We all know that interabled relationships can be challenging. But they can also be amazing.
My wife Hilary and I have been married for almost 19 years. Like any couple, we’ve had ups and downs.
Unlike most couples, a few of our downs have been related to my physical disability (she doesn’t have one). But after nearly two decades, I hope I’ve learned a thing or two about how to make an interabled relationship work.
So without further adieu, here are some tips for a nurturing a successful one.
Communicate Early, Often, and Openly
Communication is key for any romantic relationship, but it’s especially critical for an interabled relationship. That’s because your able-bodied partner obviously doesn’t have first-hand experience of what you go through as someone with a disability.
That means you have to be upfront about your struggles, and sooner rather than later. Certainly before you get married.
Talk about how you became disabled. Talk about what it’s like day to day. Talk about the challenges you face.
Don’t assume these things are obvious, because often they’re not. For example, your partner may see that you accomplished something but not realize the time and effort it took.
They need to understand and appreciate the whole you. By the same token, don’t resent them for not understanding something if you haven’t explained it.
Similarly, if something frustrates you (like your partner not offering help when you need it, or offering help when you don’t), gently bring this to their attention. They love you, and their heart is undoubtedly in the right place. They should be open to respectful, loving feedback.
Once your partner truly appreciates the whole scope of what it takes to live with a disability, chances are they will love you all the more.
In our relationship, I’ve had to communicate several things that weren’t necessarily apparent to Hilary — for example, how physically tiring it can be to walk on crutches, and how difficult it is to carry things. To her credit, she has worked hard to understand my limitations, including when I need help and when I don’t.
Stow Your Ego – Ask for Help When You Need It
Speaking of asking for help, do that when you need to. Don’t hesitate or feel guilty about it, because you have nothing to feel guilty about.
Your partner knows you’re disabled. If you’ve communicated openly about your limitations, they know about those. And they’re still with you.
Again, your partner loves and admires you. They should be happy to help.
Of course, ask nicely and patiently explain what exactly you need (and don’t need). Then accept their help graciously.
For me, having a partner who knows all of my limitations more intimately than anyone else has made me feel even closer to her.
Get the Assistive Technology You Need
Don’t ask your partner to research this for you, unless you’re physically unable to use a computer or phone. Take the initiative to learn about the most helpful assistive tech for your situation, whether that’s a properly fitting wheelchair, a new seat cushion, a new shower stool, or whatever.
If you’re not sure what’s available, read blogs like this one. Subscribe to disability forums and Facebook groups, or just use Google. Local disability groups and government agencies also might be able to point you in the right direction.
The overall goal is to help yourself as much as you can, so you take some of the weight off your partner’s shoulders. Appropriate assistive tech is a vital part of that.
A good example for me has been crutch tips. Anyone who walks on crutches knows that those small, smooth tips from drug stores are semi-useless on slippery or rugged terrain.
Fortunately, many years ago I discovered these crutch tips, created by another lifetime crutch user. They’re bigger and grippier than standard crutch tips, plus they have a cushion inside that helps reduce the impact on my shoulder joints. They’ve kept me from falling countless times, and they’re helping to stave off arthritis in my shoulders.
Don’t Compare Yourself to Other People’s Able-Bodied Partners
I admit that this has been a tough one for me. All of our married friends are able-bodied, and it can be hard not to compare myself to the other male spouses I know.
The fact is that I can’t do some of the things they can do. Other things that I theoretically could do would take an inordinate amount of effort, like fixing a leak in the ceiling or carrying a bunch of grocery bags or other large objects.
Plus, being disabled requires so much energy just to get by. I simply don’t have as much in reserve as other guys do for projects around the house and so forth.
I’m still learning to live with this. But in my better moments, I remind myself to focus on the areas that really count: loving my wife sacrificially, being there when she needs me, and supporting the family in any way that I can.
For my wife, those things are enough. She doesn’t compare me to other men, so I need to stop.
Intimacy Looks Different for Every Interabled Relationship. Discover What Works for You Both.
This is a sensitive one, so I’ll simply remind all of us that physical intimacy in an interabled relationship is necessarily different than in other relationships. However, with some work and a lot of understanding, acceptance, and communication, it can still be incredible.
Find out what works for each of you. This will almost certainly require some trial and error, but it’s worth the effort.
And don’t let societal messages about what intimacy should be get in the way. Forget about what other people do and focus on the two of you.
Every couple needs family, friends, and other people around them. Interabled couples need people who are willing and able to support them in their unique situation.
That could mean, for example, helping to make your home more accessible by installing ramps or widening doorways. Or choosing group activities that everyone can enjoy, including people with disabilities. Or educating themselves about the challenges that those with disabilities face so they can better understand and support you as a couple.
For Hilary and me, our support network includes family members who live nearby, as well as good friends at church and in the community. Having these people in our lives has been invaluable and helped our interabled relationship thrive.
Do Your Part in Your Interabled Relationship
Finally, remember that relationships are a two-way street, so look for ways to help your partner.
Depending on your disability, you may not be able to help physically as much as you’d like (or at all). But there will always be things you can do to make your partner’s life a little easier, like planning meals or vacations, scheduling appointments on the phone, or just providing a listening ear.
If you’re not sure how you can help, ask. It’s easy for an interabled relationship to feel one-sided. Sometimes it is. But do your best to contribute what you can.
So there’s my advice. What about you? If you’re in an interabled relationship, what tips have you learned to make it great? I’d love to read your comments below.