People have basic physiological and environmental needs, such as food, water, air and shelter. We also have emotional needs too, like the desire to love and feel loved. We all crave connection. And, of course, that longing is the same among all people (with and without disabilities). We all seek out different types of relationships – friendships, romantic partners, parent-child bonds, etc. – because they increase our purpose, self-esteem, joy, sense of belonging and much more. It’s simply human nature.
A Healthy Love
Psychology professor and author Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., said in her book Love 2.0, “Love, as it turns out, nourishes your body the way the right balance of sunlight, nutrient-rich soil and water nourishes plants and allows them to flourish.” This simple analogy makes so much sense to me (and I don’t even have a green thumb)!
In a Harvard study that spanned over 80 years and included thousands of participants, researchers found that the number one predictor of health and longevity is our relationships and, more importantly, how happy we are in our relationships. Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ or even genes.
The Odds Favor Love
Dating and finding (and/or nurturing) love can certainly feel challenging. It’s not easy for anyone. Perhaps that’s why there seem to be like a million dating apps and online platforms for all types of singles. Maybe, in some circumstances, one’s mental, physical or emotional disability can make the hunt for love trickier. But maybe not… maybe being ‘different’ is the new normal.
You see, 1-in-4 U.S. adults – or about 61 million Americans – have a disability that impacts major life activities, according to the CDC. With mental illness and invisible disabilities on the rise, perhaps the statistics of people living with disabilities are even greater than cited. So if you just think about the numbers alone… well, the likelihood that one or both partners in a relationship have one or more disabilities is fairly probable. Maybe it’s just a numbers game. If 1-in-4 people have a disability, it only makes sense that interabled dating and interabled relationships are normal and increasingly common. And I love that, don’t you?
People with disabilities constitute the nation’s largest minority group. The disability community is the only group any of us can become a member of at any time. While much work needs to be done to advance the awareness and acceptance of disabilities, the concept of diversity and inclusion definitely is evolving and expanding. Diversity is celebrated more than ever when it comes to aspects of age, race, gender, sexual identity, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic background and, yes, disability.
The conversation surrounding the breakdown of stereotypes in regards to interabled relationships is getting louder. In an effort to help illustrate that interabled relationships are the new normal, some couples are sharing their personal love stories with the world. For example, Hannah Aylward and Shane Burcaw, who has a genetic disorder called spinal muscular atrophy, have a popular YouTube channel titled “Squirmy and Grubs,” where they document their life as a married couple. The pair field questions about their relationship to combat the misconceptions surrounding interabled relationships and more. Similarly, author and blogger Rachelle Chapman, whose spinal cord injury caused paralysis, hosts widely-watched Facebook Live Chats about her marriage to her able-bodied husband, in addition to other topics like parenting and general disability-focused hacks. And these are just two of many wonderful examples of interabled couples proudly and loudly declaring their true love.
All Relationships are Different
As with able-bodied relationships, each interabled relationship or disabled relationship is different. Every couple experiences ups, downs and unique twists and turns. Sadly, many assumptions whirl around interabled and disabled relationships that don’t necessarily affect able-bodied couples.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- One’s disability doesn’t define a person. We’re all complex and evolving beings with many parts. I’ve come to understand that my disability presents some challenges not only for myself but also for my husband. I’ve learned – perhaps the hard way – that I really need to be honest in my communication with him… how I am feeling, what I need in regards to support, levels of understanding and acceptance, etc. I have become more comfortable vocalizing my feelings and communicating my needs. And, in turn, I’ve reassured my partner that I trust he can and will openly share freely with me… when he’s overwhelmed, confused, happy and so on. I appreciate his willingness to understand and adapt. I am not the best at asking for help, but I want to improve upon this.
- A disability doesn’t make one less worthy of having a romantic relationship or healthy sex life. All humans are meant to love and be loved. Listen, just because a person may have a diagnosis or disability and his/her partner does not certainly does not equate to the partner being a perfect person or perfect partner. No one is perfect! And disability or not, we each have to work really hard at supporting and loving one another.
- Physical attributes are not the sole factor of attraction. Again, each and every person has so many layers and so much to offer.
- The judgments of other people can hurt. Unfortunately, many people assume that dating someone with a disability is a burden, or that an able-bodied person solely plays a caregiver role to their disabled partner. This is not the case. The distribution of labor within a relationship is unique and ever-changing. Naturally, all couples support each other in many ways – physically, emotionally and spiritually.
- Interabled and disabled couples often experience stigmas. You can combat myths if you choose to, but you don’t have to! Aspects of relationships are private and you don’t have to share or explain anything if it’s inappropriate or beyond your comfort level.
- A romantic relationship may be between the two of you but, since we all crave connections, the support of others may benefit the relationship. Consider seeking out insight from other couples of all abilities – able-bodied, interabled and disabled. Don’t we all have so much to learn and gain from each other? I admit that my close friend with similar disabilities has served as a sort of therapist for me on many occasions. I appreciate her view, experience and ability to share with an open, well-intentioned mind. She offers tips on how she previously navigated situations within her relationship that may be helpful for mine.
- Couples shouldn’t feel guilty seeking out self-care. Love is complicated. Relationships are hard. And people sometimes need to nourish and nurture themselves with self-care — either independently or, when applicable, as a couple. Self-care comes in many forms. What makes you feel like your best self? Exercising in nature is an essential need for my mental wellbeing. This is something that I communicate to my husband and he honors. Sometimes it’s that simple.
- Give yourself some grace. We all mess up. Sometimes we need to apologize to our partner when we’ve goofed a bit. Sometimes a relationship doesn’t work out either. But love is out there… and accessible to all.
Relationships can transform one’s mind, body and soul. In fact, oxytocin, also known as the love or touch hormone, literally affects our brains. Remember, all relationships are different – whether you’re an able-bodied, interabled or disabled couple. So may you be loved and give love… in a way that feels and is normal to you and your partner. Lastly, while relationships are hard, maybe they aren’t that hard when you’re with the right person (who may or may not have a disability).