The Grieving Partner

Q: I’m with a new partner, and she’s having some very deep, painful feelings about my disability. I’m not quite sure how to respond, and feel a little confused about it, but I know I don’t want her to pity me. How do I deal with this?

A: There’s a big difference between pity and grief. Pity implies that you’re tragic, and puts you into an inferior position. Grief is an honest response to loss. Pity often sprouts from excessive myths about disability as horror. Grief is rooted in real caring about authentic circumstances. It needs to be expressed.

It’s completely natural that someone coming into a new relationship with a partner who has a disability is going to have some feelings about the disability. It might be from witnessing the accessibility struggles you face, or seeing how the world treats you based on disability myth. It could have to do with the loss of possibilities or dreams they imagine you have endured. Perhaps they’re reacting to the experience you went through if you have an acquired disability–no matter how long ago it happened.

In fact, it’s a good sign. It’s a loving response. Take care not to assume that it means they pity you. It really is possible to allow their–and maybe your–grief around your disability to have its place in your relationship. It needn’t interfere with your budding connection with each other.

You’ve had time to come to terms with your own disability, your partner hasn’t. They need time to go through initial adjustments, just as you may have had to if your disability is acquired. You will already have achieved some degree of balance about what your disability means in your life. You know how you adapt, you know that your disability is not as limiting as most people assume, you know how much there is in life to enjoy and embrace. In the course of getting to know each other, your partner will come to see these things too. They’ll integrate their initial grief.

If they bring some misconceptions about disability with them–as they probably will–then this is a chance to help them gain a clear perspective. It’s a chance for you to describe how you experience your disability, a chance for you to demonstrate your capacity to accept your disability. And a chance to show that you can accept who your partner is and what they feel–which is exactly what you should hope to expect from them.

Of course you’re going to get to know their story, too. Whether or not they have a disability, everyone has pain and loss in their lives. In an integral relationship, both partners find parts of each other’s experience to celebrate and to grieve. Disability is just your particular form of it.

This also begs the question of how well you’ve dealt with your own feelings about your disability. In a truly intimate relationship, there’s no hiding! When you get that close to someone–especially if you’re being sexual–then “stuff” is going to come up. Any unresolved grief about your disability is going to make itself known. Denial is a mechanism that protects you, but the idea is to let denial gradually unveil what’s painful, integrating it at a pace you can handle. A strong relationship should be a safe, trusting place where you can do this.

If you’re indulging in self-pity, a new partner is likely to join you in that. It’s not a very strong basis for a lasting relationship. If you’ve become attached to a woeful view of your disability, this is a good time to take a good look at it and work your way to a more realistic, positive self-image. Discovering our strengths is one of the greatest gifts of a good relationship.

I think that shallow relationships get exposed very quickly in the context of a disability. The relationship has to be about being truly interested in the person, not superficial attraction. It has to be more real. The fact that they choose you with your disability should be proof that they see you for who you are.

So when your partner is having feelings of grief, just hold them and say, “Yes, I know that you care and that you’re hurting for me.” That way you’re showing them your strength and patience and acceptance. Remember that the reason they’re with you is to know you and enjoy and share experience with you. No one will pity you when they see the wholeness of who you are.

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