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Dec 19, 2022

Navigating non-monogamy as a disabled person

The disabled, queer, and polyamorous communities often overlap, which can lead to incredible connections. At the same time, dating as someone who is part of all three groups has its own challenges.

The disabled, queer, and polyamorous communities often overlap, which can lead to incredible connections. At the same time, dating as someone who is part of all three groups has its own challenges. Journalist Cathy Reay talks about her experience with the wonderful and the sticky parts of dating.

My disabled identity affects everything I do, and everything I am. I’ve never known what it’s like to date as a non-disabled person before; to meet people that don’t have to “come to terms with” my disability before connecting with me; that don’t do a double take the first time I enter the room; that don’t have to do a lot of “listening and learning” in order to understand my disabled experience better.

When I realized I wanted to explore non-monogamy I felt wary – scared, even – of opening myself up to multiple people at the same time. I considered the possibility that I would continue to meet people, on apps and offline, potentially forever, as my connections grew, shifted in shape, and drifted apart. Committing to a non-monogamous lifestyle is about committing to the idea that love isn’t tied to one person, and within that, that it is always moving and changing shape around the connections we foster and how they develop. And while that’s really exciting to me, and in line with how I feel about love, it definitely exposes me to more potentially harmful experiences simply because of the number of new people I’m meeting at any given time. As someone that dated in straight monogamous circles for almost 35 years, I was painfully aware of the ableism that exists in romance. I was nervous to open myself up to potentially even more of that. 

But within a year of dating polyamorously, I had somehow already dated more people than the 35 years prior. As a straight monogamous woman, aside from in my marriage, I really struggled to find meaningful connections. I looked for them, but they were rarely available to me. Instead I was sought after by men who wanted to experiment with something new, guys who fetishized disability and were attracted to me not because of who I was but because of the unique experience they thought they could have with me. 

As soon as I switched the settings in my dating profile to show that I was queer and polyamorous [and on Feeld, I set the filter to only display other queer polyamorous people too], my pool of potential matches dramatically narrowed. Then, unfathomably, I began connecting with more and more people.

Of course experiences vary, but, on the whole, I have found that queer, polyamorous people are much more willing to look outside of restrictive westernised beauty standards. They are generally much more willing to adapt to different relationship styles and to the individual needs present within those. Because all of our relationships look so different, there’s no blueprint for the perfect non-monogamous connection. I feel freer when I want to discuss my access and other disability-related needs with queer communities, and that I can do so without fear of judgment. I feel much less embarrassed to admit restrictions and barriers I face. I haven’t experienced any overt ableism in my relationships over the last two years; when I was dating straight guys, I experienced it in every relationship. 

What I didn’t appreciate initially was that there’s such a huge overlap between the queer, disabled, and polyamorous communities; in fact, most of the people I date or have dated recently are also disabled, or have lots of experience dating or caring for disabled people. It helps, so much, to meet people that just get you and/or can hold space for you, without you having to try to explain or convince them of your experiences, or why you need to do something a certain way. 

It’s not all sunshine and roses, of course. Something I’ve really struggled with in polyamory is tiredness and pain management. I’m a busy person, I have a job, two kids and a household to look after. As a physically disabled person, my daily responsibilities already stretch me beyond my limits, and that’s before we factor in dating. 

At first I thought: fuck it, I’m still (relatively?) young. I’ll sleep when I’m dead! I started going on dates whenever I could get childcare in, I was getting to know lots of people; I was embracing my new lease of life and I loved it.  

Then I started waking up with pain in my legs and reduced mobility that meant I couldn’t care for my kids in the same way. I was too tired to function and started forgetting the little things – you know, like after school club, or needing to buy milk on the way home – the kind of things that when you forget one it’s no biggie, but when you forget loads in a short period of time, you convince yourself that you’re failing at life. I felt stressed all the time. I soon realised the balance was off, and I wasn’t managing all my responsibilities well enough.

After a strong word with my ego and myself, I scaled back on the dating front and I think I’ve found a good balance now. There are definitely times I’d like to see my partners more than I do, but I also think this would be at the detriment of my health and my home, and I’m not willing to make that sacrifice. I’m really happy with the relationships I’m in and I’m so grateful to have found such a supportive community that has allowed me to flourish and see who I really am, for the first time.

If you’re reading this as a disabled person on Feeld, I’m so happy you’re here. If you’re just starting your non-monogamy or dating journey, welcome! Dating can be really intimidating for us for a multitude of reasons, and I hope that in sharing my experiences you feel less alone. If you’re an old timer in this dating realm, I hope you can find something in this piece that you’re nodding along with. Dating for us can present so many challenges (many unknown to the non-disabled world), but once we make the right kind of connections – the ones that nourish and support us and make us feel excited and loved – it’s so worth it. 

If you’re reading this and you’re not disabled, but you’re dating or may date someone who is, I’m also happy you’re here. Thank you for taking the time to think about the needs they might have. The disabled community is so vast, and experiences are rich and differ according to each person; there’s no handbook. There are some things though that are important to all relationships, but pretty damn vital for partners of disabled babes to consider: things like accessibility, consent, collaboration, patience, and understanding. Here are some brief tips to consider:

  • Accessibility: get used to asking what a person’s access needs are, whether or not they “look like” they have any. Support them in meeting those needs where you can. Be honest when you can’t. Find workarounds together.
  • Consent: many disabled babes have been in settings where consent has been dishonored and stripped from them. Often there can be trauma around this. Check how they’d like you to ask consent, ensure you do it, talk about how it went afterwards, and whether you need to make any adjustments.
  • Collaboration: just because we’re disabled, doesn’t mean we can’t bring anything to the table. Don’t try to do things for us unless asked, don’t assume or speak over our needs. Collaborate and compromise with us. We all have strengths, talents, and skills. Let’s work together.

Patience and understanding – sometimes we all get overwhelmed; sometimes we all over-exert ourselves and need downtime or processing time or just some time alone. Be patient. Sometimes you might not understand how much time someone needs or why something has stretched them beyond their limits, because your limits look different. But no two people are the same. The most important thing is that our needs are honored as much as they can be, regardless of whether or not other people think they make sense.

Download Feeld today on iOS or Android to meet and explore with like-minded humans.

Cathy Reay is a freelance journalist writing on disability, accessibility, love, and relationships. She has written for The Guardian, Glamour, Metro and I paper, among others. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.

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