I’m 43 years old and I’m a divorced mother of two boys. It just so happens that I can’t walk at all, but that doesn’t prevent me from doing most things by myself: living, eating, shopping, driving, and even traveling the world. I’ve been divorced for three years now, and while I’ve had several first dates and a few very short-lived flings during that time, I’ve completely lost interest in pursuing anything resembling a serious relationship. While many of my peers are trying to find a man who can stay away from Tinder for more than a day and actually reply to text messages, I’m spending four months out of the year (combined) in foreign countries with only my power wheelchair or electric scooter for company. And I wouldn’t change a thing.
Dating when you’re a wheelchair user or have any kind of disability comes with its own unique challenges, but I have plenty of friends who are much younger and quite able-bodied who are dealing with the same bullshit. I’ve read articles ad nauseam that explain how the hyperavailability of women today is training men to avoid commitment, and how online dating teaches all of us that the “next best thing” is only one swipe away. Women don’t need to get married in 2018 for the same reasons they had in the fifties and sixties. We can make our own income, start our own careers, and carve our own paths. We can be mothers without being wives. We can hire people to do any physical work at home that we can’t do ourselves. Yet, many of us long for companionship in many aspects of our lives, and men seem less and less interested in sticking it out with just one person for any length of time.
I was married for ten years, and prior to that I was pretty much a serial dater without a solid relationship record. Despite the fact my marriage ended in divorce, I’m forever grateful for the two amazing children that came out of it. However, my experience, combined with viewing so many other marriages and relationships through the “reality” lens, made me realize that I have zero interested in getting remarried, or even living with anyone. That being said, I still wanted a boyfriend to spend time with, go out to dinner and concerts and sporting events with, have romantic and intimate moments with, and just have a really great mental connection and conversations with. How hard could it be to find a guy who wanted to date a woman without any danger of it becoming a serious relationship?
Well, much harder than you’d think. Shortly after my divorce and move to Florida, I started traveling more often, and by year two I was visiting 17 countries in 12 months. I was home for a week here or two weeks there, but rarely for even a month at a time. I’d connect with someone on Bumble or OKCupid, and either they’d disappear once I mentioned meeting in person, or the date would be postponed until after my return – by which time I’d have completely lost interest. A lot of men seem to like the idea of a strong and independent woman, but not many will have the patience to work within the lifestyle of a woman who travels for a living, let alone a woman with a disability who is totally okay traveling around the world by herself.
So after two very frustrating years of trying to find some kind of romantic partner, I just stopped trying. I deleted all my online dating apps, and even lost most interest in my usual social activities with friends. My social circles aren’t great pools for potential dating partners anyway, but I went from going out three or four nights a week my first two years post-divorce to mustering up the energy to make myself halfway presentable maybe once a month. Not only was I rarely home (and often tired or recuperating from travel when I was); I seemed to have less in common with my friends every time I saw them, and fewer new things to talk about. I had gone from 40 years of being a highly extroverted social butterfly to being a homebody – much of which resulted from my decision to turn travel into a new career in my middle age.
I traveled alone before I got married and while I still walking prior to being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, so I already knew I enjoyed it. While I had traveled alone domestically for work with a walker and a few times with my scooter, I had never traveled internationally as a full-time wheelchair user. I went big with that one in February 2016 by hauling my ass 16 hours non-stop across the world to Dubai to visit some friends. I figured if I could make that trip work, I could go almost anywhere. And I did.
It’s hard to explain the level of confidence I derive from traveling alone while being unable to walk. I’m lucky that I have enough physical ability to bathe, dress myself, transfer into a bed, etc., which makes solo travel logistically possible. Many wheelchair users can’t do this. However, I’m still a smallish disabled American woman traveling alone, which makes me extremely vulnerable. Some people think I have no fear, or that I’m exceptionally brave for doing this. Trust me, I’m popping Ativan before every trip and trying not to lose my shit when my plane drops a few thousand feet in turbulence over the Pacific with nowhere to make an emergency landing. I’ve just become addicted to the rush of successfully exploring a new country knowing (a) I can’t walk, (b) I got to see most of the same things able-bodied people did, and (c) I’m now in a professional position to help other wheelchair users do the same.
Now, imagine the conversation between me and a guy I met online on a first (and likely last) date. He’s okay with the MS and wheelchair part (or else we wouldn’t be on the date), so that doesn’t even come up. He tells me about his job in IT or sales or whatever. I tell him I’m still a little jet lagged from my three-week solo trip to New Zealand, Singapore, and Hong Kong the previous week. He tells me about his coworker, who is a total jerk and is making his life in the office miserable. I tell him about the conversation I had in Ljubljana with a Slovenian and a Bosnian refugee regarding the (surprising to me) success of socialism in their part of the world. I want to relate in a dating context, and I want to connect both mentally and emotionally with someone. But the more I travel – especially alone – the less potential there seems to be for that to happen with men who have a more typical American lifestyle.
They say you can always tell what a person’s priorities are by looking at where they spend their time and their money. My two sons always come first (as evidenced by their private school tuition bill and Disney cruise invoice, apparently). Then everything afterwards is related to travel. The only clothes or shoes I buy anymore are for trips where the items will be specifically needed. I’m one of those “eat to live” rather than “live to eat” people, and I don’t spend much on social outings anymore. When I’m abroad, I always spend more on souvenirs for a few close family members and friends than myself because I like showing the people I still am really connected to that I think about them when I’m gone.
While I would still love to find Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome for some great companionship when I’m home, it’s not my priority right now. As long as I can physically travel, I don’t know that it will ever be. There are things I miss about being in a relationship, but not enough to sacrifice the freedom and confidence and sheer happiness I feel when experiencing a new destination. So until I run out of money or my body runs out of gas, I’m perfectly happy continuing to fly solo.