I, Morgan, have had the pleasure of being in several romantic relationships lasting from just a few weeks, to casually dating for several months. Never has there been a minute where my disability has been a detriment to my relationship.
But that does not seem to be the case with a certain television personality and “psychologist.”
On his synonymous television show, Dr. Phil interviewed a woman and her disabled boyfriend. The clip he shared onto his YouTube channel is three minutes long and has approximately five thousand dislikes to one thousand likes. That alone reassured me that the majority of individuals who watched this particular clip saw Dr. Phil’s advice for what it is: damning, generalized advice aimed at a woman who just wanted to find a happy medium between caring for her boyfriend and being his lover.
To summarize, a woman and her boyfriend started out by her stepping in for the lackluster caregivers the boyfriend was receiving. She volunteered to step in for some of the shifts missed by said caregivers and put in the hard work. Over time, a romantic relationship developed. After a while, it seems that the woman started becoming exhausted from stepping in as his personal caregiver. It was starting to put a strain on their relationship, so they agreed to appear on Dr. Phil.
The advice Dr. Phil gave in the clip was blunt, as is his signature, but it was also misleading and, to be honest, disheartening. Phil claims that “100 out of 100 caregiving relationships fail” and that the girlfriend “had to make a choice: are you going to be his lover or caregiver?” The girlfriend chose “lover.”
But why does she have to make that choice? Why does she have to choose between being his boyfriend or caring for him within her means? And what does Phil’s basic message say about those of us who are disabled? Are we not worthy of love?
In every relationship I have been in since high school, I have always made my partners know about my Autism, and now that I am (safely) exploring online dating, I put in each of my bios that I am Autistic. If they take an issue to that, I delete them and move on; if they find that I am not the right person or vice versa, we unmatch or pursue a friendship instead.
Should me and a potential partner choose to be in some kind of relationship, we will have discussions along the way about my neurodiversity. With my ex-boyfriend (now roommate), I have told him that I am going to have executive functioning issues and anxiety about the most random things, whether it be seeing a balloon (I have an extreme dislike of loud noises), hearing a child scream, or exhaustion from grocery shopping. With anyone I date for the first time, I will explain how my mental disabilities affect me on a daily basis and how I work to overcome those disabilities. Disclosure is so important for me with the hopes of seeing if a relationship is right for us, and if one is, I will let the partner know along the way with what I am comfortable and not comfortable with.
Having said that, a broken clock is right twice a day. Dr. Phil did state that in their situation, they needed to seek professional help for his disability that the girlfriend was not qualified to provide. I would agree: I don’t expect any partner to fulfil the role of a professional psychiatric nurse or a therapist. Having a partner who understands neurodiversity is a plus, especially if they themselves are disabled, but there does come a time where me and a hypothetical neurodiverse partner will need professional care for one reason or another.
What I don’t agree with is how he is giving this couple a black-and-white option about their relationship: She can either be his lover or caregiver. There is no room for a healthy balance of both. But I have a question for Dr. Phil himself: What kind of psychologist with “years and years of experience” implies disabled people are unworthy of love? This may not have been directly said, but as a disabled viewer of this clip, this is what my biggest takeaway was.
Dr. Phil’s basic message of having to choose between being a lover or a caregiver is wrong outright. A huge way of how we show love is through caregiving to some degree. Sometimes it can be as traditional and romantic as sending flowers, or treating a lover to a nice meal. Perhaps caregiving is shown by reminding someone to be healthy and keep up with their wellness. Or maybe someone shows caregiving through other means, such as sex or affection.
It’s okay to be a basic caregiver in a loving, healthy relationship with someone who is disabled. In fact, as the disabled blogger Suffering the Silence, who brought this issue to my attention, put it, “EVERY SINGLE LASTING RELATIONSHIP INVOLVES CARETAKING (sic).”
My parents are a great example of this one. These lovebirds always encourage each other to be the best version of themselves possible. Dad encourages my mom to be happy and healthy, showing his love by changing the oil in her car, taking care of the yardwork, and creating a beautiful “creek” in their backyard. Mom shows her love by working hard, showing affection, talking to Dad about how he is doing, and making sure he is taking care of himself. It is my opinion that this is typical of any healthy relationship: hard work dedicated toward building each other up and making one another better human beings.
It’s not a bad thing to be disabled; I don’t ever want to be seen as a “burden” to someone. I am a big personality to take in, but I am also completely worthy of being loved, cared for, and admired.
So, what does a healthy relationship with a disabled person look like? Suffering the Silence describes her relationship of over four years as such:
Micah and I have been together for almost 5 years. Last night, after doing our ever growing stretching routine, as we were falling asleep, Micah said, “I like doing stretches with you. I get to hold you, and I can feel it helping your body. I wonder how many couples get to feel that together?” I knew just what he meant. There’s a vulnerability, a tenderness, a particular brand of humor, a tangible expression of care captured in that routine. I felt the other side of care when Micah broke his femur a year ago. I remember feeling so grateful for a way to express my love — by playing with his hair, reminding him to take his meds, helping him make his way to the toilet. These are extreme versions of what we do for each other everyday — leaning, holding, giving, receiving, caring. Some of it involves paralyzed legs, some of it includes untangling messy feelings, much of it requires creating space for each other.
I recently caught up with a dear friend of mine with whom I haven’t seen in a year. We have dated on and off and have expressed interest in really investing in each other and being friends (or otherwise) for a long time. When we have discussed our expectations for each other, we have been very clear about what we want from our relationship such as taking the time to balance our relationship with a healthy social life and making sure our Maslov’s Needs are met. What ultimately made me smile was him saying “we will have years and years to spend together.” And that’s exactly what I needed to hear. I want to have friendships that last a long time and eventually make their way offline (should it be possible to do so).
It’s not too much to expect someone to be my caregiver. Some may call that selfish; I call it having high standards. That said, I also hope to be an incredible caregiver. I want someone to be there for me, cheering me on, calming me down when I have panic attacks, reminding me to take my pills and shower regularly. On the other hand, I also want to be able to offer some basic assistance in providing my partner with a warm helping hand to hold. I want to help lift them up when they are in a challenging place in life.
I am not unlovable just because I have a disability. No disabled person is. A relationship with a disabled person does require work, but what relationship doesn’t require work?