With a Nondisabled Partner
BENT/Disgaytalk Forum © 2003 BENT
John Davidson, Jeff Gross, Bill Lezotte, Mohabee, Stephen Mudge,
Larry Roberts, Charlie Squires, Max Verga, and John Wiederhirn
is the online discussion
group associated with BENT, where cripgay men talk about the
issues that matter to themfunny, serious and everything
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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 equationplease
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 interdependencehe'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!
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.
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.
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."
A: I feel like going to
B: OK, I'd like to come with you.
A: I feel like going to
B: If you can wait ten minutes, I'd like to come with you.
A: I feel like going to the store.
B: No, let me do that tonight.
can be fun, as is most teamwork in relationships. Doing separate
tasks in parallel is also another kind of teamwork.
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 thingseverything from putting on my
shoes to depositing my paycheckbecause 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!
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
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.
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.
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.
What I said was that
I was learning to let go of resentment of people with less obvious
disabilitiesunderstanding that we are all targeted by ableism.
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, 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 (hmmthis is not exactly an "I'll show
you mine if you show me yours" time!).
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 wrongI 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!"
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.
Let us know what
you think of this BENT feature.