Look at Me: Why Looking Past Disability Is Toxic for Relationships

wedding couple holding hands on ...
wedding couple holding hands on ...

If there's one thing people love to do, it's dream of their perfect mate. We might not all admit to it, but we've all done it, repeatedly. I've passed many an hour at a slumber party (and, in more recent years, over a cup of coffee) doing just that. And it's good to dream. Dreaming gives us faith and hope for things to get better. It helps us set our expectations higher than we might have otherwise. But for people with disabilities, there is one area, when it comes to dreaming, where we need to raise the bar.

Invariably, when I'm at a Girls' Night with friends, the Perfect Mate topic comes up, followed by the list of ideal qualities: poet, rock star, Democrat, Republican, Anarchist, Ph.D, MD, and so on. I remember once, when it was my turn. I gazed wistfully into space and said, "And I just know that he'll be someone who can look past my disability." Everyone murmured and sighed in agreement, and I was immensely proud of myself for being so profound.

I shouldn't have been. The truth is, hoping to find a mate who will "look past" my disability was (and is) the wrong approach to finding the right person. It sounds noble, but what are the real implications?

In my experience, disability doesn't tend to disappear overnight. For myself, and many, it is permanent. If we want someone to look past that, we are asking, expecting, and hoping for him or her to avoid and ignore a big part of our reality. How can we talk about our lives, our challenges, and our experiences apart from our disability? And how can our partner truly share any of that with us, if he or she looks past it?

While not defining me, per se, my disability is a part of my identity. It has colored my perspective, shaped my career path, and helped form my peer groups. Do I want someone to look past such a fundamental part of my life? Of course I don't. He would be left with an incomplete picture of who I am. And being with someone who doesn't really know who you are, it strains the relationship; it fosters a sense of dishonesty. And it's just awkward and weird.

I'm not immune to any of these pitfalls, by the way. . .I wouldn't be equipped to write this if I wasn't guilty of talking about "looking past" disability for the better part of my life. We live in a world so focused on physical ideals, it's hard not to do it. But every time I've done that, I've been settling. I've really been saying to myself, "There isn't a person who will accept and love you for who you are. He won't be able to truly find all of you attractive." Not only is that a lie, it is a lowered expectation that no one deserves to have for themselves, their partner, or their relationship.

It's time for a change. Next time we're at a Girls' night (or Guys' night, for that matter), and discussion turns back to that Perfect Mate, let's drop the lackluster expectations. No matter if it's a disability, or some other difference, we have to talk (and think) of who we are honestly:

Looking past me isn't good enough anymore. It's time to look at me. This, everything you see, and everything you don't, is part of who I am. The perfect person for me is someone who loves and accepts all parts of me: typical and different.

Let's not settle for relationships where someone looks past, ignores, or avoids any part of who we are. Let's start to dream of someone who looks at us intently, and loves what they see.