RELATIONSHIPS:
Negotiating Independence
With a Nondisabled Partner

A BENT/Disgaytalk Forum © 2003 BENT

With contributions from
John Davidson, Jeff Gross, Bill Lezotte, Mohabee, Stephen Mudge, Larry Roberts, Charlie Squires, Max Verga, and John Wiederhirn

Disgaytalk is the online discussion group associated with BENT, where cripgay men talk about the issues that matter to them—funny, serious and everything in between.

From time to time, with the cooperation of the participants, BENT presents an edited version of an exchange we think will interest a wider audience. You'll find the previous Forum here, and older Forums archived.

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Here's a problem that I'm sure other guys have dealt with and resolved, and I could use some guidance. How do you maintain and negotiate your independence with an able-bodied Significant Other?

Matt understands that I do not see him as a caretaker and would never allow him to assume that role. I am very independent and need very little assistance anyway. Ninety-five percent of the time, it's not an issue. The problems come when we encounter tasks where it would seem to make life so much easier if he did them. Example: I go grocery shopping on Friday and Saturday. The market is close, so I don't need a car, but I do need to make two trips. I like shopping, and I don't mind making two trips. This, according to Matt (who thinks I should wait to go with him or someone else) is insanity. When Matt or a friend goes with me, fine, it takes one trip. However, for the life of me, I cannot see waiting to do something that I'm perfectly capable of doing and enjoy doing, merely because it's "impractical." Hell, my whole life is fuckin' impractical and most non-disabled people don't know the half of it.

Matt feels that I attach too much importance to things like this because I am disabled. Maybe he's right. For what it's worth, I was very independent before I became disabled. He also feels that if he were to become disabled, he wouldn't have a problem with issues such as these. My response is that he might think differently if that were actually the case. Has anyone else gone through this? Any advice? In all fairness, Matt is a great guy, and this is pretty much the one sore spot so far, but damn can he work a gay nerve over it.

~Jeff Gross
Maryland

I think there are a number of questions which need to be answered before we can all pitch in with advice. How long you have been disabled, for example, and thus set in your ways? How much communication goes on between you and your partner, especially about matters concerning your personal shopping preferences.

~Mohabee
California

I've been disabled for about six years now. About the communication, I don't think that it's so much a lack of it. The issue is that we have different viewpoints. We were talking about it earlier, and Matt is coming from the perspective that disability is something that you share in a relationship, just like anything else. So, in effect, I am shutting him out, or so he thinks. Although I don't think this is the case I can see his point.

My view is that you can never really share someone's disability. I realize that I need to give a little more, but I still struggle with the notion that maintaining my independence is critically important. Maybe my thinking is clouded by the fact that I work professionally with so many patients who are far less independent than they should be because they became overly dependent upon others. Besides physical issues, such as loss of muscle tone, I see a lot of depression in many of these guys. I know how emotionally fragile I was for a couple of years, and I am afraid to open the door to that experience again. Maybe it's nothing to worry about, but then again, you never know.

~Jeff

I think it's commendable that you're talking about this with your partner. It's an important subject, with universal significance. If both of you were non-disabled, you would be discussing many other matters, which I'm certain you are dealing with already. In essence, we disabled guys have one more thing to concern ourselves with!

I agree that your partner will probably never feel the pain, the struggle, and even the history of disability in the way that you have experienced these things, but that does not mean he can't be caring or understanding about you. My guess is that he has experienced setbacks and psychic struggles in his own life that you'll not be able to experience in the ways that he did. So there's balance in the equation—please think about this.

I think it would be worthwhile for you to tell us what you mean by "independent." Your shopping example certainly shows independence. When Matt helps you, it's interdependence—he's giving you something, and it's a blessing. Sometimes it's a tough call to determine the fine line between independence and interdependence. Coming to an understanding with your partner about your definition of independence may be the best you can do. Keep up the good work!

~Mohabee

Jeff, my problem is the exact opposite of yours. Like you, I consider myself mostly independent. I'm a T4 para and use a manual chair. Grocery shopping is one thing I will not do on my own. My life is a whole lot simpler if someone just comes with me, follows along with a cart, easy in, easy out, and we're done. But, one of my dear friends, who I occasionally ask to take me grocery shopping, insists that this is a task that I am very well capable of doing on my own. We've had a few heated discussions over the matter. Bottom line, yes, I'm perfectly capable of doing it on my own if I have to, but there are far too many people in this world that love me, so I shouldn't have to!! Tell your SO that he should consider himself lucky that you are willing to take on this task yourself.

~Bill
Michigan

I think that partners doing things for one another is part of the normal give-and-take that keeps most successful relationships going. My partner used to say that he loved my giving him things to do. For him, it was part of being able to please me. And I love doing things for him, such as cooking and fixing up the house. I know that adding the element of disability changes this. But I think that the feeling of being needed and wanted and being able to complement each other's abilities and limitations adds a dimension to any relationship.

Yes, there are lots of things that I can do if I have to, but that I let my partner do, such as the cleaning. He actually likes doing it, which is hard for me to even fathom! I think that the only time it becomes a problem is when there's an unspoken resentment. And I didn't seem to get hear any of that in your statements, Jeff. I think we all like to be "Sadie, Sadie, married lady" and have a man "do for me, buy for me, lift me, carry me . . . finally got a man to marry me." Oy, makes me want another bonbon.

~Max Verga
New York

It's always the little things! The fine line involved here, in my humble opinion, is that one should never tell the other to "wait" or "not do."

Reasonable:
A: I feel like going to the store.
B: OK, I'd like to come with you.

Reasonable:
A: I feel like going to the store.
B: If you can wait ten minutes, I'd like to come with you.

Unreasonable:
A: I feel like going to the store.
B: No, let me do that tonight.

Shopping together can be fun, as is most teamwork in relationships. Doing separate tasks in parallel is also another kind of teamwork.

~Charlie Squires
Wisconsin

This has always been a sticky one for me and my partner and I imagine it'll continue to be. I have a tendency to be lazy and ask my partner to do a lot of things that I can do myself. In my head (and often in his) it's easier to have him do things—everything from putting on my shoes to depositing my paycheck—because I have a disability. It makes me ashamed sometimes, but obviously not enough to change things. It's also a matter of patterns that are hard to break.

One of the first battles we had was precisely over who had a disability. It took me a long time to understand that his less obvious disabilities were in fact disabilities. Yes, I'm the one who uses a wheelchair (a power chair at long last!), but he has disabilities that need recognition in the context of our being together. Ain't love grand!

~Larry Roberts
New York

Well, Jeff, you've gotten a lot of good advice so far. There is one aspect which I haven't yet seen mentioned which deserves thought, though. In our hell-bent drive for "independence" I think we sometimes tend to get so overly sensitized that any offer of help is taken at some level as questioning our abilities, or challenging our independence. It's easy, in these circumstances, to lose sight of the other, far more innocent motives which might be driving a partner's impulses.

The issue in this case is going to the store. This very "domestic" activity is something many couples, straight and gay, like to do together. For some guys it gives a little boost of togetherness to be able to do it with a partner, when previously they were resigned to doing it themselves. It allows for a cheap, easy "quality time" activity. Maybe that's what Matt has in mind. Another possibility, and this is the one we tend to most lose sight of during our ordeals, is that he simply is looking for little ways he can help you without appearing to be "taking care of you". Remember, all couples "take care of each other" to varying degrees, whether disabled, able-bodied, or any combination thereof. He might have a desire to help you which he's afraid to mention overtly, lest you take it as him trying to be a "caretaker," since you made it clear that wasn't something you desired.

In short, being independent doesn't mean "never accepting help from anyone". The ability to be so close and intimate with someone that you can offer help with mundane or personal issues is an important part of any relationship. Be careful not to let your need for independence deny him the necessary bonding experience of providing you help in those areas where partners customarily help each other. Just a thought.

~John F. Wiederhirn
California

I agree that you can't experience someone else's disability and that people who say they ''understand" what it's like are fooling themselves. Having said that I have come to several understandings in my own life. 1) I carried a tremendous amount of resentment toward people without disabilities; I have to let that go. 2) I believe that disability is a natural, ordinary part of the human experience, and that people can learn about it. 3) I, for instance, felt a lot of resentment toward people with less obvious disabilities. Being with my partner, who has disabilities that are less visible, has forced me to learn fast. Plus the work I do at my Center for Independent Living requires me to expand my vision.

And in fact, I have a less obvious disability as well, depression. I have not always thought about it that way, in part because I had daily to deal with the obvious fact of my CP, and the ableist assault directed at people with obvious disabilities, not understanding that ALL people with disabilities are targets of ableism. I understand that now. I learned So, while I maintain that people can't "know what it's like," I assume people can learn. We all can.

~Larry

If I understand you correctly, Larry, you are learning to let go of some resentment of those who are more obviously disabled than you. I think this is a positive step, and I support you there.

While it is true that no two people experience the same disability exactly the same, I think allowing someone the patience to understand you, as best he can, may be helpful. The other person might be a partner, a helper, a therapist. The more you allow someone else, whom you trust, to know about how you perceive your disability, the better off your relationship will be. I never allow myself to assume what someone else is thinking or feeling. If I see someone who is obviously depressed, I may attempt to converse with him, or I may leave him alone. The best way to find out about another person's feelings and perceptions is simply to ask.

~Mohabee

What I said was that I was learning to let go of resentment of people with less obvious disabilities—understanding that we are all targeted by ableism.

~Larry

I have been hesitant to jump in, but I guess it is time to come on out. I am a Significant Other with the opposite problem. In almost three years of dating he has not left the house more that a handful of times without me. Sometimes this feels suffocating. I felt guilty initially about going anywhere without him but have finally gotten past that. I wish he would on occasion go somewhere and buy me flowers or do something special without me. I would trade with you for a week just to see what it would do to change the dynamics of our situation. Writing out a list of boundaries is the best advice I have seen here. It might help to force communication that is so often hard to do or superficial. I want to put this idea to the test not on just this but other areas as well. Thanks.

~John Davidson
Texas

John, what is the nature of your SO's disability? Is he able to socialize with friends from time to time? These are questions I would look at carefully. Yes, take inventory of your needs and boundaries. And ask your SO to do the same. Then, trade your notes. Let him look at yours, and ask him to share his (hmm—this is not exactly an "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" time!).

~Mohabee

Having lived with my boyfriend for five or six years now I am very aware of the independence/help dilemma. My BF is quite dependent physically but very independent of spirit. This becomes complex. "Let me do that" is a frequent complaint on his behalf, but so is "help me." After a number of years I now know instinctively when help is really needed. Sometimes I help him just to make things quicker for me, sometimes to make things easier for him. Sometimes I leave him chopping vegetables slowly because I know he wants to do it.

Obviously your partner will sometimes get it wrong—I frequently get shouted at for over- or under-zealous help. I think a good rule is to say, "When I need help I will ask for it, otherwise let me go ten times to the shops An able-bodied guy can often do things twice as quickly but as my Jean Pierre would say "it's the quality that counts!"

~Stephen Mudge
Paris

You are all helping me to realize that there are many perspectives to this, something that enables me to see my situation in a fresh light. Someone said being in a relationship with a disabled partner also makes the able-bodied partner disabled in a sense, something I had never considered.

Matt has to deal with many issues that he never had to think about before, such as accessibility. If we are invited to a place that is inaccessible to me (or just too much of a hassle) my first thought is for him to go anyway. He often feels that this is inappropriate because if it's inaccessible for me then it's inaccessible for us.

I guess that somewhere in the back of my mind is the fear that he will start to resent the inconvenience and move on, and maybe I resent the fact that this is a option for him. Maybe I am afraid that the little voice inside my head telling me that I can only truly depend on myself is right. I never really had to share my disability with anyone else until now, so this is definitely new territory for me.

Thanks for all the insight guys, I truly appreciate it.

~Jeff

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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/July 2003