Love and Relationships: Pity’s Got Nothing To Do With It

One of the relationship tropes that irks me most when it comes to talking about partnerships where at least one person is disabled is the idea that the relationship only exists because of pity, often paired with the idea that disabled people will take any relationship they can get out of fear that they will be alone forever, sobbing quietly in a dark corner1.

I see these paired ideas reinforced all over the place. Heck, I was watching some Six Feet Under the other day, and there’s a scene where Nate keeps pressuring Brenda as they fight about their relationship, which is kinda falling apart (this is an Alan Ball show, you think it’s going to depict happy, functional relationships?!). For those not familiar with the show, Nate has an arteriovenous malformation that plays a central role in the show and in this scene, he says that Brenda only wants to stay with him out of pity, as he’s recently told her about the diagnosis.

Brenda looks at him and basically says ‘dude, if I didn’t want to be with you, I’d leave you. I want to marry you because I love you, not because I think you’re an object of pity and I feel responsible for you now because you got diagnosed while we were together.’ It was a really nice twist on the way these stories usually play out, where we end up seeing that the nondisabled2 partner really did stay with the disabled person out of pity and ends up feeling burdened and angry and there’s a whole big scene.

I see it in advice columns, where people are told they have an obligation to stay with disabled partners simply because of the disability (or just the opposite, that disability is a get out of relationships free pass, in some cases). I see it all around me, where someone acquires a disability and everyone assumes either that the person’s partner will feel ‘an obligation to see it through’ or will leave now, because, you know, the diagnosis, it changes everything and makes it functionally impossible for the parties to love each other anymore. After the chair, of course, no one would expect the relationship to continue, although it would be very heroic of the nondisabled partner to go ahead and stay anyway. Because what would a disabled person have to add to a relationship, even one that predated the disability?

I know a lot of disabled people, a fair number of whom are in relationships, many of which are with other people with disabilities. One thing I don’t see in those relationships? Pity. Because pity’s got nothing to do with it. Although we are often framed as objects of pity and sadness by the media, although many campaigns intended to raise awareness about disability issues play the pity card hard, pity is a shitty foundation for a relationship. Relationships founded on pity don’t last. Those founded on other things, like say mutual interests or love or, gasp, sexual attraction? They last. The disability is part of the relationship, it may complicate it at times, but it’s not a relationship ender or dealbreaker, and isn’t treated as such.

I always say that wanting to leave someone because of a disability is a shitty thing to do, although disabilities can certainly intersect with larger relationship issues and may ultimately contribute to a decision to separate. But wanting to stay with someone because of a disability is also kind of a shitty thing to do, and I hate how it’s commonly promoted and reinforced in pop culture. At the same time people are told they must stay with people who are disabled, they’re also told that disability is a burden, a ball and chain that will ultimately make the relationship miserable. This is not my idea of a good time, or anyone’s, I imagine; no one would like the idea of a partner staying out of obligation, let alone a partner stewing with resentment.

Hand in hand with the idea that pity is the sole factor in why anyone would want to be involved in a relationship with a disabled person is the thought that we are not choosy or picky about relationships because we cannot afford to be. We take what we get, according to pop culture, because we have no other option. We can’t hope for anything better so we settle for abusive relationships or relationships where we’re not happy3.

Uh, newsflash? We have lots of choices. And we can, just like everyone else, choose not to pursue relationships with people we don’t feel compatible with or aren’t interested in. We can also choose not to engage in relationships with people who are clearly pursuing or staying with us out of some strange, misbegotten sense of ‘service,’ where they are somehow ‘helping the community’ by taking one for the team and dating a disabled person even though ew gross.

Just like everyone else, we can also be involved in exploitative and abusive relationships. And sometimes disability plays a role in that as well, but pity? Also absent. There’s no ‘pity’ when a disabled person stays with an abusive nondisabled person out of fear of losing a caregiver or a home, for example.

I think many of our readers (and contributors) who have been involved with nondisabled people can relate at least one incident where the people around them made it clear that they thought their partners were staying with them out of pity. And for relationships where everyone’s disabled? The belief that disabled people only date each other out of pity and fear (rather than, say, interest in each other) is widespread; what better a person to date a cripple than another cripple, right?

  1. I am imagining a stock photo here of a sadfaced person slumping in a wheelchair facing the wall
  2. Or less disabled, although it’s rare to see two PWDs together in a relationship in pop culture simply because there are so few representations of us at all.
  3. I see the same attitude coming up with fat people, where it’s assumed that fat people aren’t desirable, so fatties will take whatever we can get when it comes to relationships because we have no choice.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

5 thoughts on “Love and Relationships: Pity’s Got Nothing To Do With It

  1. Thanks for writing this – I can relate to so much of it.

    I was talking with a colleague a few weeks ago whose husband had been in a serious accident and is now paraplegic. Her reaction: “We’ve only been married for 4 years; now I’ll have to be a carer.” ::sadface::

    I was so shocked that to my shame I couldn’t think of where to even start deconstructiong this with her. The definite implication was that she felt the ‘marriage’ was over now that her husband was disabled, and that the roles of ‘wife’ and ‘carer’ were mutually exclusive.

  2. This is very closely related to some things that my girlfriend Sarah brought up in a guest post on my blog several blog carnivals ago, and that I also touched on in my post for the same carnival.

    The reason we’re in a relationship? Because we like each other. And because we like each other the way that we are, neurological quirks and all. We disclosed our respective neuro-atypicalities to each other from the very beginning, but that didn’t lead to any sort of pity;

    That doesn’t mean we still don’t get the assumption that we’re together out of pity once it comes up that I’m on the autistic spectrum, of course. It’s a long-distance relationship, too, so both of us have heard this assumption in separate contexts. ::grumble::

    And as an autistic person… I may be horrible at getting social cues, but given enough time, I can definitely tell the difference between someone who’s ‘befriended’ me out of pity and someone who’s truly a friend.

  3. Er, I left a sentence unfinished there! The end of the second paragraph should read:

    We disclosed our respective neuro-atypicalities to each other from the very beginning, but that didn’t lead to any sort of pity; it was because we understood each other in that respect.

  4. I’m not sure whether anyone thinks my TAB husband stays with me out of pity (and how incredibly off the mark it would be if they thought so!), but I know that there are people who pity my husband and feel that my disabilities make his life more difficult than it ought to be. I wonder what part of the marriage vows they missed? We both signed up for how life would be, no matter what. Of course, he doesn’t feel that I’m a burden–quite the contrary–and in the end, that’s all that matters to me.

  5. As someone who became disabled a few months after our wedding, this was one of the more ridiculous scenarios I considered during the really depressed stage. It took a little while for my spouse to convince me that, no, I wasn’t ruining his life, and, no, he had no desire to get out of our relationship just because I got sick.

    I love that he emphasized how little my disability affected his love for me, and how quickly he adapted to the changes in our lives together. We may both go through stages where we are angry at my illness, the insurance company, the doctor, social security, etc., but we’re there for each other, providing support and humor without a trace of pity, through those stages because that’s what partners do.

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