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Houston, Texas

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Psychosocial Health--Intimate Relationships

Psychosocial Health Table of Contents

Women with disabilities often talk about establishing intimate relationships, but they receive strong messages that they are not suitable intimate partners.

The quality of interpersonal and marital relationships is consistently associated with health and well-being.

  • Women with disabilities often talk about establishing intimate relationships but receive strong messages that they are not suitable intimate partners.
  • In one study, women with disabilities, when compared to women without disabilities, were less likely to be involved in romantic relationships.
    • The women with disabilities were also less satisfied with how often they dated and perceived they had more problems in attracting dating partners.
    • Friendships of women with disabilities were less likely to evolve into romantic relationships.
  • Negative aspects of relationships are associated with decreased well-being in women with disabilities. Strained relationships can be a problem.
  • One 7-session health promotion program for women with disabilities resulted in improvements in positive social interaction. This finding suggests that participants tended to have greater availability of other persons for sharing and relaxation after completing the program than before they began it.
  • The unpredictable nature of disability can make it difficult to make plans for social activities and maintaining relationships.
  • Intimate partners of women with disabilities may have difficulty accepting a woman's disability.
    • A woman in one article stated: "I had a real blow when a man I cared deeply told me he could not be in a relationship with me because of my illness [multiple sclerosis]. I know now that was his issue ... but felt it just confirmed my initial fears--I was ill and no one would want to be with me."
  • Although not confirmed by research studies, some writers have suggested that romantic disadvantages of women with disabilities involve:
    • Society's value on physical attractiveness, which may result in women with disabilities being judged as "flawed" or "defective" as sexual partners if they are not beautiful and "sexy" in the traditional female stereotype.
    • Another explanation involves function. It has been said that women with disabilities may be perceived as useless in that people consider them unable to care for children and partners, coordinate households, and perform other traditional female roles.
Women with severe disabilities are less likely to be married than other women.

Are women with disabilities as likely as other women to be married? For the most part, the answer is a flat-out "no". What reasons are given for this difference? Findings on marital status and women with disabilities indicate the following:

  • Women with disabilities tend to have lower rates of being married than men or women without disabilities and men with disabilities. For example, in 1992, 50% of women with activity limitations were married compared to 64% of the women without activity limitations. Most notably, only 44% of women with severe limitations were married at the time of the study. Women with activity limitations are less often currently married and more often widowed, compared to other groups. It is unknown whether this difference is related to women's greater longevity.
  • Another analysis, however, found that all women regardless of age or limitation were more likely to be married than to be in any other marital status category (i.e., widowed, divorced or separated, and never married), except women 65 or older with functional limitations, who were more likely to be widowed. However, women with three or more functional limitations were significantly less likely than women with two or less functional limitations to be married.
  • One study found that, 3-5 years after leaving secondary school, young women with disabilities tended to have the same marriage rates as those without disabilities, but a closer look revealed that marriage depended on the types of disabilities they had. It seems that young women with physical disabilities were less likely to be married than those women with learning, speech, and emotional disabilities. The women with physical disabilities were also not as likely to be living with a partner. The author writing about this study suggested this difference might be related to cultural norms of attractiveness.
  • According to study of nearly 1000 women with and without disabilities, more than half (58%) of the women with disabilities were single compared to 45% of the women without disabilities - 42% of the women with disabilities said they were not married (or in a serious relationship) because no one asked them compared to 27% of women without disabilities.

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