I've dated more than one nondisabled person who seemed to assume they knew what was best for me.
They offered unsolicited advice about how to deal with my health.
Here's what I want in a partner and what would make me feel loved and listened to.
"Go to church, and you will be healed as God will forgive your sins — God wants to forgive you."
These words appeared on my cracked phone screen, the reply of a dating-app match after I disclosed my disability and that I was a wheelchair user.
The reply was so blunt and explicit in its message that my disability was wrong or a punishment, but few experiences are so clear-cut. I hoped that dating apps would allow me to meet people I was attracted to, who also had a clear idea of what they wanted from a relationship.
Instead, I frequently matched with nondisabled people who offered unwanted help and advice. For example, in my first relationship, I received unsolicited suggestions about managing my lifelong pain. They often told me that eating certain foods or doing certain exercises would heal me, and they sent me links to "miracle cures," such as specific vitamins I should add to my diet.
I've dated people who have given me health advice I didn't ask for
Over the last few weeks of our relationship, whenever I was in pain, they'd give me advice I told them I didn't want. When I responded by telling them it was something I'd already tried or that I had done my research and consulted specialists, they bristled and replied, "Don't you want to feel better?" It was a question I heard constantly — the implication being that I must not have tried hard enough. The pain was a never-ending ache under my skin, and the constant remarks wore me down as I became increasingly isolated.
In a subsequent relationship, another partner tried to act like he understood my medical needs better than I did. He tried many times to tell me that I shouldn't take the medication prescribed by my doctor, or that I should try another surgery. On one occasion, he argued that I should have a specific surgery even though I had decided it was too much of a risk to my health.
I had put boundaries in place around discussing my health, but during these interactions, I felt like he was trying to take me down a peg — to assert I couldn't possibly know what was best for myself.
In these relationships, I was often told that there was a "quick fix" or an "easy solution." It always seemed to be about that next exercise, superfood, or supplement that I hadn't tried yet or eaten in just the right way — something just out of reach, that one elusive thing I ought to dedicate my life to finding.
As a disabled woman, I'm used to having my choices — and my experiences — undermined by others. For years, I have forced down medication, had my bones broken, and had my muscles cut in various surgeries. What nondisabled people don't often see is the sacrifice, and when a partner questions what I've been through, it puts distance between us.
As a person with a disability, I'm made to feel like I should just accept these intrusions in exchange for partnership, even with the self-doubt they bring along with them. But that's not the kind of partnership I want.
I want a partnership, not someone who tries to 'fix' me
I want a partner who understands that every disabled person's experience is different. If you're going to date someone with a chronic illness or disability, know that even if you've dated someone with the same diagnosis or condition before, it's likely your new partner has different needs and desires about how they'd like to handle their health. Listen to them simply as human beings and respect their choices and experiences.
I want to be with a partner who accepts that I know more about the ins and outs of living with and adapting to disabilities (and especially my own) than most nondisabled people, including them. I receive a steady outpouring of advice that can often slip into "ablesplaining," which is a term many disabled people use to describe the experience of being offered advice on any element of disability from someone who does not have the lived experience. While the intentions are sometimes good, I want a partner who understands why it is wrong to tell disabled people about their lives and daily realities.
I also want a partner who understands that most of the medical advice they might give me — if they're not a trained professional — is ignorant and undermines my experience. Imagine your reaction if you had to slowly rebuild muscles after surgery by doing hours of daily rehab, and a stranger asked if you'd tried swapping that process for an iron supplement.
It's natural that in a partnership I might vent about what's going on in my life and, yes, try and troubleshoot. But I'd like a partnership where sharing my experiences feels safe, and we can look for solutions together. I don't want to feel like a partner is trying to "fix" me or look after my body.
I also want a partner who doesn't minimize my perceptions, judgments, or the extent of my disability. For example, a man once proclaimed on a first date: "It can't be that bad. You look fine!" That doesn't help, either; it's OK that I struggle, and it's crucial and healthy to acknowledge it.
What most nondisabled people often don't see is the sacrifice — and we shouldn't have to try so hard to explain it.
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