Inside: Dr. Phil infamously claimed that an interabled relationship will fail “100 out of 100 times” if a partner is a caregiver. Read on to discover why this isn’t true and tips to help you thrive in your interabled relationship.
What is an Interabled Relationship?
Interabled Relationship: [Noun] A relationship in which one partner has a disability and/or chronic illness and the other partner does not.
When I first met my husband, my disability wasn’t obvious. I had alluded to some serious health issues, but hadn’t bluntly said, “I may have a terminal illness.”
Unless you married your high school sweetheart, chances are, you know how bad dating sucks.
First, if you’re a woman, you have the anguish in knowing your biological clock’s ticking if you want kids. (Of course, there are other ways to have kids. But, I think it’s natural for any woman to feel pressured.)
Then, once you find someone you’d be willing to spend two hours of your time with, there’s the mental tennis match of indecisiveness where you bounce back-and-forth between wanting to believe this could be your last first date ever or cancelling, because this could be your last first date ever. And are you really ready for that type of commitment?
Finally, once you get off the merry-go-round of anxiety, you show up and he’s wearing a MAGA hat…
On the other hand, in the rare event you enjoyed yourself, you agree to a few more dates before he suddenly calls you and says it won’t work, because he “isn’t a dog person.”
Now, once the stars align for able-bodied couples, they ride off together on white horses into the sunset. However, for someone with a disability or chronic illness, there’s another obstacle standing in the way between now and forever after.
This may be finding the right time to tell your potential suitor that you need help shitting, or maybe there’ll be days when you literally can’t get up from bed.
My soon-to-be-hubby had to be OK with all of the above, plus some.
While disabled dating (and dating in general) sucks, there’ll eventually come a day when you meet your Prince Charming.
To increase your chances of success, it’s important to know what makes for a successful interabled relationship. Because, despite what Dr. Phil thinks, your relationship isn’t anymore doomed than your neighbor’s, friend’s or colleague’s.
I wish I could provide a magic bullet that would solve all your potential relationship struggles. But as with most things in life, there isn’t one. Nevertheless, here are the best tips I’ve found to help someone entering into an interabled relationship.
6 Essential Tips for Success in an Interabled Relationship (or any relationship)
1. Spot the Right Qualities
The most important thing to finding success in an interabled relationship is spotting the right qualities.
This should go without saying, but you need to prioritize compassion, kindness and empathy. When you’re younger, it’s hard to comprehend the gravity of being with someone for the rest of your life. It’s easy to become distracted by things that don’t really matter like looks, money and sex. But none of those things alone are enough to make a relationship last.
Characteristics to Look for in an Interabled Relationship
While compassion, kindness and empathy are somewhat obvious for the success of any relationship, there are a few less obvious qualities that will specifically help an interabled relationship:
- A partner who is self-secure
- A person who’s open minded
- Someone with a natural proclivity for helping others
People with disabilities are commonly targeted with unsolicited marks and inappropriate questions from strangers in public. As prevalent as it is, this may come as a shock for some able-bodied people.
Take, for instance, Vanessa Rowland. Vanessa is a mom of two living with a rare, genetic form of muscular dystrophy called Limb-Girdle. She recalls the inappropriate comments she’s received, as a result of her wheelchair.
“Your face doesn’t match your body.”
“I can’t believe you’re married!”
“You have children?!”
While these comments are wildly disgusting, this is the reality of living with a disability. If your partner isn’t self-secure enough to handle misguided comments, then they may not be ready for an interabled relationship.
Furthermore, disability advocate, Lauren Spencer, says confidence is one of the most important traits to look for in a partner. In her YouTube video, Top Disabled Dating Tips What To Look For, Lauren humorously explains, “We’re not nobodies little secret, and we shouldn’t be treated as such.”
(If you’re not following @itslololove then you’re missing out. She’s a whole lotta fun.)
Basically, if your potential partner shows any signs of insecurity, they’re probably not ready for an interabled relationship.
Finding someone who is naturally curious and open-minded will help tremendously in an interabled relationship.
Living with a disability requires a high level of adaptation. If your partner is unwilling to look at obstacles in a new way, then it won’t work.
For example, there’ll be times when you can’t participate in activities together, because the accommodations aren’t accessible. You’ll have to work together to solve problems and find new ways of doing common, everyday things.
Natural Proclivity for Helping Others
We’ve all known someone like this – the first person who grabs the package of band aids when Little Johnny scrapes his knee – the friend you would call tomorrow if you were stranded on the side of the road with a broken down car.
There’s just certain people in the world who are good at helping others. Find one of them.
For instance, the first time I visited my husband’s house I saw a glass jar on his coffee table full of ‘thank you’ notes from his students. I instantly knew he was a person that other people viewed as worthy of gratitude.
While this isn’t a dealbreaker, someone who finds happiness in doing things for others is a great person to look out for.
2. Have Confidence
In every area of your life, confidence plays a major role in your success. It’s no different in an interabled relationship.
Confidence can be hard, especially for someone who’s had a sudden change in physical appearance or whose body functions in an atypical way. It’s important to remember that attraction isn’t one-size-fits-all.
There are so many things that can make someone attractive. For instance, standing up for yourself can be attractive, smelling good can be attractive, making someone laugh can be attractive, being a good listener can be attractive, etc.
In the book, In Sickness and in Health: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance, Author Ben Mattlin interviews Shane Burcaw from the hit YouTube series Squirmy and Grubs about the challenges he’s faced in his interabled relationship.
Shane explains that he was insecure in the beginning of his relationship with his fiancée. He recalls, “It’s important to remember she wouldn’t be with me if she didn’t want to be. No one is forcing her, so if she says she’s happy, she is. It’s important to listen to your partner.”
Furthermore, Keah Brown, creator of the viral hashtag #DisabledAndCute says in a Cosmopolitan interview, “My hope is that this hashtag helps mainstream media and other able-bodied people see how much disabled people have to offer and understand that we are more than inspiration porn and people to pity.”
There’s an entire world out there of confident people with disabilities. You just have to find yours.
3. Communicate Openly
The key to any relationship, much less an interabled relationship, is honest and open communication.
People incorrectly assume there’s no intimacy in an interabled relationship if one of the partners is a caregiver. This is false.
The intimacy that develops after sharing every last detail of yourself with someone else is something that a lot of able-bodied couples will never know. My husband intuitively knows all of the things I need throughout the day. Because of this, I feel much more comfortable around him than I do anyone else.
The bond that’s created through the help and dependency (In some cases, I’m dependent on my husband and that’s OK. Dependency doesn’t always have to have a negative connotation.) relies on open and honest communication.
Resentment can easily fester if one person is feeling like they’re providing everything in the relationship. It’s not uncommon for an interabled relationship to feel one-sided at times.
“We’re not nobodies little secret, and we shouldn’t be treated as such.”@itslololove
A few years ago, my now-husband got upset with the way I was asking him for help. Rather than saying, “Can you please help me button my pants?” I was simply standing in front of him either mute and expecting him to know what I wanted from him or curtly saying, “Button my pants.” (Either of which justifies his annoyance.)
When he later brought it up to me, I mistook his grievance for him feeling resentful. It wasn’t until we had an honest conversation that I started to understand what was making him tick.
I was so caught up in believing he’d inevitably feel resentful that I started projecting my insecurities onto him. All he wanted was a simple ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.
Given the nature of disability, frustration will happen. Practicing open communication will help fight feelings of resentment.
4. Focus on the Other Person
The most important thing when living with a disability or chronic illness is to never play the victim. No one, no matter how passionate or kind, will want to be with someone who relishes in the fact that life isn’t fair.
Because of your disability or chronic illness, you won’t always be up for the physical tasks required throughout the day. In that case, it’s important that you find other ways to provide help. It doesn’t always have to be physical. It can be as simple as meal planning, telling a funny joke or reminding your partner that they left the oven on.
I want to caveat certain conditions in which doing anything may prove too much for you. I understand sometimes you can’t do anything at all, but this can’t justify never doing anything at all.
In the book, In Sickness and in Health, Mattlin calls this concept mutual generosity: “Mutual generosity could be the crux of successful interabled relationships—or any relationship, for that matter.”
Many people believe that if one person in a relationship is disabled then the other person must be “doing all the work.” This incorrectly assumes that physical strength is a must-have characteristic for a good partner.
Relationships are full of nuances that aren’t the same for everyone. What works for some may not work for others. Maybe your partner does the heavy lifting, but you support his/her emotional needs of calmness and security. Much of what’s important in life are the things that we cannot see.
Vanessa Rowland explains, “Without my husband I would struggle to get out of bed in the morning, I probably wouldn’t be able to get in and out of the shower but without me, my husband would live off microwave meals and his body wouldn’t even sniff a nutrient.”
Relationships are multi-faceted with both partners contributing in sometimes less obvious ways.
5. Show Gratitude
Showing gratitude has scientifically been proven to help create a stronger bond and promote feelings of happiness between couples.
Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D., is a social-personality psychologist who wrote a fascinating article in Greater Good Magazine on her research including gratitude in relationships: “We found that participants’ reported feelings of gratitude towards a romantic partner predicted who would stay in their relationships and who would break up nine months later. The more grateful participants were, the more likely they were to still be in their relationship.”
She explains that practicing gratitude leads to a generosity cycle between couples. Essentially, when we feel grateful for our partners we are more likely to want to hold onto the relationship. Because there’s an interest in maintaining the relationship, we’re more motivated to do things that show appreciation for our partners.
When we work to keep our partners happy, they feel valued. For instance, Gordon explains, “In our study of couples in a lab, we found that when people feel more grateful for their partner, they signal those feelings through more caring and attentive behavior—for instance, by asking clarifying questions of their partner when he or she is discussing a problem. These gestures can have profound effects: Participants who were better listeners during those conversations in the lab had partners who reported feeling more appreciated by them.”
“Mutual generosity could be the crux of successful interabled relationships—or any relationship, for that matter.”Ben Mattlin, Author of In Sickness and in Health: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance
It seems that couples in interabled relationships would have a slight advantage in creating a generosity cycle, since feelings of gratitude and appreciation are somewhat built-in to the foundation of the relationship.
It’s important to remember that no matter what’s going on, your partner doesn’t have to be there. As the years go on, maintaining gratitude may be the most valuable way to keep your relationship alive.
6. Don’t Compare
It’s easy to scroll through Instagram and idealize the couples you see frolicking on the beach without a care in the world. Truth is, you’ll never find happiness if your comparing yourself to others.
The best piece of relationship advice that Vanessa gives others is, “Don’t compare your relationship to anyone else’s relationship whether it involves a disability or not. In the past, I’ve been guilty of following that couple on Instagram or avidly watching the ones sat at the bar enjoying a date night and wondering how they are so perfect. The reality is, there is no such thing as perfect and every relationship has its flaws.”
When you compare your relationship to others you’re choosing to focus on what your relationship is lacking. This creates an endless cycle of rumination and unrealistic expectations.
The easiest thing to do is get off social media. However, if this seems too adverse, try reminding yourself every time you see a photo that makes you jealous, you’re only seeing a portion of what’s really going on. Essentially, you’re seeing a curated version of reality.
Final Thoughts On 6 Essential Tips for Success in an Interabled Relationship (or any relationship)
They say relationships are hard work, and it’s true. But, honestly, it shouldn’t be that hard if you’ve found the right person. I may be biased, but I believe interabled couples have a higher likelihood of surviving than most able-bodied relationships.
The intense bond created in an interabled relationship promotes an indescribable feeling of intimacy and unity.
It also seems to reason that people with disabilities would be inherently grateful for their partners’ care and generosity. Because of our more-limited pool of potential partners, people with disabilities may be more likely to hold on to their relationships, rather than falling prey to the “grass in greener” disillusionment.
Finally, by solving problems together and fighting against wrongful stigmas, couples in interabled relationships may develop an “us against the world” mentality that helps lead to stronger commitments.
The tips listed above aren’t exclusive to interabled couples. While the same things that help an interabled relationship thrive can help an able-bodied relationship, I believe that interabled couples are at a slight advantage when it comes to instilling these values.
Are you in an interabled relationship? What helps you thrive? Tell me below in the comments.
Allie Schmidt is a rare disease advocate and disabled mom living with motor neuron disease. She founded Disability Dame in 2020 to provide tips to other moms living with disabilities and chronic illnesses.
In her spare time, you can find her traveling with her husband (she's been to 38 states and 16 countries!), watching reruns of Survivor, or tending to her near-constant sunburn from spending too much time outside. You can follow her adventures here.
1 thought on “6 Essential Tips for Success in an Interabled Relationship (or any relationship)”
Great article! I do wish there had been a caveat in there about the increased risks of abuse in interabled relationships, maybe a linked article of signs to watch out for. As a survivor, I wish I’d known that abusers often target disabled people, benefit from the social (mis)perception an interabled relationship of ‘savior + dependent,’ exploiting disability benefits, isolating their partner, inducing guilt & dependency, and demanding ever more gratitude (whilst providing ever less to be grateful for). These show up in abled-on-abled abuse as well, but one partner being disabled makes it easier & statistically more common, as well as making it harder to safely leave. (I made it out!)
I wish I’d known what healthy relationships are like, as well as how to spot and avoid unhealthy ones! Fighting full-time to get inadequate benefits to try to survive keeps reinforcing for me a sort of unspoken socialized systemic attitude of ‘be grateful for anything you can get.’ It’s tough to heal from abuse & neglect if I’m still dependent on abusive, neglectful systems. Reading personal accounts from other disabled survivors helps. So does this article, with personal examples of what mutually healthy interabled relationships feel like in real life. I really appreciate you sharing your own experiences. SO much better than vague advice (which might not even be written by someone who’s been in one!)