Does it matter if your partner can see or not?
What underlies the question, 'Is your partner visually impaired or sighted?' Is it a certain level of expectation, a cultural phenomenon or just plain curiosity?
A question often-asked of blind and visually impaired people, by both sighted and other blind people, is "is your partner blind or sighted?" Peter White explores the reasons behind this question, and blind and visually impaired peoples' reaction to it.
Guests: Amie Slavin, Jonathan Mosen and Rob Murthwaite.
Presenter: Peter White
Producer: Lee Kumutat.
In Touch Transcript - 29-08-2017
THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
IN TOUCH Does it matter if your partner can see or not? TX: 29.08.2017 2040-2100 PRESENTER: PETER WHITE PRODUCER: LEE KUMUTAT
If you’re blind or a partially sighted person either dating or in a relationship this is a question you’re going to be asked sooner or later, almost certainly sooner – is she/he, as they grope for the right word, "like you"?
They don’t mean are they six-feet tall or ginger, they mean, are they blind.
That’s if the question comes from someone fully sighted, blind people ask it of each other as well, although, funnily enough, they don’t ask it of sighted people. The question is just framed differently "so have you snared a sighted one then?" is the implication, even if it’s phrased slightly more delicately.
So what lies behind this question? How do we react to it and does it touch on more of our own insecurities than we might care to admit?
Well we found three people who are prepared to explore this with us and to discuss, within reason, their personal lives in that context. Jonathan Mosen was first married to a sighted woman, his current wife is blind. Amie Slavin had visually-impaired boyfriends when she was at school for blind and partially sighted pupils but has since only dated sighted men and was married to one of them. Rob Murthwaite’s sight began to deteriorate in his 30s and he has subsequently only gone out with sighted women but feels this is mainly because of who he’s mixed with rather than an expression of preference.
Rob, if I can come to you first. How do you react to this question, however it’s framed, so is your partner blind?Murthwaite
If it’s in the process of a conversation with a friend or somebody I’m fairly well acquainted with I react to it differently than if it was from somebody I hardly know or never met before.White
If it’s out of the blue – in the street?Murthwaite
I’m offended by it I think.White
Right okay. Amie, what about you and are there different implications in the question if you’re a woman?Slavin
Well it is a question that annoys me, although I can, with my sort of rational self, understand that there is some friendly reasons why people ask that question. If people say to me – is your partner blind – then I’m inclined to go no, is yours because it has that implication.White
So you do ask sighted people in that case occasionally.Slavin
Well only in a sort of prickly way. But I think more seriously though actually I don’t like it because the implication of it is that we should be within the ghetto and that it’s a matter of interest. There are other things that we have in common with people and each one of those could be as interesting as whether or not we’re blind or ginger or left-handed or whatever.White
And is there a gender difference? I was thinking, I suppose, of this idea that you might be protected by a nice sighted partner.Slavin
I guess that there would be an implication as to whether a sighted woman would be taking care of her blind husband. The whole business of the idea that because my partners variously have been sighted that they care for me I find deeply offensive. Recently was dating someone who rang big alarm bells for me when he said to me – because I am quite nurturing in some ways, I’m not all bad – and this guy said to me – oh thank goodness you’ve realised I just need to be looked after.White
Right, so serious alarm bells.Slavin
Well yes, well yeah I mean personally I’m quite obsessed with equality in all sorts of ways which I think does arise from being blind and thinking about these kind of issues. But I’m not interested in either being cared for or taking care in an unequal way.White
Jonathan Mosen is here, joining us from New Zealand, so thank you for that. Some people think this is an inappropriate question to ask anyway and may be that we shouldn’t even be exploring it, it only encourages people. What’s your take on that?Mosen
I think it’s important to explore it, it’s an important cultural phenomenon for blind people. I think based on what the other panellists have said I don’t know whether there is necessarily a gender difference, it’s just expressed slightly differently. So I think I have had people who – when I was married to a sighted person – got some sense of relief at the fact that they found out I had a sighted wife because then they thought I would be nurtured and how can a blind person possibly cook, so I’d have someone who would cook for me and take care of things. But it works in reverse as well. I remember being on a train, I would take a regular commute, and I would get off the train at the end of the journey and often you ride with the same passengers every day and a number of people, who I would sit next to on that train, would say – Oh there’s your friend waiting for you – because they just couldn’t conceive of the fact that a blind guy could nab a sighted wife. I guess they had this idea that we were some sort of tribe and we stuck together. So there are quite extreme interpretations in both directions I think.White
Right, let’s in that case just find out a bit more about all of you and therefore the context that you – that you’re asked this question and indeed how you try to answer it.
I’ll stay with you Jonathan for a moment. Your first wife was fully sighted. Just tell us a bit about the circumstances of that.Mosen
I was in my teens when we met and I think that there is a temptation – I mean obviously a lot of blind/sighted relationships work really well but I think one of the mistakes that I made in retrospect was that I didn’t know myself terribly well and I had a sense of insecurity as a blind person. And so when I found somebody sighted taking an interest in me I mean I was absolutely flattered by that, not to mention of course that – to put it bluntly – suddenly you get access to a set of wheels. That’s not to say that we didn’t love each other very much but there are all those sorts of factors at play. There is lot of room for this sort of mentality to creep in, particularly in a mainstream environment where you may be the only blind person that you know potentially and so you’re surrounded by sighted people and you kind of think well you know I need to be with a sighted person in order to somehow receive fulfilment.White
So you did in a way – you would admit to regarding your sighted wife as a kind of indicator of success on your part, of being integrated?Mosen
And other people did too you see because I mean other blind friends kind of thought wow, that’s pretty impressive, he’s managed to find a sighted girlfriend/fiancé, it was almost like a badge of honour.White
Amie, you initially went to a single sexed special school which went co-ed while you were there. As a teenager what sorts of relationships did you imagine yourself in? I’m not asking you to declare any fantasies, what I want to know is what kind of relationships…Slavin
It’s not that kind of show.White
It’s not that kind of show, no, it’s too early.Slavin
Well I don’t know, what kind of… and I suppose at that age I think I serially imagined being married to several different people but all of them blind because that’s who I was mixing with. And vice versa, I mean since I didn’t make a choice to date only sighted men but I haven’t mixed with blind people since leaving school, not through choice but just through – well because I’ve chosen to do sort of odd things that blind people tend not to do. And I think the idea that to be with a blind person would indicate some particular measure of equality is also wrong, I don’t agree with that and I find myself that I have more fear of inequality and judgement with other blind people than I do with sighted people because we each do blindness differently, to a certain extent, and I would find it a little intimidating, I think, to be dating someone who might be saying – I don’t use a smartphone yet for example, which obviously makes me a pariah…White
I can hear sharp intakes of breath by blind people yeah.Slavin
Exactly you see, exactly you see. I mean if I were to date Jonathan he would despair of me within about 20 minutes because I’m not…Mosen
Yeah, no I have to rule you out Amie I’m afraid.Slavin
But I could date you because I’m hopeless with smart phones, so that’s okay. You see I can completely identify that with Amie, I have mainly had sighted partners but I have had a couple of visually-impaired girlfriends and I was judged as very inadequate by them, in ways that you don’t get judged that way by sighted people who think you’re rather clever, just to be getting out of bed in the morning and breathing and walking along. Which makes life very easy. But I can remember being told all sorts of things I didn’t do right, like hanging the towels up the way they like them hanging and having the phone receiver put down the right way. So I understand that. But Rob is that news to you?Murthwaite
No I think it works the other way round doesn’t it? I’ve got someone new who’s come into my life who’s having to learn all that stuff and I’m having to be very patient and of course I am very patient about where the towels end up or where the toothpaste is.White
Well I’ve never dated a sighted person who ever thought that they would date a blind person. So to that extent the sort of vibe is you’re going to have to tell me what to do here, which isn’t particularly my inclination but of course it’s necessary – we need to explain that it matters when you leave things strewn around the place and stuff.
It’s necessary to have a discussion about it isn’t it, it’s not necessary to dictate.Slavin
No exactly and yeah I mean I think there is occasionally a fear expressed that where there’s a relationship when one person is blind and the other isn’t that the blind person is in some way exploiting and taking advantage of the sighted person and enslaving them and that’s not okay and that’s not where I’m coming from at all.Murthwaite
I think the point you made about the relationship of caring inside a relationship earlier on is an interesting one because I think there is an assumption often that if you’re dating or in a relationship with a non-visually-impaired person that they’re doing all the caring and all the looking after and in my experience that is definitely not the case.White
Because one of the things you’re coming across is how potential partners’ friends and relatives might react to you?Murthwaite
Yes, I think they’re often very concerned about that and particularly relatives of non-VI partners have been very concerned – does that mean you’re going to have to look after him and so on and so forth. But that’s something that you just have to demonstrate that it isn’t the case really.Slavin
It does mean your partner has to be someone who is quite sure of themselves and feels good with themselves, they have to not mind that that is a part of it. But then being in a partnership with anybody is – I mean there’s always stuff to put up with and to learn and to adjust to, isn’t there, that’s being in a relationship.White
Let me bring Jonathan back because you now have a blind wife – how much was that a conscious choice?Mosen
Look it is different I think. I mean I have four children with my first wife and we’re still really good friends and we parent them collectively and it’s fantastic and my kids appreciate how well we get on. But there is a different dynamic. I think that there are certain things that blind people might be more inclined to be interested in – things like a love of radio or sound
or that sort of thing. So there’s a kind of – I wouldn’t perhaps go as far as to say it’s a cultural thing but I do believe that there is a set of common interests that blind people often have. My wife and I are very good friends, we really enjoy each other’s company, we have a lot of laughs about things that I think only a blind person would laugh about or identify with. I don’t think that I went into the relationship thinking – well this woman is blind and I want to be with a blind person. I think that there are certain dynamics that can potentially scuttle a blind/sighted relationship if you’re not careful. For example, and my first wife and I talk about this quite openly now, but I wanted sometimes to play the male – what I perceived to be the male role, in the sense that I would like to have taken her out to dinner sometimes, just take charge, give her the night off and I’d like to order a limo or a nice cab, take her to dinner, just make her feel like she was somebody special. And my first wife’s reaction to that kind of thing was well we’ve got a perfectly good car in the garage, what are we doing wasting money on these sorts of frivolous things when I can drive us there. But you see sometimes those things can create imbalances and although it is a hassle that my current wife and I just can’t get in the car and go somewhere there’s an equality about that as well, which I really do appreciate.Slavin
I have to say I haven’t run into many sighted men who object to you saying I want to really make a fuss of you and treat you like a prince this evening, that isn’t part of my experience. I don’t have an experience resistance to that at all. But no I think any healthy relationship involves an element of caring in all directions and I think as human beings we have different qualities and strengths and characteristics and actually among those things of course blindness is a thing but it’s one of the things and there are others. I mean whether someone earns – I’ve never managed to fall in love with anybody who’s properly solvent to be honest, that’s another issue.Murthwaite
You’re not alone there.Slavin
But whether who’s the cook, who’s nurturing – in most relationships I would suggest there’s a huge element of inequality because that tends to be how things go.Murthwaite
I know that in my relationships with non-VI women I will insist on doing things that sometimes it might be easier for my partner to do because otherwise she ends up doing all the washing up and so on and folding – I don’t want that.White
You see if you foster a culture in a relationship where a sighted partner is doing a lot of that work and is doing a lot of the kind of nurturing then it almost has the potential, I think, to evolve from a loving relationship to almost a parental relationship.White
Can I just ask…Slavin
Isn’t that – sorry – isn’t that to an extent actually just a battle of the genders though continuing, that this is something that women run into? With my feminist hat on I would suggest that a lot of women slip into a parental role around their partners just because that’s – also not all sighted people drive, I’d just like to point out, I’ve dated lots of people who don’t drive. My husband could drive but for years we didn’t have a car. So it isn’t a necessary equation.White
Sighted people who ask this question – is your wife/husband/partner blind – having found that out they’re usually horrified as well because they can’t visualise how a relationship between two blind people can work. A lot think it doubles the trouble and I just wonder what you feel about that. Jonathan, because you’ve been in both relationships.Mosen
I did have one really bizarre situation where I was with my wife and a couple of my children and some random person came up to me and said how irresponsible it was of us to have children and to be trying to take care of them. But as a rule I don’t detect a sense of people being horrified about the fact that Bonnie and I are both blind. I think they actually see us as – we’re a professional couple, we get around in our communities, we’re involved in a lot of business things and I actually think if there’s any reaction at all it’s perhaps a little over the top in terms of aren’t you blind people marvellous, I don’t detect any sense of disdain or anything like that.White
Don’t want to become too sexist about this but I think much more significant is if the male in a heterosexual relationship is actually up for taking an equal responsibility for household stuff and for child rearing. It’s now kind of a given that we’re all trying to earn and a man who expects to be cooked for and cleaned up after and organised and parented by his partner, that’s not a blindness thing, that’s another kind of cultural thing.White
Rob, final question, because you were sighted for a long time and I just wonder what you would imagine a relationship to be if you were both visually-impaired.Murthwaite
Well it would depend on who they were because I think…Mosen
It always depends on who they are.Murthwaite
… at the bottom of the concern is the notion that visually-impaired people aren’t capable of independent living or looking after themselves and I certainly know that I am and therefore it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that I could have a relationship with a visually-
impaired person who also was. In fact I’ve had relationships with non-visually-impaired people who were being completely and utterly useless at it.White
Just one final thing to all of you. Do you think we secretly – by we I mean blind people – secretly believe that marrying another blind person is a failure? Jonathan?Mosen
No absolutely not.White
Simple as that?Mosen
Look I think maybe some people do, but I know a lot of really successful blind couples. So no – I think maybe when you’re very young and impressionable and perhaps you don’t have that strong sense of self, a sense of confidence as a blind person, I think that’s a possibility. But no, as a rule, I don’t think that most blind people think that they’ve failed if they form a relationship with another blind person.White
So why do we hate the question, why do we hate people asking us if our partners… if we don’t really mind and we think it’s fine?Mosen
I don’t actually mind the question but I do think it’s an imposition on our – when you have random strangers asking the question I think it’s an imposition, it crosses a boundary asking a personal question that is no one else’s business. But I find it easier sometimes just to answer the question.White
Amie, you’ve chosen not to date visually-impaired people, could there be an assumption there deeply in your psyche?Slavin
No, well again I haven’t chosen not to, I just haven’t run into them and I might conceivably date someone who’s VI in the future, I don’t know.Mosen
When you get your iPhone Amie.
And Rob, just very quickly, your reaction to this, then we must end?Murthwaite
I think when I first lost my sight I worried about that in fact, whether I should or could have a relationship with a VI person but that was a reflection about how I felt about myself, I think. I think 25-30 years down the line it’s certainly not, no, it’s not a worry for me.White
Okay. We want to hear your reactions, your attitudes and most of all your stories. You can call our actionline on 0800 044 044 for 24 hours after the programme. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org or click on the contact us link from our website – www.bbc.co.uk/intouch – from where you can download and subscribe to the podcast.
From me, Peter White, our guests – Rob Murthwaite, Amie Slavin and Jonathan Mosen – producer Lee Kumutat and the team, goodbye.