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Posted By Benjamin Meyer on 04/01/2020

Love, Sex, and Learning Differences; Relationship Success for Those Who Learn Differently

Love, Sex, and Learning Differences; Relationship Success for Those Who Learn Differently

    Individuals with learning differences have the same desire for intimacy and connection as anyone else. Many are also kind, loyal, and sexual partners. However, in my experience as a marriage and family therapist, there are specific steps that partners and therapists can take to help the relationship be successful by understanding the romantic and sexual needs of these individuals, while keeping in mind that there is no one size fits all approach. I argue that there are frequently overlooked advantages to a relationship with someone who learns differently. Ultimately, individuals with learning differences are just as capable of being romantically successful as anyone else.   

       It is important to acknowledge that many people with learning differences face challenges finding a romantic relationship. One 2005 study in the United Kingdom found that only three percent of these individuals are in a serious relationship (Emerson, Malam, & Spencer, 2005). Statistics in the United States are thought to be similar. The challenges presented by learning differences can affect a person’s self-esteem, but may also present new obstacles when he or she is in a relationship. The emotional impact of previous experiences of rejection and isolation, as well as the practical elements of managing a first relationship later in life, may require thoughtful engagement by their partners and therapists. Some individuals with learning differences are classified as “late bloomers.” This label may raise questions such as “why has everyone else figured this out,” or “am I capable of being in a relationship if it has taken me so long to find one?” Therapists and the partners of those with learning differences can support the person by expressing reassurance and acceptance of his or her past, validating previous struggles, and also reminding him or her that becoming romantically involved later in life is not an indication his or her capacity to be a loving partner or the potential success of the relationship.    

     The challenges faced by couple in which one or both individuals have a learning difference extends to the practical realm. These deficits can create obstacles in taking care of everyday chores, finances, and managing parenting responsibilities. It is critical for both partners to communicate their respective needs and expectations, as well to understand their limitations. During this process, a marital therapist can also help to create daily routines and reminders regarding chores and responsibilities, as well as identify how one person could provide assistance to the other. At times, the person with a learning difference may feel that he or she is being condescended to, or that he or she is responsible for all of the problems in the relationship. “A person with learning disabilities may be frustrated about the way a partner provides assistance by feeling stifled when too much is routinely provided, which may give rise to the perception that he or she is stupid or being treated like a child. Also, he or she may feel unfairly blamed for relationship problems, such as not listening or trying hard enough, which may be due to his/her learning disabilities” (Miller, 2019). It is also important to note that there may be times when the partners of individuals with a learning differences may feel frustrated by the uncertainty of how to best help their loved ones, and this is valid to express in marital therapy as well. Sometimes, it is beneficial to set up a regular time for both individuals to meet and discuss their expectations regarding household chores. Couples therapy can be effective by helping these partners understand regarding everyday practical strengths, limits, and communication needs.

    Sensory sensitivity is an important aspect to consider for either a marriage therapist or the partner of someone with a learning difference.  Individuals with learning differences have an acute sense of noise, touch, and smell. Therefore, they benefit from support in navigating intense sensory environments, such as crowded social engagements and loud or congested areas.  As stated by the blogger Julia Lange with Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NVLD) in a letter to her future partner, “I get overwhelmed very easily in social situations. Between the crowds, the sensory overload, and my NVLD making it hard to process everyone’s body language and intentions, I will either meltdown or completely shut down. When I tell you that I need to leave, it is not something that should be taken lightly” (Langue, 2018). Having a kind and supportive partner can make a significant difference in navigating the world with sensory sensitivity. It is also important not to assume that one understands the everyday experiences of individuals with sensory sensitivity; each person is unique, and so are his or her challenges. As is the case regarding everyday chores, a person can feel misunderstood or condescended to if incorrect assumptions are made.   

    A common misconception is that individuals with learning differences are not sexual. In fact, many people with learning differences do not receive comprehensive sex education. Sam Abdulla of the Conversation states, “When the topic of sex is raised for people with learning disabilities, it is usually accompanied by the word ‘risk.’ This, too, often leads to a flurry of assessments and investigations, with a number of people suddenly declaring a vested interest in what happens between someone else’s sheets. All the while, the person in question is expressing entirely normal and appropriate feelings that they were entitled to be taught about and to experience but weren’t and aren’t” (Abdulla, 2017). The reality is that many individuals with learning differences are sexual, make great lovers, and are perfectly capable of raising children and having a family. However, these feelings may have never been encouraged. Allowing a space for them to be expressed in therapy is beneficial not only for the person with a learning difference, but also for his or her partner, facilitating physical intimacy between them. Due to the fact that some of the individuals may begin to engage in sexual activity later in life, and may also experience sensory sensitivity and motoric challenges, introducing intimate touch in a gradual and supportive fashion can be helpful for the couple as well, while introducing it too soon can be overwhelming for the person and his or he partner.

    It is also important to note that asexuality is more common among those on the spectrum (Synapse Reconnecting Lives, 2008). Therefore, awareness and knowledge of asexual relationships is vital for a marital therapist working with learning differences. In general, since there are diverse sexual identities among people with learning differences, and it is helpful to maintain an open and curious stance that supports the person’s unique sexual expression. Both male and female late bloomers may experience shame or anxiety regarding their sexuality, but the emotional impact of being male and suffering from a learning difference bears special mention. Due to the fact that societal values correlate sexual prowess with masculinity, therapists and the partners of individuals with learning differences should be especially sensitive to feelings of emasculation among men with learning differences, validating any feelings of inferiority, while also addressing the distorted thoughts that trigger those feelings.   

    There are untold advantages of dating someone with a learning difference. Since many of these individuals have felt different, struggled in school, and been misunderstood, their experiences can lead to a greater sense of empathy and sensitivity for their partner’s challenges, ultimately deepening an emotional connection.  Also, many individuals with learning differences have learned to be resilient after setbacks or obstacles, and they may be able to share some of the techniques they have learned with their partners. Lastly, they are also often highly versatile. For example, a person with dyslexia may have developed a strong predilection for drawing and artistic expression, while another person with some visual or spatial difficulties may use their vast vocabulary to acquire knowledge regarding history, the arts, and the world around them in general. Some may also have developed specific interests and competencies that they would like to share with their partner. In general, there are many assets and strengths that a person with a learning difference may offer a romantic partner, and a marital therapist can help to highlight these advantages as well.  

    Individuals with learning differences can face many challenges in finding and maintaining a romantic relationship, but that does not mean that they cannot be overcome, or that there are not many assets that they have and are able to offer others. Therapist and the partners of these individuals can help by allowing the person to tell his or her own story regarding struggles in the past, what kind of support is needed in the current relationship, and how he or she defines his or her sexuality. Therapist and partners can also highlight the strengths that this individual may have, and how they can be used to his or her advantage in a relationship. Individuals with learning differences are just as capable of having romantic and sexual relationships as anyone else, and competent marital therapists can help to support them in accomplishing their relationship goals.

Written by Benjamin Meyer, LCSW. He has practice locations in Midtown, the Upper East Side and Teaneck NJ. He has experience working with a wide range of couples and individuals. View his profile on our Registry by clicking on   https://www.marriagefriendlytherapists.com/new-york/new-york/couples-counseling/benjamin-meyer-1711

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