Question: For the last five weeks I've been seeing a 19 year-old woman, and I just found out that she has a learning/mental disability. I don't know its title; basically she's 19 and has the mind of a 15 year-old and she can't do things like drive. The only thing I noticed before being told (that was even close to indicating her disability) was how she at times seemed immature for her age.
As a 22 year-old, I wouldn't get involved with an actual 15 year-old. I need to know whether a girl with the mental capacity of a 15 year-old is emotionally prepared to be in an adult relationship. I really care about her and I've always been very sensitive in how I treat her. However, I'm concerned that her feelings are developing more quickly than mine (she wants a relationship with me but I'm undecided on the issue). What special precautions should I take to ensure I don't inflict emotional damage on her? I don't want my involvement in her life to cause her more harm than good.
Answer (1) Thank you so much for your awareness of and tenderness toward the exquisite dilemmas of loving your disabled friend. You come across as a good hearted man who would be a valuable friend. Whatever the ethical concern about the capacity for consent of a 15 year old mind in a 19 year old body (wrenchingly explored in the film of an undiagnosed Apsergers syndrome 16 year old girl: 'Somersault') I read that you and probably her parents and she herself are struggling with closeness and distance. She appears to want more closeness and sooner than you did or do now. This is a common dance in our culture, which I have explored on my website.
Answer provided by Peter Fox, Clinical Psychologist
Answer (2) Boy, this is a tough one! I know from experience that even vague comments about this sort of situation can be seen as loaded with all kinds of judgemental assumptions about other people's capacities, both actual and potential. However, in this case, it really depends on your attitude to what you see as an unequal relationship that may well remain so over time. Clearly you have no wish to hurt your friend, but is this a sufficient reason to pursue or even prolong an arrangement, about which you have doubts and misgivings? Whatever you decide, tell her the truth with sensitivity and compassion. Though the truth can sometimes hurt, most people end up recognising and appreciating honesty.
Answer provided by David White, Psychotherapist
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