The only reason why it went into an intimate relationship was the fact that I felt trust again, and that I felt this person was caring enough that I could address these [disability] issues with him. I found myself the second time I met this person, discussing my disability. And the guy didn't run.43-year-old woman with rheumatoid arthritis
The establishment of romantic relationships ranks very high in life's priorities for most women. Although considerable literature in various psychological and sociological disciplines examines the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, very little attention has been paid to the effect of disability on those relationships from the woman's perspective. The importance of socialization experiences in adolescence is generally acknowledged, but the fact that many girls with disabilities have limited access to those experiences due to attitudinal and environmental barriers has not gotten the attention it deserves from families, educators, and service providers. Studies that examine the various aspects of partner selection, factors that contribute to successful marriage, and factors that lead to the dissolution of relationships have also been well represented in the literature, but rarely has disability in women been included as a variable.
Our study offered the unprecedented opportunity
to examine many unanswered questions about the relationship experiences
of women with a variety of physical disabilities. We looked at personal
factors, such as attitudes toward dating and marriage, sexual orientation,
and disability type and severity; behavioral factors, such as dating patterns,
number of marriages, and the effect of disability on the partner's behavior;
and environmental factors, such as social attitudes and family expectations.
In these analyses, we paid close attention to differences in the experiences
of women who had acquired disability earlier versus later in life.
I seem to attract men who want to take care of me. My basic feeling was that they wanted me to be their doll.46-year-old woman with bilateral upper extremity amputations since birth
I have never dated a man that has been as close as what I'd want him to be because I think it's the wheelchair that scares him away. They're afraid to get too close for some reason or other. I don't really know why that is. It's not that I hadn't tried.37-year-old polio survivor
Women with disabilities were less satisfied with their dating frequency, perceived more constraints on attracting dating partners, and perceived more societal and personal barriers to dating than women without disabilities. Women with disabilities who were less satisfied with dating tended to have certain types of disabilities, such as stroke, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, or traumatic brain injury; acquired their disability earlier in life; had more severe functional limitations; and had hearing and speech problems in addition to physical limitations. These women also tended to have higher educational levels and lower self-esteem.
More than half (58%) of the women with disabilities were single, compared to 45% of the women without disabilities. Regarding sexual orientation, 87% of the women with disabilities were attracted to men, 4% to women, 7% to both genders, and 2% to neither gender. The majority have been sexually active; 92% have had sex with a man, 16% with a woman, but 6% had never had sex with anyone. Women without disabilities were slightly more likely to have had sex with a man (94%), but were significantly more likely to have had sex with a woman (23%), or with both men and women (21%).
Women who were disabled earlier in life tended to begin dating later than women who were disabled later in life or who were not disabled. Women with disabilities also tended to move away from home later than did women without disabilities. When the woman lived with her mother and her disability began in childhood, she was particularly susceptible to being overprotected. The women with disabilities whose parents encouraged dating and going out with friends tended to have more effective social skills.
The most troublesome problem for women with disabilities was attracting partners to date. Factors that were associated with problems in attracting partners were having low self-esteem, less education, communication impairments, and societal barriers to dating, such as someone being interested but not asking her out because of what others might say. Women who reported societal barriers to dating were those who had communication problems, a high level of functional impairment, and personal barriers to dating, such as rarely getting out of the house to meet people. Women with cerebral palsy, low self-esteem, or a high level of functional impairment perceived that they had personal barriers to dating. Even when women with disabilities were socially outgoing, with strong social skills and many friends, friendships were less likely to evolve into romantic relationships than they were for able-bodied women.
The timing of onset of disability, and the response to disability of family, friends, and society in general, were critical in establishing patterns of dating behaviors for women with physical disabilities. Parents who encouraged their teenager daughter to go out and meet people, who gave her the expectation that she could marry someday if she wished, who equipped her with the information and social skills she needed to attract dates, and most importantly, who made her feel valued and attractive, set the stage for having positive dating relationships. Laying a strong foundation for future adult relationships gave the woman with a disability the strength to deal with social prejudice against her dating as an adult. Conversely, parents who overprotected their daughter, who told her not to expect to date or to get married, or who were neglectful or abusive set the stage for unsuccessful attempts to establish dating relationships, repetitive exploitative relationships, or unplanned pregnancy.
Acquiring a disability during or immediately before adolescence disrupts dating, a crucial time for sexual rehearsal. In some cases, dealing with disability during this time period postponed dating or ended it altogether. In others, the girl strove to date anyone she could get, regardless of how badly he treated her, in an attempt to disprove her fears that she would never again be worthy of love.
Women who were injured or acquired a chronic disabling condition as an adult were faced with the challenge of learning how to date all over again with an often severely altered appearance and new functional limitations. They feel as though they have been thrown back to a situation akin to first dating as an adolescent. Women reported having no experience in how to interpret and deal with unexpected responses to their disability from potential dates. They must learn again to take risks, knowing that potential dates may reject them outright when faced with visible signs of disability, such as a wheelchair. Some women with disabilities who became involved in a relationship were overly agreeable to the partner's desires in an attempt to hold onto the relationship at any cost, even the loss of their identity, economic security, or safety.
For those who are already involved in a romantic relationship, the partner may not be able to deal with her disability and break off the relationship. Not knowing whom to trust or how to approach dating as a person with a disability, some women gave up and eschewed romantic relationships. Others adopted the societal view that they are no longer eligible for dating, that they have become asexual and should no longer expect anyone to be attracted to them.
The woman who is able to successfully master
the challenge of dating with a disability achieves a new stage of personal
growth. Despite such obstacles, many women reported eventually forming
a long-term relationship with a partner who accepted their disability while
cherishing the unique characteristics they had to offer.
I have considered getting one of those electric carts, but every time I bring it up, my husband says, oh, you don't need that, just stay home. If this ever gets worse, maybe he'll consider it, but right now, he wants to deny still that there's any disability.38-year-old woman with lupus
I felt the rejection from my spouse, and as I got worse physically, the rejection was even more, in the sense that he wouldn't touch me, we didn't hold hands, there was no hugging.43-year-old woman with rapidly progressing rheumatoid arthritis
Although significantly more women without disabilities had been married or lived with someone in a serious relationship, the majority of women with disabilities had also experienced a serious romantic relationship at some time. Women without disabilities were more likely to be married (38% versus 33%), divorced (22% versus 18%), or currently separated (4% versus 2%) than were women with disabilities. Age at first marriage for women with disabilities (24 years) did not differ significantly from the age at which able-bodied women first married (22 years). More women with disabilities were widows (4% versus 2%). Marital status was not related to severity of functional impairment. Of the reasons given for not being married or in a serious relationship currently, the most frequently selected reason regardless of disability status was, "I haven't found the right person." For women with disabilities, the second most frequently selected reason (42%), "No one has asked me," was chosen by 27% of women without disabilities. This reason was followed in frequency by "I am concentrating on other areas of my life," and "My disability makes it unlikely." Other reasons chosen, but less frequently, were, "I would lose too much of my independence" and "I would lose some benefits such as SSI or SSDI." The vast majority of women with disabilities believed that they had enough privacy for intimate relationships, even if they needed help with daily activities. Twenty-five percent said that their spouse was providing all of their personal assistance.
Women who have been disabled since birth or during childhood often had the same desires as non-disabled girls to get married when they grew up. Their families, however, often told them not to expect to get married, to get an education instead. Some were told that they're incapable of being a housewife or taking care of a baby, so no one would want to marry them.
A woman with a disability may blame herself for everything that goes wrong in a relationship, believing that having a disability is causing all the problems, and constantly apologize for events that were not her fault. Her husband may take advantage of her self-blame and collude in blaming all marital problems on her disability. Nearly half of women with disabilities sometimes felt like a burden to their partners.
Acquiring a disability or a marked increase in physical impairment while involved in a serious relationship can have a great impact on the relationship or marriage, as noted by three-quarters of women with disabilities. Nearly half indicated that the relationship suffered when they could no longer do as much housework or when they had to give up doing a lot of activities that the couple enjoyed together. If the relationship was based primarily on participating in sports together that the woman with a disability is no longer able to do, the husband may stop doing anything with his wife and seek companionship with other women. Survival of the marriage may depend on the two of them finding other activities that they can enjoy together. Nearly three-quarters of women with disabilities said that their partner did understand the nature of their physical limitations.
When a disability was acquired or worsened
during marriage, 42% of the women felt that their partner became emotionally
distant, they were no longer compatible (35%), the partner stopped treating
them with respect (31%), or the partner stopped wanting them sexually (30%).
Some of the partners became overprotective and tried to do too much for
them when they became disabled or more disabled (18%). Nevertheless, more
than half of the women with disabilities believed that disability was not
a major cause of the end of their marriage or other serious relationship.
Women without disabilities (52%) were as likely as those with disabilities
(49%) to have stayed in a marriage or serious relationship that they wanted
to leave. Among women who had children, women with disabilities were significantly
more likely (23%) than those without disabilities (16%) to have stayed
in a bad marriage for fear of losing custody of their children.
Women with physical disabilities face limited opportunities to establish romantic relationships. Many women were raised in overprotective families that discouraged involvement in activities where they could learn social skills. Those who depend on parents for personal care often have few opportunities to live on their own and establish independent social lives. Environmental barriers, such as lack of transportation or accessible recreational facilities, also inhibit social activities. Most damaging are the attitudes and assumptions of society about women and women with disabilities that create many barriers in the minds of the general public about the romantic potential of women whose bodies do not meet the social norm. We see the effects of these attitudes in the many reports of women with disabilities about struggling to attract a partner and the low rates of marriage. These findings point to the need for encouraging and expanding socialization opportunities in integrated settings for girls and women with disabilities.
Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
Baylor College of Medicine
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Last update: 1/5/1999
Copyright © 1999 Baylor College of Medicine