Intimacy, disability and relationships

Becoming intimate with new partners can mean getting to know each other in new ways. You might experience challenges or barriers, but there are lots of ways you can be intimate as a disabled person.

Talking about what you like, want and need is a great way to start.

Talking about becoming intimate

Talking about intimacy with someone new can be difficult. You might be unsure about how to talk about what you want. You both might feel nervous, embarrassed or shy.

You will likely have some physical, emotional or sexual expectations. But there might also be some things that you do not have any expectations for.

It’s important to explore what you both like and dislike and how you might work around physical or emotional barriers.

Setting expectations and building trust

Before you talk, think about your expectations. Decide what intimacy means to you, what you do and do not want, or what you are ready for.

You should feel safe and comfortable. This means building trust. Share your thoughts and feelings about your expectations and see how your partner responds. You do not have to talk about everything at once. It is OK to say that you are not comfortable speaking about something yet.

Talking about what you need

Every new relationship involves learning about each other. Talking openly can help you to understand each other’s point of view, what you both want and how to get it.

You might need to ask questions if things are not happening the way you want them to. For example, holding hands when you’re out in public.

This might be because:

  • someone feels uncomfortable with public displays of affection
  • you’re not sure if the other person wants to hold hands
  • the other person has not thought about it
  • hand holding is physically difficult for someone

It can help to explain why you do or do not want to do something. When people do not understand why there’s a problem, this can make them feel confused, upset or even rejected.

Listening to each other and avoiding blame

Remember to listen to each other. You can then find a compromise that makes you both happy. It’s also important to talk to your partner without blame and ‘you’ statements.

Try to start with a positive. Explain how you feel and then offer up a solution. For example, you might say:

“I like it when you stroke my hair and give me hugs. But I prefer to do this at home because I feel awkward in public.”

Talk about how you want to be intimate

Being intimate with your partner can mean lots of things. It can be physical, emotional and sexual. You might have an intimate moment that’s physical, sexual and emotional.

Understanding how you can be close can help you to talk about what you want and what you are able to do. This can be important if you have care support (like a Personal Assistant) or physical challenges.

It could help you to talk openly about things you find difficult and different ways to be intimate that could work for both of you.

If your partner is also caring for you, it’s important to talk.

Physical intimacy

There are lots of ways you can have physical intimacy that’s not sexual. It’s important to understand that some physical intimacy is OK in public and others should be private, like touching more intimate body parts.

Physical intimacy could be:

  • holding hands, touching their arm or shoulder
  • putting your arm around each other in the cinema or a cafe
  • a hug, cuddle or kiss
  • stroking, rubbing or massaging their back or neck
  • stroking or brushing hair
  • tickling

If you do not like something, it’s important to tell your partner. Explain why if you can and remember to avoid blame.

Asking permission

You should also check your partner is happy with physical contact. Asking permission can add to the intimacy, as well as sharing something you want or that you think they might like.

For example:

“Can I kiss you?”

“Would you like a hug?”

“Would you feel comfortable if I…”

What you or your partner likes might change during your relationship. It can help to sometimes check if your partner wants you to do something differently.

Emotional intimacy and communication

As a relationship develops, you share more of yourselves. You tell each other things that you might not tell anyone else. You might bond over something you do on your own together.

Being emotionally close is important. But getting time to be alone together could be tricky if you have physical challenges and need assistance. You could try texting, talking over the phone or using a video chat to help you to stay connected and close. This can also give you some privacy.

You can be emotionally intimate by:

  • giving a thoughtful gift, like finding a book by an author they like
  • getting involved in their interests and asking personal questions
  • sharing your favourite music playlists or making a playlist
  • leaving notes or sending messages and photos that show you’re thinking of them
  • sending a private message on social media
  • doing something thoughtful, like bringing a spare umbrella on a rainy day
  • doing an activity together, like making or building something
  • giving a compliment, like “you look nice today” or “those trousers suit you”

You might not feel confident talking about some things. Write things down if you’re too shy to say it.

Complimenting your partner

If you’re not sure how to compliment your partner, try talking about the things you like about them.

For example:

“You have… beautiful eyes, lots of energy, a great smile.”

“You can… write amazing poetry, cheer me up, understand me.”

“You are… kind, thoughtful, strong, funny.”

Think about how your compliment will make the other person feel and the situation you’re in.

For example:

Are you out in public or in private at home?

Are you on a romantic date or in a crowded room?

How well do you know each other?

Will a sexual comment make them feel uncomfortable or uneasy on a first date?

Sexuality and sexual intimacy

Thinking about why you want to have sex and talking about it with your partner can help you prepare.

Understanding your body, what you do and do not like, what excites you and how you like to be touched is important. You should feel comfortable before letting your partner touch you.

Privacy can be difficult if you have a lot of care support. Seek out advice and look at sexual guidance, equipment or techniques online that will help you find ways around any barriers.

It can be awkward to ask for help, especially if family members do a lot of your care or you have care workers who are much older than you. You have a right to learn and get help to live independently and experience new sexual or intimate things. You can try getting help from someone else to do this, such as a counsellor, social worker or medical practitioner.

Sex and disability advice

In any relationship, it’s important to respect that you and your partner might be ready to do things at different times. You should do or share things at your own pace.

It’s also important that you do not feel pressured into doing something. You can say ‘no’.

Asking for and giving permission can help you learn what you both like, especially with sex. It can give you the chance to find a way around barriers together.

Talk about your boundaries. Keep checking that what you want to do is OK, unless your partner says that you do not need to ask any more. For example, they’ve said you can hold their hand without asking.

What people have agreed to can change with different situations. For example, if you’ve been drinking alcohol, had an argument or you’re not getting on. Just because you said yes in the past does not mean that you have to say yes again or every time. It’s not a contract, you can say no when you want to.

If you try something new but discover you’re not enjoying it or it’s uncomfortable, it's fine to change your mind. If you do not want to continue, it is OK to say this.

Dating and sex support

Talk about anything to do with dating as a disabled person, sex and relationships in our online community.

Disability Horizons has resources for online dating and a forum.

Read Sam's experience of intimacy and her relationship.

Last reviewed by Scope on: 06/02/2024

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