The Impact Of Physical Disabilities On Intimacy InCouple Relationships

Monica Chitty, with Richard Mooney, Mutual Amputee Aid Foundation

  The onset of a physical disability for one member of a couple puts aheavy burden on the relationship, which places it at risk.

  The literature suggests that loss of intimacy is one consequence ofphysical disability. Beliefs and attitudes on the part of both the disabledand the non-disabled member of a couple can affect intimacy, even thoughno sexual impairment may exist. This must be confronted by coupleswhere one member is disabled, since each has an adjustment to make fromhis or her own unique, individual, and personal perspective.

  The objectives of the study were 1) to find common fears and problemsthat affect intimacy in couples with one physically disabled member, and 2)to describe coping mechanisms used by one or both members of the coupleto overcome those fears and problems. "Intimacy" for the purpose of thisstudy, was defined as "a close personal relationship in which both personsare mutually dependent and engaged in joint actions." That definitioninvolves much more than sexuality. It also includes sharing, cooperativeproblem solving, mutual coping, and maintenance of a balanced, well-adjusted, loving relationship.

  Research subjects were limited to couples in which 1) one member had aphysical disability involving movement (i.e., stroke, amputation, multiplesclerosis), 2) the relationship had been in place at least three years beforethe onset of the disability, and 3) the disability occurred at least two yearsbefore the date of the research interview. Ten couples meeting thesecriteria were interviewed.

  All of the couples had been together a long time (average: 34 years),were "middle aged" or older, and had children over 15 years of age. Innine of the 10 couples, the disabled partner was female. Of these, threewere stroke survivors, five had lower extremity amputations (three werebilateral), and one had a below-elbow amputation. In the tenth couple, itwas the man who had a lower extremity amputation.

Fears and Problems

  Some of the fears and problems that were revealed by the interviewswere:

Positive Points

  The following positive points were observed: (Essentially, these amountto effective coping strategies.)

Fears About the Future

The following fears for the future were cited:

Valuable Learning

  To the bottom-line question about what has been learned by the able-bodied spouse about the partner's disability that might help others insimilar circumstances, the following answers were given:


  Disability had a huge impact on all couples' relationships. In the case ofthe disabled spouse, the impact was primarily in the area of self-esteemand self-image. For the able-bodied spouse, the impact was more in termsof coping, handling new, expanded family roles, and adapting to theirpartners' feelings of frustration.

No doubt, the stability of the ten relationships studied is, in significant part,attributable to the fact that 1) they had been together a long time beforethe onset of the disabilities, 2) they are ol>

Transfer interrupted!

isabled spouses are retired or near retirement and, consequently,the role-reversal challenges are less disruptive, and 4) the kinds ofexpectations they have for each other and for the relationship are flexibleand non-threatening.

  However, there is still a strong suggestion that the coping mechanismslisted under "Positive Points" have had an extremely beneficial effect on thehealth and durability of the relationships studied, e.g.,

  Although this sample was small, there is valuable guidance here forother able-bodied/disabled couples.

During the Spring of 1994, Monica Chitty, a graduate student in Marriage,Family, and Child Therapy at the California Family Study Center(also, abilateral above-knee amputee), completed a research project involvingintimacy and disability. She has since been awarded a Master of Artsdegree and is presently completing an internship in the Los Angeles area.She has given her permission for this condensation of her study.

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