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What we get Wrong About Codependency in Disabled Relationships.

There is a rightful conversation in the mainstream right now, prompted by lockdown move-ins and partnership breakdowns, on the question of codependency. Ness Cooper, Sexologist and Relationship Coach, explains “An unhealthy co-dependent relationship is where individuals become psychologically dependent on their partner to the extent that mutual benefits, shared satisfaction and consent are out of the equation”. 

Similarly, fellow relationship expert Gurpreet Singh defines two clear roles in codependent partnerships, the ‘giver and the ‘taker. Cooper goes on to say that codependent romantic relationships remove individual autonomy, and cause individual identities to be lost.

However, matters are more complicated for disabled folx with non-disabled partners. I rely on my partner for food, help with personal hygiene and to keep our home clean. So is our relationship codependent?

Singh defines two clear roles in codependent partnerships, the ‘giver’ and the ‘taker’, and those sum up my experience entirely. I am often taking things from my partner; whether that is requiring physical help showering, my dinner to be made for me or the flat to be kept clean.

However, I consider our relationship well balanced; I provide emotional support, I use my limited mental energy to order birthday gifts and groceries. I may not physically contribute much, but I give a lot that isn’t tangible, particularly to those on the outside observing my relationship. 

Much of what we believe about our worthiness to feel love as disabled people is hinged on the idea that successful relationships must be equal. There should be no dependency and each individual should support themselves.

However we must acknowledge that these ideas are informed by ableism. An ableism which has led many disabled partners to constantly question their worth and ‘contribution’ to relationships. 

Reflecting on her experiences in the past, Sterling*, who has lived with multiple chronic illnesses for over a decade, expressed this sentiment:

“When I was younger, I was so scared of the idea of being seen as ‘needy’ or ‘codependent’ that I often wouldn’t ask for help in the ways that I needed it.”

This desire not to be seen as needy causes internal battles, an assumption that self reliance is the best way to live, which continues to harm our often fragile bodies. 

Many couples in relationships where one person disabled do not cohabit. This is because legislation in their country jeopardises financial support for those who are unable to work.

When a disabled person moves in with their partner, their government benefits are often cut, as the working spouses’ income is assumed to support both partners. 

Kyla*, who lives in Canada says, “[The government] wants me to be financially dependent on him. It sets people up for challenging relationship dynamics and even abuse”.

Disabled folx who use government support funds do not want to be viewed as ‘burdens’ or be reliant on others for financial support. But if they want to cohabit as a natural progression in many romantic relationships, they are often forced to become reliant. 

Guilt is a common emotional response when those who are chronically ill discuss dependency within intimate relationships. The guilt expressed surrounds the idea that successful cohabitation is a household operating a fifty-fifty split, and when couples do not achieve this (arbitrary) goal, the one doing less feels they have failed the test. 

Sophie, who lives with CFS/ME and runs a disability awareness instagram account, says it is society that frames our dependence as negative when in reality “we all have different strengths and weaknesses. We support each other and are co-dependent”.

When discussing their own relationship management they said “we do our best and try to distribute tasks in some way that suits us both, like people would in any relationship.” 

There is an idea that there is an inherent difference between inter-disabled relationships and non-disabled relationships that cloud people’s judgement.

There are differences in my own relationships with my friends who are non-disabled and date non-disabled people. Only a small amount is specifically due to my disability. Most of it is just preference or unique ways of working that account for individual ways of living. 

My need for my partner to cook dinner is in effect the same as my friend who works long hours and commutes whilst her partner works from home. He makes the dinner and she doesn’t feel bad about it, so why should I?

Disabled perspectives therefore call for a reformulation of co-dependency which acknowledges that every partner brings a unique set of needs and capacities to a relationship. 

Rather than fixating on the presumed unhealthiness of relying on others it might be better to consider specific ways in which we are interdependent in order to pivot toward an ethics of care that entertains the possibility that our reliance on others is not only necessary but positive.

* names have been changed


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