouse when they see us together and I have my white cane. They assume that he must be a saint simply because he is in a relationship with a person who is visually impaired. This is hurtful because the assumption is that being with me is an act of charity.
In my line of work, I have seen couples where both people have disabilities. I have also worked with couples where one person developed a disability later in life. Whatever the individual couple’s personal relationship with disability, one thing remains the same: For true love to flourish, we must not make one another feel ashamed.
A sense of shame can poison a relationship. It can drive a wedge between couples. Often, as people age, we become dependent on friends on family for care and for assistance. Disability can happen at any time for many different reasons. For a couple to flourish, each person must feel loved and valued. They must know that they have a safe place to express their individual needs without fear of judgement. They must feel comfortable asking for help and for support. We should be able to depend on our partner in life.
I knew my beloved was meant for me when he looked at me and said, in regard to my visual disability, “You don’t have to be ashamed. Let us banish shame. Forget all about it. You have nothing to be ashamed of with me.”
He was right. No one should feel ashamed for having a disability.
Tip #2: Trust is Key
As much as I love my spouse, it took me a long time to start to trust him. Learning to trust one another is a key step in any healthy relationship.
As a young person, I had a very challenging time making friends. When I was a seventeen, a teacher who was blind and that I deeply respected gave me the following advice, “Rebecca,” he said kindly, “I need to tell you something. You need to be aware of how the other students perceive you. They will feel as if they need to take care of you because you are blind.”
“I can take care of myself!” I replied.
“I know you can,” he said, “But you must always remember that many people will feel stressed when they are with you because they will feel as if they need to look out for you. You must be certain to let them know that you are independent and never rely to heavily upon them, or you will drive them away.”
That well-meaning teacher was the first adult I had ever known with a disability. His words left a mark on me as a teenager. Although he was speaking about a visual impairment, I know that many people with disabilities feel this way.
In my life, I strive to make sure that people know that I can live independently; however, when we enter into a relationship, we are no longer completely independent by virtue of the fact that we now have a partner who loves and relies upon us for emotional support.
Sometimes, our partners will need us for physical support. Other times, we might need to lean upon them. Sometimes, we might need help with the tasks of daily living. Other times, we might be able to provide help to our loved one. Whatever the case, a healthy relationship requires that we trust one another to be there for each other during both the good and the bad times.
Tip #3: Communication
Communication is key for all couples. When I offer premarital counseling, I always encourage couples to figure out the other person’s “love language.” We all communicate our love and affection in different ways. I have a passion for language and I prefer to use words to tell my spouse how much I love and care about him; in contrast, my spouse often feels uncomfortable putting his feelings into words. He shows me he loves me by doing kind deeds. In this way, we work very well together because he likes to show that he loves me by helping with tasks such as driving me places or acting as my sighted guide.
Sometimes, my spouse is too tired or too drained to help me. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love me or that he doesn’t care. It simply means that he is not available to help me in that moment. This is why communication is particularly important for couples dealing with a disability.
I encourage my spouse to communicate with me when he is feeling overwhelmed by my needs and we form a plan together. For example, if he is unavailable to provide a ride for me, I will plan to call an Uber or carpool with someone who is going to the same place.
Conversely, when I tell my spouse that I can handle something, he trusts me to manage it on my own. He knows that I am the best person to judge my physical ability and pain levels on any given day.
All of us have different physical and emotional needs. Often, our needs change as we age. Sometimes, our needs change very suddenly. Whatever the case, each partner should be comfortable communicating what his or her needs are in the relationship. Then, both partners can work together ot make sure that everyone’s needs are met.
Tip #4: Division of Labor
Division of labor is important for all couples but it is especially important for couples dealing with disabilities. I encourage all couples to consider creative ways to divide household chores and commitments. Labor does not need to be divided along gender lines. Sometimes my spouse cooks and sometimes I do the dishes. Sometimes I help outside and sometimes he folds the laundry. Be creative and take time to consider what works for you and your partner.
I am particularly cognizant of the division of labor in my relationship because of my disability. I often feel sad because I am not able to drive or lift anything over 40 lbs. I make up for this deficit by contributing in other ways. I provide emotional support for my spouse. I am always quick with a kind word or a listening ear. He tells me that he deeply appreciates this constant loving emotional support more than words can say.
I have worked with other inter-abled and disabled couples who have divided the responsibilities of household living in all types of ways.
Although there are many ways that I cannot do, with some creative thinking and problem solving, I have found many things that I can contribute. I have found that I have been able to contribute to our relationship with my heart and my mind.
Tip #5: Form a Support Network
All couples, whether or not they are dealing with disabilities, need a support network. In the modern world, many people have this romantic idea that their partner should be their entire world; however, this is simply not the case. When I work with couples, I encourage them to realize that it is unrealistic to expect one person to fulfill all of our needs.
As human beings, we are made to live in a society and to be part of a larger group. We need friends, family, and loved ones. Being in relationship with other humans helps us to learn more about ourselves and gives our lives deeper meaning.
It’s perfectly acceptable to feel that your partner is your best friend; however, your partner should not be your only friend. Partners should provide love and support for one another; however, they should not be one another’s only support.
This is especially true for couples dealing with disabilities and for inter-abled couples. Many people with disabilities have special needs. Some of us require more assistance with the tasks of daily living than others. Some people require more emotional care and nurture.
I encourage you and your partner to depend on one another but to also form a loving and supportive network of people that you trust. Your support network might include friends, family, skilled medical staff, or trained assistants.
Tip #6: Take Time for Self-Care
All people, whether or not they have a disability, must make time for self-care. Take time to love and nurture yourself. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to provide your partner with the love and emotional support that is necessary for a relationship to thrive.
I would like to take this moment to extend a special, “Thank you,” to the caregivers of the world.
If you ever find yourself in a caregiving position, please know that you do not have to do it alone. I encourage you to ask for help from your support network, your worshipping community, or friends and family. As human beings, we are better together.
When I counsel people who are in a caregiving position, whether they are parents with small children, couples dealing with disabilities, or children taking care of elderly family members, I always use the metaphor of the oxygen mask on an airplane: When flying on airplane, in the event of an emergency, it is imperative that you put on your own mask first. Otherwise, you might lose consciousness while trying to assist the person sitting next to you.
Even if you do not currently find yourself in a caregiving position, it is important to remember to put on your own oxygen mask! Whatever you are going through in life, make sure to take time for self-care. Always put on your own oxygen mask first- otherwise you might not be able to help the people you love the most.
Tip #7 (The Last & Most Important Tip): Love one another
One of my favorite services to officiate at is a vow renewal. Every time I am asked to officiate at a service in which the couple renews their wedding vows, I like to take time to ask the couple one simple question, “What does it take to stay in love?”
Whether the couple has been married for five, twenty-five, or fifty years, I almost always get the same answer. Usually, they share knowing glance with one another. Then, one will smile and say, “I don’t know. Really- we just love each other.”
In the end, it is important to remember that every person, just like every relationship, is unique and special. The best advice I can give to you is simply this: love one another. If we always treat our partner with love and kindness, then all the rest will fall into place.
If we always treated the world with love, then the world itself would be a much more beautiful place.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Author’s Note: I would like to extend a special thank you to the members of Rev. Gal Blog Pals and the Disability Wisdom Discussion Group on Facebook for workshopping some of these ideas with me. Your feedback was deeply appreciated. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I recommend the book In Sickness and in Health: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasure of Interabled Romance by Ben Mattlin. I also encourage all couples that I work with to read The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman
About the Author: Rev. Rebecca L. (Torres) Holland, B.S. English Ed. & M.Div. Rebecca is a United Methodist pastor, author, and disability awareness activist. She is the chair of the Disability Ministries Task Force of the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church. Her chapbook, Through My Good Eye: A Memoir in Verse – Poems from a Half Blind, Half Filipino, Wholehearted Preacher Lady is available on Kindle and Amazon. She blogs about faith, diverse books, and disability awareness at BeckieWrites.com. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @BeckieWrites.
If you liked this article, then you may also enjoy these tips for driving with a disability or my interview the author of Thriving Blind, Kristin Smedley!
If you found this article helpful, you may also enjoy my interview with the author of Thriving Blind and TEDx Speaker, Kristin Smedley or the great articles in CAPTIVATING, a free monthly magazine that showcases the the achievements of people with disabilities.
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