Let's face it, dating isn't easy. Putting yourself "out there" opens you up to a lot of uncertainty and vulnerability. You have baggage. You wonder about their baggage. You both have expectations the other may not be able to reach.
If you have a disability, dating can be especially intimidating when you consider the stigma and negative societal attitudes that people who live with a disability often face. But people with disabilities deserve love and companionship, too.
So how can you mesh dating and disability together successfully? We sought the advice of a couple of experts in the field of dating when disabled—Christan Marashio, a certified dating coach, dating behavior specialist, and co-host of the Dateology Coach Podcast, and Jessica Cox, a pilot, taekwondo black belt, and motivational speaker who just so happens to have been born without arms.
Never mind what Tom Cruise said in the movie Jerry McGuire. You don't need someone to "complete you." Relationship experts will tell you that's the fastest way to suck desire out of a relationship.
You shouldn't be seeking out a partner to fill a void in your life or provide a service for you. Instead, you should seek out a companion because you're ready to share the joy in your own life. In other words, Cox says, you have to be comfortable in your skin.
"Once I was able to find my place in the world and find my confidence in this world, once I could put out this vibe of self-love and body positivity and confidence, once I really found myself, I was finally able to take the next step of loving someone," says Cox, who celebrated her 10th wedding anniversary this year with husband Patrick Chamberlain.
Becoming comfortable with yourself is important for anyone who's looking to date, but especially those who are disabled. "The last thing you want to do—arms or no arms—is find yourself in a relationship where someone wants you because you're vulnerable," Cox says. "I think that's what most people don't recognize. Whether you're disabled or not, you need to work on yourself. When you feel good about yourself, that's when good people come into your life, whether they are spouses, partners, or friends."
The thought of going to parties, movies, restaurants, or even on vacations on your own can be intimidating, but learning to navigate the world as a single person can give you a good dose of confidence, Marashio says. The more experience you have going out in the world alone, the more independent you become, and the easier it gets to step outside your comfort zone.
"And find the things that you love to do," she adds. Join a hiking club, take a baking class, or browse book fairs. What you'll find is a group of people who enjoy doing the same things you do. And someone among them could end up being your best friend or life partner.
"There would've been no way my husband of 10 years and I would have met if it hadn't been for that single shared passion of taekwondo," Cox says. Both she and her husband got into taekwondo as children but met as adults. "We met literally on the mat."
"I was in my element and he was in his element, and we were both in a good place in our lives," she says. "We started to get to know each other and I recognized he was a guy who sees a person for who they are. That was one of the things I wanted to find in a guy."
It's hard not to worry about what other people think of us. We all want to be liked and accepted for who we are. And often, we try to cover up our shortcomings. For people in the disability community, it can be especially difficult not to worry about what others think due to the stigmas that exist. "Whether it's said to your face or not, it's implied in so many ways," Cox says.
But that stigma may actually benefit those with visible disabilities, she adds. At a recent conference, Cox met up with five other women who were born without arms. The subject of dating came up and one woman said that in some ways not having arms was like having a filter that filtered out the "superficial jerks" from the "good guys who could see past the superficial."
Unfortunately, there will always be those who judge you based on your appearance or shortcomings. "There are so many ignorant people out there in terms of how they treat people with disabilities and, frankly, we need to learn how to navigate those situations. If you learn to build a tolerance to other people's ignorance, whether you're putting yourself out there as someone with a disability, or as someone who is not conventionally beautiful or conventionally thin," Marashio adds, "that's going to help build your resistance."
You can be confident and happily single and still be fearful of dating. Don't let it hold you back. Cox, who describes herself as "fiercely independent," has spent her life pushing the boundaries of what others assume she is capable of. That hasn't gone away now that she's married to a "fully limbed" man.
In fact, when faced with challenges, she continues to tackle them head-on, like getting her pilot's license to combat her fear of "losing contact with the ground," or taking the mic on stage as a stand-up comedian. Conquering her fears fuels her with confidence.
"Confidence for me has been a journey of doing a series of things where I can be proud of myself," she says. "I'm a doer. My motivations are authentic. When I set aside a goal for myself and accomplish it, I get a surge of self-confidence."
"I've held several discussions and workshops about dating with a disability. It's also a regular topic on my podcast," Marashio says. And the most burning question asked — "When should I reveal my disability?"
Obviously, if your disability is visible, it's going to be noticeable. But some are invisible, like a condition such as diabetes or cancer, or a mental illness like phobias or depression. All disabilities come with their own special challenges. And at some point, the other person will need to know what you are dealing with because, if your relationship progresses, they may have to deal with it as well.
Remember first that your disability does not define you, Marashio says. "If you come from a place of confidence and let someone get to know you and see a bigger picture of you, they have an opportunity to define you separate from your disability."
You are allowed to reveal it and how or why you became disabled in your own timeframe and on your own terms, she says. Doing so will also require you to be vulnerable, so you want to be sure you are comfortable enough with your date that you can trust them to be respectful.
Watch for red flags. Trust your instincts. And listen to your friends. "They have your best interests at heart," Marashio says.
With slightly more than a quarter of the country's adult population identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as living with a disability, you're not alone in your quest for a relationship.
Popular online dating sites and apps like Match, Zoosk, and OK Cupid offer filters that allow you to search for members inside or outside of the disability community.
If you're mainly focused on dating another person with a disability, here are a few options that cater specifically to the disability community:
Published November 2, 2022
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