Saturday, January 19, 2008

This Advice Column's Got Me in a Stir

Recently the blogger Moggy alerted us to a Dear Prudence column (see that includes a letter from an apparently nondisabled woman who is in a longstanding affair with a man who is married to an apparently severely disabled woman. While I personally find little meat to FRIDA-style advocate on this particular column other than writing the paper or the editor, I keep finding myself thinking about the implications of the situation and Prudence's response. The letter and response are as follows:

Dear Prudence,
I am a middle-aged woman who for almost two decades has been having an affair with a married man. His wife is severely disabled and has no interest in sex. He tells me that if I would marry him, he'd divorce her and put her in a nursing home, but I cannot see why that should happen. Their grown children help with her at-home care. I feel deeply loved by this man and want no one else. So, what's the problem? People thinking that I have no man in my life, always making comments about it, and trying to fix me up, etc. My man says that I am free to tell them about our relationship. But when I have opened up and explained my situation, I have to hear what a bitch I am (not close friends, of course). I'm a highly independent woman who pays her own bills and makes her own decisions. I'm tired of pretending that I'm a woman without love, for in truth, I'm loved quite deeply. But I also don't feel that I should have to explain. What's a woman like me to say?
—Not Lonely

Dear Not,
Who are these people who always make comments and try to fix you up? You've said that those who are close to you know your situation. If these are co-workers or casual acquaintances, you have to shut down the inquiries and fix-up suggestions. Saying with a small, enigmatic smile, "I have a very fulfilling life and I'm not looking to change it," should help. I understand that you resent being seen as a middle-aged woman without a partner, but if you're as independent as you say, this misperception shouldn't bother you as much as it does. And surely, not everyone reacts with such hostility to this complicated, difficult state of affairs. If you would prefer that people in your work or social circle understand your love life, perhaps, when the question comes up again, you can explain things to someone with both a sympathetic ear and a big mouth, who will then clarify for everyone else why you're not looking for companionship.

*sigh* I personally am not a big fan of trying to seek advice on personal life issues from a newspaper morals broker, and I'm not going to go in depth on the basic affair issue.

What I am mainly concerned about for the purposes of THIS post, on THIS blog, is the issue of the disabled wife being seen as easily divorced and dumped in a nursing home. In my view, Not Lonely is right to be skeptical about the nursing home bullshit, although somewhat narrow-minded in thinking it's ok for just the grown children to support their mom. Community supports, hello? This Prudence columnist should have called her out on this. Damn, we have to educate the advice columnists.

I also have a lot of questions about the wife not being interested in sex. This is third-hand news. The wife very well could be not interested in sex. Or, perhaps the husband is not interested in sex with her? Is it the disability? Or, are the husband and wife not clued into the many fulfilling ways sexuality can be expressed? What's up? If it's been 20 years since the relationship with the other woman started...???

I would really like to see more disability-positive discussion of dealing with marriage and disability and sexuality and extramarital relationships. AND I would like to see more discussion of the relationship issues LGBTQ people with disabilities face. I am not sure that FRIDA can advocate on moral discussions concerning relationships (for example, is the whole affair thing right or wrong?), but my feeling is we can and should advocate that there should be an arena for disability-positive discussion of these issues.

Some might ask why I would say FRIDA would hold off on "moral" discussions of relationships, when we have so obviously advocated on our position on topics like hysterectomy and euthanasia. Here is the bottom line: part of FRIDA's stated mission is "to spearhead social momentum towards real choice, respect and self-respect of women with disabilities." I think FRIDA is about disability rights, not morals.

When it is not clear that any person with a disability is able to make a choice in their lives, we have a problem with that. And if society views us as having limited choices, we have a problem with that too because it conditions people to take some of our choices away. A gray area is possible though...perhaps the stance that we are entitled to choice and decision-making is a moral position. Maybe believing that people with disabilities are PEOPLE, and that disability-positive education and dialogue for all is a human right, are moral positions too. But what I think we are about is basic rights---and one of our basic rights is to choose our values or morals.

Am I wandering around in my own head? Maybe. That letter is some food for thought, though.