Love, Needs, Giving: A Partner’s Perspective on Disability [Guest Post by John Thielman]


Happy spring! Today the blog breaks its unintentional (but by no means surprising by now) silence with a special treat. Yesterday marks 3 years since one online exchange began a friendship, which grew into a relationship, and is on its way to becoming a marriage. Since May is the month John and I met, I am honored and proud to share his guest blog with you, which offers his perspective as the partner of someone with a disability. I am sure his kindness and honesty will encourage all of you, as it does me every day.  Enjoy!

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K Summers Photography, 2014

Beth often shares stories with me of her odd encounters with well-meaning, but socially awkward, strangers. One of the questions she gets most often is: “So is your fiancé in a wheelchair, too?”

It’s tempting to try to laugh that question off, but the more I think about its implications, the less I like it.  Nobody asks me if my fiancé needs glasses too, or if she is also Caucasian, or is also going grey at the temples.  Everyone seems to recognize that a woman wouldn’t have to share my bad eyesight (or any other arbitrary, superficial characteristic) to be interested in marrying me, but for some reason it’s very common to assume that only a man who also has a disability would be interested in a woman with one. It’s as if people believe “typical” cannot love “different”. And this assertion that is not only false, but painful.

So, how does a relationship work when one of the participants has a disability?  Truth to tell, I don’t know how a relationship works when neither does (I was in a relationship once before, with someone without a disability, but I can’t say the relationship actually worked).  Ours is like any other relationship: we talk to one another, we listen, we try to help.

As far as I can tell, everybody needs help with something in life.  Some people are bad at doing their taxes, some are late everywhere they go, many have insecurities and some have legs that don’t work properly.  So just as Beth doesn’t think anything of helping me with my insecurities and the challenges I face as a student in a foreign country, I think absolutely nothing of helping her get up and down stairs, preparing a meal for us to share, or helping her around the house.

In fact, it is this act of helping that brings us closer together.  In order to allow her to help me, I have to make myself vulnerable to her emotionally, which is never easy (well, by now it’s easier because we’ve been doing it for so long), and in order to allow me to help her, she has to be very vulnerable to me physically.  It all requires a lot of trust, but our trust in one another is always rewarded.

Honestly though, it is the distance between us (not her disability) that has always been the biggest problem to overcome.  We have never lived in the same city, and never less than 800 miles apart.  Now it’s more like 4,600.  But we talk every day on skype, often for hours, sometimes more than once. [Since starting our relationship in September 2012, we have only gone 2 days without Skyping!]  We’ve been told that we talk more to one another than do some couples who live together.  This is no surprise, since we can’t do much more than exchange words, so we exchange lots and lots of them, and we weigh them carefully.

So, distance has become our teacher, helping us learn to communicate honestly and lovingly with one another.  And because being apart forces us to find a silver lining, each of us strives to discern the best and most loving interpretation of the other’s words.  When we can’t find that right away, we push through any negative feelings, and ask for clarification.  We do our best to understand each other’s needs and to help fulfill those needs.   And it turns out not to matter so much what [or even whose] those specific needs are; the remedy is still the same. We speak, we listen, we understand, we give and take, we help each other. We love each other. That’s really all there is to it.

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Originally from Menomonie, Wisconsin, John is earning his Master’s Degree in Historical Linguistics from the Humboldt University in Berlin, and holds a B.A. in Classics from Gustavus Adolphus College. He enjoys tailoring, cooking, and all things Tolkien. His favorite pastimes are reading, sipping fine whiskey, and shooting the breeze with his Intended. 

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11 thoughts on “Love, Needs, Giving: A Partner’s Perspective on Disability [Guest Post by John Thielman]

  1. As a disabled woman who has been married to a “normal” man for 24 years I can tell you that you’ve figured it out, John. You two are going to do just fine together 😉

    Alicia
    spashionista.com

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  2. As a person with a non-physical disability – this has a profoundly deep impact and reminds me that it’s okay to reach out accept the help. Thank you John and Beth. I love you dearly!

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  3. I think you guys are going to have a good life together John. The question I get these days when folks find out my wife is in a wheel chair is “So what happened to her?” I tell them she has had CP since birth and they almost always say the same thing, “Really? I figured she was in a car crash or something.” They seem to assume that if my wife is disabled it most have happened after we got married and I’m a good guy for staying with her. When they find out she was disabled before we got married it takes them a moment to process it. I don’t really get offended. I’m glad they are being put in a situation that makes them study their own preconceptions if only for a second or two.

    The point you make about disabilities is important. We are all disabled in one form or another and somehow I think learning to load and unload a wheel chair is an easier challenge than helping someone battle cancer or alcoholism day in and day out. Even those or us with fully functioning bodies will not likely still have them when we finally part from this world. Or eyes slowly go blind. Our hearing fades. Arthritis bends out bodies and our minds get duller. Eventually we all lose some of our abilities but we are stronger together than we would be alone. .

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  4. yes. yes. 1000 times yes. As you know, i get a similar reaction. People are first shocked that Jamie is not disabled…then shocked he is attractive…and then shocked that he is actually a good person (but not so good that our relationship is some weird make-a-wish/charitable situation). I love you and john and agree that a disability is only a hindrance and an obstacle if you view it that way.

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  5. Uhm…for the record, people (all people, without regard to race or gender or pizza-topping preference) are going to assume your fiance is caucasian. We’re a racist lot, we humans.

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  6. I looked beyond the wheelchair and have been happily married for 42 years to a wonderful man. The wheelchair enables my husband, not disables. Wishing you as much happiness as I have.

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