Hello Nicole – July 2000

Dear Nicole, My fiancé has a progressive disability. He was walking and his disability was “hidden” until recently when he […]

Dear Nicole,

My fiancé has a progressive disability. He was walking and his disability was “hidden” until recently when he fell and broke his leg and now the doctors say he will be in a wheelchair for good. He doesn’t want me to have to deal with this, so he has pushed me out of his life. He wants me to go find someone else. I don’t want to go, but it seems he doesn¹t want me to stay. He¹s so angry that he keeps lashing out at me and it hurts so bad. When I get upset because he’s mean, he says, “This is not about you! This is happening to me!!” I’m trying to be the strong one but it hurts. Do you think I should leave him?

Sincerely, Confused

Dear Confused,

It¹s unimaginable for most people to think of going from being able to walk to being in a wheelchair. A loss of ability like this requires major changes in our lifestyle, physical environment and self-image that are hard to accept. It¹s only natural for your fiancé to be angry about this, unfortunately it is also normal that when we are upset we tend to lash out the worst at the people who mean the most to us.

Probably part of the reason your boyfriend is pushing you away is that he feels insecure and being with you may bring up feelings of inadequacy that he is not ready to deal with. Our society has a lot of prejudice against people with disabilities and one very powerful stereotype is that people with disabilities are not worthy or adequate love partners. Especially if your boyfriend has not had a lot of contact with others who are disabled he may just assume that he needs to give up intimacy in his life because you won¹t (or shouldn¹t) like him in “that” way anymore. It is good to give him a lot of assurance that you love him but no amount of reassurance can end his insecurity and if you get upset because he doesn¹t believe your assurances, you will only make matters worse.

It takes time, patience and experience to have a sense of confidence about having a disability in our society. It may be that he is unable to love you or believe that you love him at this time. He may need to withdraw and conserve his emotional energy or let his previous life fall away while he rebuilds. It might take some pressure off your boyfriend if you did go on with your life without him. I don’t mean finding a new boyfriend but just spending time with other people, working, going to school, having a hobby, etc. Try to do things that are non-threatening to your relationship (i.e. don¹t go on dates with other men). At the same time you need to make sure that he is treating himself well and is not left alone too much. It might be good for him to see a therapist. It might also help for him to get to know some people with disabilities who are living an active life. Try to encourage him to go out and do things he enjoys, but don¹t force him to go. It won¹t help to push yourself on him. Just let him know that you love him and he doesn¹t have to feel pressured to say or do or be any way in particular to keep you as a friend.

In this same way, you need to find a way to allow the inevitable outbursts of anger in your relationship without them being damaging. When your boyfriend is abusive, respectfully leave before you say or hear things you will later regret. Nothing good comes from continuing abusive conversations. When you are together again, try to start fresh and with an understanding that the anger is normal for both of you given your enormous loss.

It may take years for your boyfriend to accept that he is still an OK human being and feel confident enough to take on the responsibility of being your partner. We expect a lot of ourselves when we are in an intimate relationship, and we need to feel we measure up to our partner’s expectation. Until your boyfriend begins to gain confidence in himself he cannot possibly feel secure in a relationship. All you can really do is be very gentle and patient with him and hope that eventually you will gain his trust.

— Nicole