Dating with disabilities

DG reader Sherri asks:

I recently met a man online who had one arm. We talked on email and by phone for about a month before meeting because we live 60 miles apart. When I finally met him, he was cute, funny, smart — but I could not get past the disability, which was more unusual than it appeared in the picture he’d posted.

As the date progressed, it seemed that he could tell that I was withdrawing because he seemed to get more and more needy, trying too hard to please. We parted, he asked to see me again, I said “sure” because I just couldn’t bear telling him to his face that there was no connection. When I got home, I immediately emailed him and said that I didn’t feel there was a romantic connection, wished him well, and thanked him for the date. He emailed 6 more times before finally fading away.

I feel really crummy about this — shallow and hurtful. I’ve told myself that it was his neediness that turned me off, but deep down inside I know that I’d shut down because of his disability. Is this something you’ve ever experienced? Or known anyone who has? I’d love some feedback — not to try to change the way I feel about the man, but to better understand my own visceral reaction. I mean, it’s the soul and heart of the person is what’s important, right? Am I alone in my reaction?

What a sensitive and thoughtful question. Good that you noticed what was happening with you and explored your feelings about it, and for letting him down as kindly as you could.

It’s an unfortunate fact that many people wouldn’t have accepted a date invitation from someone they knew had a disability. It seems harsh, since you point out he had a great personality and was cute to boot!

Yet most of us have an image of who we see ourselves being with. Some of these projections are delusional — the slouch imagining herself with an underwear model; the unkempt nerd longing for his “match” of a model. So when someone approaches us who doesn’t fit our picture of our match, it’s easy to dismiss him.

wheelchair manWhile I’ve not been in your situation with a date, I did find myself strongly attracted to a colleague in a wheelchair a few years ago. We hit it off really well, getting close by working on a months-long project. he was smart, accomplished, witty, warm and charming. I found myself being drawn to him although he was married at the time. I wondered if he weren’t married could I see myself with him? I imagined our life together. There were so many things this man did that I admired. It seemed there were few things he didn’t attempt, including riding all-terrain vehicles, “walking” on the beach (in his wheelchair, of course), driving a motor home, traveling the world. I decided that yes, I could see myself with him. But it became a moot point as he died within the year of my crush. Later, I learned he and his wife were talking about divorce. I wondered what might have happened if he lived and they divorced.

Another dear friend survived two accidents, one left him unable to use his legs, the other left him burn scars over 80% of his body, including his face. Yet he is rarely without a beautiful woman at his side. He’s been married 3 times! He is charming, thoughtful, intelligent, accomplished and giving.

We all want to be loved for exactly the way we are. Yet many of us feel that there is something wrong with us no matter how many limbs we have or don’t have. Some of us carry our disabilities in our head; others are outwardly noticeable. The outward ones are the ones that show someone’s mettle. They have had to learn how to live differently and deal with others’ perception of them. If they are happy in life, you know they have overcome lots of obstacles to achieve this.

Does this mean you should reconsider going out with this man? Not necessarily. But if he has many of the qualities you’re looking for why not give him a second chance? I have found if a man isn’t immediately physically attractive to me, he can become so when I get to know him a little better and experience the treasure inside. Soon he gets cuter!

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5 responses to “Dating with disabilities”

  1. Elena Avatar

    Dear Letter Writer: Don’t beat yourself up. You did the right thing. And it’s good that you’re fully aware that you had an issue with his disability and you’re not trying to kid yourself and sweep that under the rug by saying you rejected him only because he seemed too needy.

    Who knows why you had such a strong negative reaction. Perhaps his having only one arm represented something very unpleasant to you on a fundamental subconscious level. Dependence, weakness, incompleteness, etc. It’s interesting that his behavior became more clingy, more needy as it became clear that you were withdrawing. In effect his external behavior began to reflect your internal doubts about him (that he’d wind up becoming a bit of a burden), thus proving you right. Very fascinating.

    To DG: The second to last paragraph, where you talk about internal and external disabilities, is so on target. Great writing.

    While I applaud your advice as a general rule to follow, unfortunately it doesn’t apply in this case. The letter writer wrote: “I’d love some feedback — not to try to change the way I feel about the man, but to better understand my own visceral reaction.” She’s not open to giving this guy a second chance. I think your letter writer did what was right for her. She said she had a “visceral” reaction to the man’s disability. That’s not something she’s going to get over with a few more coffee dates. You yourself have said many times that dating is a learning process and thanks to this man, that lady has learned an important lesson that applies to her personally.

    While in the abstract she can say she would go out with a disabled person, she has learned what the reality is for her. The odds are that she won’t be attracted to a disabled guy. No harm, no foul. Now she knows this about herself and she can continue to date knowing that being with a disabled man isn’t something that she’s really up for. There is no reason for her to reopen the file with this man and give him another chance. That ship has already sailed. Maybe in a different situation where she could have non-dating contact with this guy, like in the workplace or at church, etc., she could develop an affinity for him and grow to be romantically interested, but it ain’t going to happen in the conventional dinner and a movie date mode.

  2. Sherri Avatar

    Hi DG and Elena,

    Thank you so much for your insights and thoughtful comments! I did think about giving him a second chance but my gut reaction was so very strong…and the neediness on top of it all, the flood of hopeful, sad e-mails after, really turned me off. I didn’t go out with him again because he told me that he “really, really liked me” and I didn’t want to get his hopes up.

    Elena, you mentioned getting to know someone through non-dating contact – it’s funny you should bring that up. There is a man at work who has a similar disability but over the past three years, I’ve gotten to know him as a capable, funny man. He travels all over the world, he builds houses, he even races cars, I believe. (He’s happily married, though!)

    Dating is not only about getting to know others; it’s about getting to know oneself, I’m finding.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment =)

  3. bookyone Avatar

    Hi DG,

    As a physically disabled single woman, I applaud your honest yet heartwarming portrayal of the disabled as people like everyone else, (we laugh, we cry, we love, we travel, we work, we fight, we share, etc., etc.). I used to bemoan my disability, until I realized that in some ways it is a blessing in disguise, as it tends to run off the shallow types who only want physically perfect partners, leaving the nice guys for me to befriend and spend time around.

    Interestingly enough, I recently met a super guy online; he’s smart, funny, outgoing, cute, never married and, yes, physically disabled. We haven’t met in person yet, but hope to in the near future, so keep your fingers crossed for me! 🙂

    Hugs from bookyone 🙂

  4. naturegirl Avatar

    Congratulations bookyone! I hope you find love.

  5. bookyone Avatar

    “Congratulations bookyone! I hope you find love.”

    Thanks, naturegirl, I hope so, too. 🙂

    Hugs from bookyone 🙂