Irregardless of gender, age, ability, disability, race, social situation, dating is fraught with well…everything imaginable. Insecurities about how we look, how our interests mesh, and our religious beliefs or lack thereof, money and then never mind the family and friends. When you’re a “normal, able bodied person”, it’s complicated enough; but throw in a disability, and up ramps the complication factor.
I’ve had relationships a Deaf man, and an amputee, but mainly with hearing men. When you have a disability yourself, or the person you are dating has one, a variety of issues come up. When it’s a physical disability, you are limited by what can be done physically. If you hike, one certainly cannot hike up a mountain with someone in a wheelchair. It’s very important to find commonalities and enough common interests to maintain a relationship. So regardless of whether one or both partners has a disability, commonalities, and communication are key to success in any relationship or marriage. When one person or both is Deaf, the communication side of things becomes fraught with misconceptions, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings. However, there can be, and are, humorous moments, which if both people are understanding and sensitive to the other can certainly liven up a relationship.
For me, dating another Deaf man, who was totally Deaf, but lipread (that skill was not very strong), and spoke, it created some challenges. Most of the challenges came from communication, and how we communicated with the other, and viewed each other’s communication skills. Although he was well aware I was profoundly Deaf, and relied on lip reading, he saw me in a way as hearing. Simply because I functioned that way in nearly all aspects of my life. He also didn’t fully realize that not only was I responsible for my communication needs, I ended up being responsible for his, ensuring he understood me. I didn’t always have the time, or patience to ensure he understood me, so consequently, miscommunication occurred frequently. Neither of us dealt with the other’s communication needs well. I am sure you’re thinking “but, why not? Wouldn’t both of you being deaf make you more patient, understanding, and accommodating?”. Maybe it should have, and maybe it did, for some; however, for us, we couldn’t, because our philosophies on handling our own communication needs were different. Everyone has different philosophies on dating, communication, handling the other’s needs or disabilities. Talking about them, and meshing those things together is crucial in any relationship; because even if you are very different from each other, it takes effort to create a lasting relationship.
Ok, so what about dating a hearing person? As literally everyone I dated had been hearing, one would think I had been able to have good communication with the men I dated over the years. Not necessarily. As a teen I was an introvert when I was out one on one with a boy, but a little bit of an extrovert in a group setting. In effect, I had two personas, that confused the hell out of the boys I dated, and consequently I simply became friends with most of the boys in my class. I could barely handle a conversation if we were alone, and yet, if we were with a group of friends, I chatted along with every one else. This is perhaps normal behaviour for a teen, as there is always safety in numbers. Communication didn’t seem as important as it would in adulthood. Yet I had moments, where I misunderstood the guys I dated, and of course my friends. Strangely though, as teens, we tend in some ways be more accommodating, understanding, and willing to help someone with a disability. I was certainly lucky that while I only had a handful of boyfriends, that they took the time to ensure I understood them, and was aware of what was going on.
As an adult, we become saddled with responsibilities, weightier thoughts, work, and fatigue. Therefore, because of those things, communication becomes less important, because the expectation is that everyone understands the other. This is the biggest fallacy in any relationship, as communication gets lost in the grand scheme of things.
Communication is important. Effective communication is the key to any relationship succeeding. We as adults have less patience, and I have found that it hugely impacts my ability to have good communication with my partner. My adult dating life was nerve-wracking, particularly after my ex husband and I separated. Although there were text messages, emails, instant messaging, and Skype, I found that they still wanted to use the phone. The phone for me was difficult by this time, as I was already experiencing comprehension difficulties, and of course, it led to misunderstandings. I questioned when and where I was to meet someone, so texting to confirm had me nerve-wracked. Also, telling potential dates I was Deaf and what that entailed was terrifying as I did not know whether to admit it upfront, or upon meeting, or whether it would scare them off. More often than not, I found it scared them off, or they took advantage of it to do things like talk to another woman thinking I wouldn’t realize what was happening.
Needless to say, my sense of self took a beating, and my confidence in who I was as a person, my abilities, and even my attractiveness plummeted. I had friends, male and female virtually berate me for allowing myself to feel undesirable. In all honesty, were it not for those boys I’d become friends with and dated in high school, that I was in touch with on Facebook, I wouldn’t have persisted in dating, and taking a chance. Sometimes it pays to make more friends in high school than to always be dating or be popular because of who you date. These were the guys who fessed up that the reason they became friends instead of dating, was because they had more respect for me than they did the other girls. That confessed that my Deafness made them want to get to know ME, and protect me from the jerks so often found in high schools. One by one, as I asked their thoughts, they told me “their loss, you’re amazing”, or “don’t kept them drag you down” , and encouraged me not to give up. Yes, they were all married or dating, or even if single, they still valued my friendship too much to mess it up by dating me as an adult. At the same time, there was honesty in that I also valued their friendship, and that dating them wasn’t something I was interested in.
Even in my relationship now, communication is still a daily progress. Both of us have to work at it, and both of us have to have patience with the other. Falling in love with this man was easy, as he was one of those old friends, who came back in my life unexpectedly. He went above and beyond to ensure I understood him, and we talked, a lot in the early stage of our relationship via Skype, texts, emails. He is learning to recognize my tricks to comprehend him, and is now coaching me to HEAR, rather than use my logic, guessing, and lip reading skills. We still have misunderstandings on both sides, however for the most part, we communicate well, and we work to eliminate issues between us. What we both understand is, communication doesn’t end when the dating phase moves into the committed relationship phase. Men typically stop communicating effectively once they think they have the woman firmly committed to them. Often they think they no longer have to work at the relationship. For me, as a Deaf person, I needed good communication, simply because my day to day relationship with my partner required it.
Dating as a Deaf person is scary enough, and being in a committed relationship, is fraught with its own perils. I wouldn’t have it any other way, because life is boring if one doesn’t take a chance on someone. We celebrate our four year anniversary next Sunday, and those four years had a lot of challenges. The journey to get the cochlear implant began when I qualified during the early months of our relationship. It was derailed by a pregnancy, and my mother’s passing, and a period of unemployment that we both experienced. Then I had the surgery, the anniversary of which would be two years this April. Did I think it would create additional relationship issues? No, I didn’t. I didn’t expect the resulting grief of the loss of my residual hearing, or the issues I had at work, and the period of unemployment that resulted from it. The emotional fallout from those things nearly derailed US, but it did not, because the communication was there. The willingness to be patient and help the other was there, even in the midst of our most frustrating, emotional periods of both of our lives.
So, dating or being in a relationship with a person who has a disability, is really no different in the end, than with someone who is “normal”. No matter who you date, who you are in a relationship with, the same issues arise. Communication, understanding, respect, patience, kindness, and caring are all inherent in any relationship. The only thing that may change is accommodating for a person’s disability, or religious belief, or work. It all comes down to choices, and how you deal with those potholes, bumps, and curves in the road to finding the one that complements you.