In our previous article, Caregivers and Relationships, we gave a very broad overview of managing paid caregivers1 and various other relationships. Relationships are more than just managing caregivers and other people in your life. In long-term romantic relationships, particularly, there are many factors involved in creating a healthy and safe emotional space to help the relationship to continue. People with disabilities have long been unfairly characterized as being a burden to society, and this characterization carries over into any relationship where there is an expectation of equality. Even individuals themselves struggle to find their own worth and sense of equality within this relationship dynamic.
Everyone has different needs, regardless of disability or ability, and everyone must figure out how to meet their needs and those of their partner in different ways. Unlike the notion of equality, where everything is equal, we prefer the notion of equity, the idea that everyone in a relationship be given fair access to meet their particular and different needs.
Long-term relationships take a lot of work under the most ideal circumstances, and people with disabilities are often beset with complications that are less than ideal. Even with the support of a paid caregiver (or other assistance outside of your relationship specifically for disability accommodations), your partner will probably end up in a position of being a caregiver at some point. Paid caregivers may not show up for shifts or do their job correctly at times. Many of us rely on our emergency support network (including our partners) to get through problem periods and staffing issues. How do we go about keeping our relationships healthy and balanced when one or both (or more) partners has particular needs related to their disability? Our GimpGirl Community members got together and compiled a list of personal suggestions based on what they have learned in the course of their relationships.
Open and Honest Communication
Being open and honest in terms of how we communicate with a partner might seem obvious, but it bears repeating. The importance of communication is noted in every contemporary article written about healthy relationships for good reason. However, when there are additional requirements by one member of the relationship, communication becomes crucial. Everyone in a relationship has to be able to express their concerns and needs, and have those respected by their partner, but more importantly they have to feel that it is safe to do so.
Not only are people with disabilities often socialized to not speak up for themselves, in an effort to “lessen the burden” they place on those around them, but when our partners are put in the role of being a caregiver, they can have feelings of guilt when asserting their own needs. Needs arising because of a disability can often be more immediately obvious, but they should not necessarily be seen as requiring priority. And they may not be as obvious as the person in need might think. Fundamentally, if the person in the role of the caregiver does not assert their own needs in balance with the needs of their partner, the potential for unnecessary resentment is always present. One of the greatest dangers stems from differing expectations and a sense that someone should know something that has not actually been said or explicitly stated. No one should be expected to have to guess what their partner needs or feels.
A simple example of this dynamic: a person with a physical disability really needs help going to the bathroom and their paid caregiver has left for the day. They ask their partner for help, not knowing that they both really need to go to the bathroom at the same moment. Ideally, a brief discussion would be initiated wherein both decide who gets priority in that particular situation. This situation may seem silly, but it is a really common one that arises. Situations like this often can lead to feelings of resentment if not dealt with in the moment through open communication. The most simple, taken-for-granted, assumptions often lead to the greatest conflict. And when one takes the time to acknowledge the needs of others, even when wanting to take priority, there is the greatest chance for open dialogue and sharing.
Sharing and listening to each person’s views on disability and caretaking, and how the views have formed can clear up a lot of the misunderstandings that stem from being confused and hurt by unexpected reactions. This is especially true for friends or romantic partners who come from different backgrounds or experiences in growing up. Plan to have this conversation intentionally at a time that works for both or all of you, and feel free to repeat as necessary.
Another really important conversation to have relates to what protocol to follow when stress levels are high, or you are upset with each other. A couple needs to know how to communicate when there is anger or frustration. When complications arise of any sort, both individuals need to know how to ask for their needs in that moment. If you are in the middle of a fight with each other, and one of you needs help with something that’s really important in the moment (again, like going to the bathroom), how will that be handled in a way that is fair to both of you? What should someone do if they need space, and how will you handle any emergency needs in order to respect that person’s space? How will you support the needs of your partner when you are also frustrated or in distress? These are all questions that can be answered, and should be addressed before the situation arises in order to maintain balance within the relationship.
Everyone needs support, and no one is capable of handling everything life throws at them. We all live within the massive support structure that is our culture and society. Whichever member of a relationship has a special need, sooner or later both partners will need assistance and support from paid professional caregivers, and emotional support such as counselors or friends. Getting meaningful input, support and an external perspective from others is vital in keeping a healthy balance in all relationships. One important thing to remember in relationships where disability is involved is that ideally these outside supports should be peers or professionals who have experience with this type of situation. Too often people who have no experience with this type of situation have extreme biases that do not reflect the reality of the lived experience that those of us with disabilities have.
It is still a commonly held view in society that people with disabilities are a greater burden than others. Even if someone does not say this overtly, it is so pervasive a thought that it influences the opinions of many as to what is happening within your relationship dynamic. Most people will see the person with the most apparent disability as the greatest receiver of effort and energy in the relationship, even though that may not be the case at all. Everyone has both needs to be met and assets to share in a relationship. Just because someone has a very obvious physical or social need, such as requiring help going to the bathroom, or functioning in a social situation, does not mean that they do not more than make up for what they appear to lack in some other part of the relationship, perhaps in their financial sense, wit, insight and wisdom, compassion and humor, or skills with non-physical or social contexts.
Physical help is often the most overt form of assistance one might require, but the support lent by both people must be understood and honored to maintain a healthy balance within the relationship. This is even important for the person with greater apparent needs. It can help him or her with self esteem and related issues that often stem from viewing him or herself as constantly receiving and not contributing to the relationship in equitable proportion. It is important to remember that this is a commonly held societal view, even when not promoted by those in a relationship. Most people with disabilities are steeped in this mindset if they are raised with a disability, and have been taught to believe that they are always the recipient of charity.
Keeping a relationship balanced requires that we strive to maintain a perspective regarding the help that both parties provide, and the beneficial impact of that balance on the quality of life for everyone. Human relationships are complex, and all healthy relationships require a balance of give and take. Collectively discussing what energy each of you is putting into the relationship and how you both add to a healthy balance will help keep perspective in the long run.
Try to be mindful of the impact that physical states have on mental and emotional health. The fallout from stress caused by crabbiness from pain or exhaustion can have unintended and very intense side effects for both people, and your own frustration borne of discomfort can have unintended consequences. Also be mindful of panic triggers2 that both people have.
If there is a stretch of time where any partner has greater needs than usual, or has reduced outside support for those needs, be mindful of how that additional stress is affecting others, whether they are directly acting as a caregiver or not. Be gentle with each other. Life and love can be hard enough without any complications. Nobody is perfect or should expect perfection in another human being.
How are these thoughts different from any recommendations for a healthy relationship? There is little difference. Relationships are always as fraught with challenges as they are with joys. However, people with disabilities are often socialized to think of themselves as being a burden and taught to not speak up for themselves. Also, because of the complications involved in managing accommodations and services, both people with disabilities and those around them can put too much emphasis on those needs. Everyone has needs and countless successful relationships have proven that those needs can be balanced when everyone understands the strengths of the individuals involved.
What has your experience been? Are there any lessons you would add to this list?
1 Caregivers (also called carers or personal care assistants) perform many different duties depending on what is needed by in individual with special needs. For people with physical disabilities, this can include help with “daily living activities” (DLAs) such as bathing, dressing, and eating, as well as help with cleaning the house and getting to medical appointments. For people with other types of disabilities (though the individual may be called something different depending on the situation), the needs are very open-ended, and can extend to whatever a person needs to engage with the world to the greatest extent possible. Ideally, as we have written about in previous posts, the caregiver (or other type of assistant) is predominantly an individual who is not in any other type of relationship with the person they are employed to support. However, complications can arise when a romantic partner is the primary caregiver for their partner.
2 A trigger is something that causes an emotional reaction in someone. A trigger can be a touch, a sound, certain words, behaviors, or any number of events or situations which cause someone to either recall traumatic memories or just react with panic or some other emotional response. Sometimes people know that they have triggers, and sometimes they do not. However, learning what your triggers are and those of your partner can be profoundly illuminating.