How can relationships deal with the issue of grudging consent?

This is the first in a series of essays based on answers I wrote on Quora over the past decade. The original question was from a monogamous person grudgingly agreeing to a polyamorous relationship, but my response resonated with people in a variety of circumstances. It was one of my popular Quora answers, as well as one of the most personally meaningful.

Intro — my story

I’m going to take a stab at this. On the one hand, I agree with many folks who say that grudging consent is not consent. On the other hand, I am in a relationship where resentment and grudgingly dealing with shit is a regular part of our day. Not because of polyamory but because of disability. So I have a slightly different perspective on relationships that include resentment and grudging going-along-with than most people.

So, some background. My partner was not disabled when we entered a relationship together. They were working, had some ongoing health problems. While we had the normal ups and downs, we did okay.

They became disabled over a year, gradually getting worse, then suddenly getting worse, getting better for a little while then getting worse again. We’ve worked hard to keep our relationship going, but it’s been a struggle. I can’t leave them alone with the baby, which means I NEVER go anywhere without the baby along. Half the time they can’t wash their own hair, so I need to wash their hair for them. And there are only so many times a day you can be asked to interrupt what you are doing to get someone else a drink before it starts to grate on you.

We’ve been together for about 7 years now. Their health has varied a great deal over that period: including one hospitalization, numerous ER trips, and brief periods when they’ve been able to put their cane away, watch the kid while I worked a night job, or regularly helped with the housework.

I love them, I am happy to be in a relationship with them, and I resent the hell out of their disability and the demands it makes of me every fucking day.

Obviously, every relationship is different. As I always say: take what is useful, ignore what is not.

Living with Grudging Consent

Every day you choose

This is the most important thing of all relationships—every day you choose to be in that relationship. You didn’t say “yes” once, and that was the end of it. Every day you either choose “I’m in this relationship and I’m going to make it work,” or you choose “I can’t/won’t/don’t want to make this work anymore.” Sometimes you need to say “I’m in this relationship, but I need to take care of myself today, so I’m going to step back and will get back in the harness of making this relationship work tomorrow.” That’s okay. But every day you choose. If everyone involved in a relationship says every day, “I’m going to make this relationship work,” the relationship can last through just about anything.

If the relationship stops being healthy for you, it’s time to choose to stop making it work. Don’t force a relationship to work at the expense of your own health and well-being.

Focus on the good things

Living with and taking care of a disabled partner is its own kind of hell. Especially when you don’t have a diagnosis and have no idea if your partner is suffering from a chronic condition or if they are dying and you don’t even know it. You can’t think about it too much, or you will drive yourself crazy. Similarly, a mono partner in mono/poly can’t focus on dates and fears that their poly partner will “find someone better” or other negatives of mono/poly. Focus on the good in your relationship. (Etc for other kinds of relationships.)

(They make me laugh. No one ever made me laugh like this before. They understand me, my depression, my anxiety, my PTSD, and they accept all of it. And they try. Always, they try to do better and be better. Some days, I’m afraid they’ll break themself trying but better, so much better, that they try than that they give up.)

Find ways to adapt

How does disability (poly) change your relationship? How can you change your routines and expectations to work with, rather than against, those changes?

Trust

I need to trust that my partner is doing everything he can. That when they tell me they can’t get to the kitchen to get themself a glass of water, they really are in that much pain. That when they say they can’t wash their hair, they really can’t reach their arms over their head. A mono partner needs to trust that when their poly partner says, “I love you and I won’t leave you,” they mean it. That a poly partner who says “Having sex with someone else doesn’t change how I feel about you,” is telling the truth. The mono partner may not understand how their poly partner can feel this way, but they need to trust that it is true. (Etc for other kinds of relationships.)

I never consented to life with disability.

I live with my partner’s disability grudgingly, resentfully, and sometimes painfully. But I love my partner, we are good together, and to be with them I put up with their disability. We talk about it. I cry on their shoulder about how I resent it and how much it demands of me, and they don’t blame me or get defensive because they understand. Sometimes they cry on my shoulder about how they hate hurting me, how they feel like I should leave them and be with someone better because I deserve more. And I hold them and tell them I love them, and being with them is worth all this and more.

I can’t tell you how to turn grudging consent into acceptance. I’m still trying to find the trick to that myself. But I hope this helps.

Just remember, every day you choose. And if there is often something to be celebrated in choosing to continue a difficult relationship, there is no shame in deciding that you can’t anymore. We can only give so much without harming ourselves, after all.

Personal update:

I wrote this answer almost 6 years ago, and a lot has happened since then. I mentioned in this answer that we didn’t have a diagnosis and so didn’t know if my partner was dealing with a chronic condition or something life-threatening. It turned out to be a whole constellation of different problems: some chronic, some treatable. One of the treatable ones was life-threatening, but since it was treatable, that’s not a concern anymore (thank god!). They are still disabled, but they better now, and we have significantly more support. So the grudging going-along-with and resentment I struggled with mostly is gone. Mostly.

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