Caregivers impact intimate relationships of persons with ID


Elizabeth Rushbrooke, PhD
Lancaster University, England

There is not much research in the area of intimate relationships among people with intellectual disabilities (ID). Existing research suggests that people with ID value and want intimate relationships, but they have difficulty in establishing (meeting people and starting a relationship) and maintaining such relationships. This may be because of a lack of confidence in their ability to do so, and also due to a lack of social and practical support.

What did you do in your research?
I spoke to nine adults with ID about their experiences of intimate relationships in one-to-one interviews (in England). Each interview lasted between 27-55 minutes. I recorded the interviews and then analyzed them by listening and transcribing them, reading and re-reading them, and then looking at the similarities and differences between what each adult had said and writing these down as 'themes'.

What did you find out?
Four themes were identified in the analysis of the data:  1. ‘I Want a New Girlfriend’: Desiring Relationships Participants explained that intimate relationships were desired and important to them because they fulfilled their needs for company, support, love and affection. 2. ‘I Were Boy Mad’: Expressing Sexuality  Participants talked about how they expressed their sexuality, along with their feelings of fear and embarrassment relating to sexual expression. Sexual identity or orientation was explicitly mentioned by four participants, with three having experienced relationships with both male and female partners. 3. ‘We’ll Go Out with Each Other as Boyfriend and Girlfriend’: Having Relationships Participants’ account of relationships followed a process; finding a partner; starting a relationship; having a relationship and ending a relationship. 4. ‘It’s Not Fair when I Can’t Find Anyone’: Who Has Control? Participants discussed the degree of control they felt they had with regard to the choices they made about intimate relationships. Choices were constrained by the person themselves (not being aware of their rights for example), family, caregivers, services or society.

What are the take-home messages?
The experience and psychology of sexuality and intimate relationships are very similar for people with ID and people who do not. However, the main difference was in the impact that others have on intimate relationships of persons with ID as opposed to those without ID. Caregivers along with services for persons with ID have a responsibility to help people with ID to develop and maintain relationships as it is their human right to do this. Sometimes trying to help people with ID to do this can mean that people with ID have to deal with a level of scrutiny in their relationships that others do not have. The success of this study provides encouraging evidence that listening and responding to people with ID about these issues may help empower them (and their caregivers) in managing their expression of sexuality and intimate relationships. 

To learn more about these findings contact Elizabeth Rushbrooke.

Full Journal Article
Rushbrooke, E., Murray, C., & Townsend, S. (2014). The experiences of intimate relationships by people with intellectual disabilities: A qualitative study. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 27(6), 531–541.