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Is it wrong for my sister-in-law to date a retarded man?
August 11, 2009 6:45 AM   Subscribe

My sister-in-law has started dating a mildly retarded man. This strikes me as very, very wrong. Am I a bigot, or is this a well-founded concern?

She's nearly 30, and has been coddled by her parents to a degree that has stunted her growth, emotionally and developmentally. She still lives with her parents, doesn't drive, leaves the house only for her job (full-time, caring for the elderly with Alzheimer's in a retirement facility), and I suspect she's chronically depressed. My wife and I are working on her (teaching her to develop life goals, encourage her to make friends, encouraging her to seek therapy, and so in), but FWIW, she's got a college degree, she's actually pretty outgoing, and is a regular churchgoer. Fundamentally, there's nothing wrong with her that couldn't be cured with a year of living on her own and a couple of years of therapy.

This guy lives in a group home. He works at a minimum wage job at the age of 30. I'd be surprised if he had a high school degree. He's not capable of driving. You might not know he was retarded in a conversation of a minute or two, but much longer than that and it becomes clear that something is wrong with him. His two best friends have Down's syndrome; their first date involved hanging out with them (after which he immediately started referring to her as "my girlfriend"). He's perfectly nice, apparently harmless, and she thinks he's sweet.

I find this horrifying for multiple reasons, but to get to the crux of my question, this seems exploitative and utterly inappropriate. If she were dating somebody with paralysis, blindness, or deafness, I can't see why I'd have any problem with it. But to date (with marriage her single-minded goal) a retarded man is in a totally different realm, for ethical and societal reasons that I can't quite put my finger on. Should I just get over it, or is this fundamentally wrong for her to do?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (58 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe they really connect and that is all there is to it. He is sweet to her and isn't always telling her what's wrong with her life. Maybe he makes her feel like she's got her crap together and is doing alright.
posted by ian1977 at 6:49 AM on August 11, 2009

Does she appear to be happy? If yes, leave it alone.

I understand your distress, but it's not your decision to make.
posted by Pragmatica at 6:52 AM on August 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

Has she asked your opinion? Until then, keep it to yourself.
posted by dancinglamb at 6:54 AM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

You don't sound bigoted so much as condescending ("My wife and I are working on her.") I think you need to step back and realize that this woman is not your child, your pet, or in fact your responsibility, and she is free to seek happiness her own way. As is he, even if you don't understand or approve.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:54 AM on August 11, 2009 [70 favorites]

Developmentally they both sound like they are pretty close on a couple of levels.

Not saying that your sister couldn't or won't "grow out of this," but what if she doesn't? What if "Corky" becomes your brother-in-law? What are you going to do then?

Let your sister live her life. It sounds like she's already had enough people meddling in it already (your parents) - let her make her own mistakes.
posted by wfrgms at 6:54 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

But to date (with marriage her single-minded goal) a retarded man is in a totally different realm, for ethical and societal reasons that I can't quite put my finger on.

So is it your opinion then that any kind of retardation means the person is condemned to a lonely existence without the any romance or love, ever? That's one cold outlook. Maybe you ought to think on that a bit.
posted by splice at 6:59 AM on August 11, 2009 [7 favorites]

Fundamentally, there's nothing wrong with her. Period.

The world has all sorts of people and letting others (even in-laws) live their own variation of Life is what keeps each other from becoming boring and nosy.
posted by Doug Stewart at 7:03 AM on August 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

Maybe he makes her feel like she's got her crap together and is doing alright.

I think this is exactly the ethical problem you're trying to put your finger on, OP -- that if there isn't a compatible level of intellectual curiosity, and they aren't able to converse on levels your sister-in-law is interested in and accustomed to conversing on, you're wondering if she is just using him to feel better about herself.

I wonder if there's an association that advocates for the mentally retarded that might have some advice on dating and relationships? Your wife could bring her sister those concerns, along with some background, and still be treating her like an adult. It's her call what to do about it all, but there's nothing illegitimate about a family member expressing concerns.
posted by palliser at 7:07 AM on August 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

I believe you are right to be concerned about the exploitation of persons who are not quite fully capable on engaging the adult world on their own. You might even be right to be concerned that your sister-in-law has some issues to work through. However, this relationship is not necessarily exploitation, is not necessarily counter to her working through her issues, and is not necessarily your responsibility.

Mentally retarded adults often have romantic relationships. Sometimes they are the same sort of boyfriend-girlfriend relationships that third-graders have; sometimes they are more than that. Mentally retarded adults have jobs, lives, and all sorts of relationships outside those they have with their families and caretakers, and--shockingly--they have them with people who are not mentally retarded. It is usually someone's responsibility--much like a parent's responsibility--to make sure that mentally retarded adult stays safe and makes good decisions; it is not yours in this case. If you are concerned, talk to this man's family.

If your sister-in-law and this man are connecting on a real level, let them connect. Everyone needs human contact and everyone deserves human contact with people who treat them like someone valuable. If your sister-in-law is not treating him like someone who is valuable or is treating him like an inferior, or a puppy or a kindergartner who brings her flowers from the playground, then you should talk to her about how she's treating this person.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:08 AM on August 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

First of all, what does your wife think? This is her sibling, not yours.

On the one hand, Hollywood has taught us that the mentally-handicapped guy with a heart of gold is a saint who should be trusted with relationships, small children, puppies, and the nuclear codes, because they do no wrong and love and trust everyone with 100% of their being and, hey, no worries, whatever makes you happy.

On the other hand, you do have a cause for concern because if this relationship develops to the point where procreation becomes a possibility, then, depending on the health of your wife's parents, there is the remote likelihood that a child will exacerbate any possible mental health issues your sister-in-law has, and the state may find the father lacking in necessary parental skills. Meaning, there is the very offhand chance that you and your spouse may find yourself either legally (unlikely) or morally (a bit more likely, but still not very likely) responsible for any child resulting from this relationship. Though that's a long way down the road, and although I'm inferring a lot (for instance, your sister-in-law may have absolutely no mental health issues), the fact is something similar to this did happen to someone in my family, many years ago. The father ran away, the mother had a nervous breakdown, and grandma and grandpa raised the daughter for the first few years of her life until it was obvious that she had severe mental and emotional disabilities, at which point she was taken away to state facility. Bad story, awful, no good comes of it to even think about it. But stuff like that happens.

Anyway, your sister-in-law probably just enjoys the attention she is getting from this guy. That will wear off after awhile. I don't think you should be worried, but I do want to say that I understand why you are concerned, and I don't think you're an evil person for having such thoughts. You want the best for her, and you want her to grow up, but the fact is, she has to live her own life and make her own decisions and learn from them.
posted by billysumday at 7:08 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't think this is fundamentally wrong for her to do--she's not dating him to exploit him or take advantage of him. She feels comfortable with him and thinks he's sweet and nice to her--which is much better than dating a controlling abuser, in my opinion.

If you get involved, it seems like you'd be no better than her controlling, coddling parents, which is what put her in a situation where she lives at home at 30 and doesn't drive. You disapprove of how they treated her, so why are you trying to mimic it?
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:09 AM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

It depends on whether she's actually exploiting him and it doesn't sound like she is. Retarded is like short. We're all a little retarded, it's just a question of degree.

I can understand being driven slightly nuts by her life, it's understandable to want to 'fix' her, but she's thirty years old and unless she has suffered some trauma that needs to be recovered from, she really needs to make her own choices.

I'd be freaked out too, but I think you need to work on letting go of feeling responsible for her life.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:10 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I'm not saying no neurotypical person should ever date a non-neurotypical person, just that there are extra concerns about exploitation there, depending on the severity of the impairment (it seems that when the genders are reversed, people tend to recognize that more easily), and it might be well to talk to people who are versed in these issues.
posted by palliser at 7:10 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Please don't refer to him as retarded.

My sister has developmental disabilities, but for the last 6 months has become engaged to a guy who I do not approve of - he takes advantage of her and basically uses her as a babysitter for his 3 children. He has friends who have been in and out of jail, and he may have been too, but my sister won't tell anyone the truth.

So I basically have your concerns, in reverse. I think she should be dating someone in a similar situation to herself, not this guy who has immense problems and complications that my sister really does not need. But she's obsessed with marriage and believes she'll never find anyone better.

But ultimately, and it is so hard for me to admit and to say, she has to choose what she wants. And so does your sister.

Unless she wants my advice, I can't give it. We have grown apart over the years and it has been difficult for me, but this is the path she has chosen for herself.

Unless she's in some kind of danger, support her until she asks your advice.
posted by wingless_angel at 7:13 AM on August 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

I can't help thinking the replies thus far would be different if the genders were reversed.

Relationships are nominally between 'equals' and you don't see them as such which makes you uneasy. That's fine, but not your call to make. If they're happy and not showing any unhealthy signs, I'd just wish them the best.
posted by anti social order at 7:13 AM on August 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

In the long term a big intellectual gulf might cause relationship problems; but fundamentally, they would be her problems, not yours. They might work out as a couple. They might not. They've got the right to find that out for themselves without you sticking your oar in.

Do you think she's exploiting this man simply because he's got a lower IQ? Because if he's happily calling her his girlfriend and introducing her to his friends he doesn't sound like he feels exploited.

There are some nasty cases where people with learning disabilities have been exploited by partners without LD - milk them financially for everything they've got, then leave. Your sister doesn't sound like she'd even consider doing anything like that.

Summary: get over yourself.
posted by Coobeastie at 7:14 AM on August 11, 2009

this seems exploitative and utterly inappropriate

There really isn't enough information here to agree or disagree with this statement. What's coming through loud and clear in your question is frustration with your sister-in-law. (Which, as pointed out previously - it's her life. Unless she's asked for your help changing it, take a deep breath and a step back.) Is it a genuine relationship? Can you trust yourself to determine whether or not it's a genuine relationship, understanding that "genuine" != "the relationship I think my sister-in-law should have"? If your sister-in-law is dealing with this man honestly and on a level appropriate to his understanding, then I don't see an ethical problem. If she's not manipulating him, being cruel to him, or being completely unrealistic about his capabilities in this relationship, then this is your issue to get over, not hers.

I can understand your concern - the power differential between the two could potentially be very unbalanced - but you're not making a concrete case for that happening here. Based on what you've said about your sister-in-law's work and personal life, it sounds like this relationship could be just fine for both parties.
posted by EvaDestruction at 7:16 AM on August 11, 2009

If it works for the two of them, there's nothing wrong with it. And ultimately this is their decision. That "we're working on her" expression in your question brought me to a halt as I read. It's nice that you care about this woman and are trying to help her, but maybe your attitude towards her could do with some adjusting.

I have a friend who has an at least average IQ, probably higher, and who married a guy who probably has an IQ on the borderline of being handicapped. They've been married for something like 12 years now, and were together maybe three years before that. She is a very controlling and self-absorbed person, and I think all she really wanted in a man was that he let her run their lives and be her audience. He's willing to do that, and moreover he's a sweet-natured, hard-working, conscientious and good-looking guy. Her former relationships were blitzkriegs; in his he got used for sex and then dumped a lot. So... maybe they are right for each other. It seems to be working. They seem happy, and they've got a nice home and good life together. Not my cup of tea at all, but it's also not my life so my preferences in tea aren't even really relevant.

There can be very different dynamics in relationships. Try to keep an open mind and you might learn something here.
posted by orange swan at 7:30 AM on August 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

This sounds sketchy to me, just because of the power differential. At first I thought, "what's the harm?" then I realized that if the genders were switched I would find it creepy as

Maybe get another opinion from someone who knows more about it, knows the people involved.

I don't think you're overreacting. Seems to me like it is normal to be worried in a situation like this.
posted by kathrineg at 7:37 AM on August 11, 2009

Remember that what you are also saying is that the mildly "retarded" man can never have a relationship with anyone who isn't "retarded."

Is that fair?
posted by Ironmouth at 7:37 AM on August 11, 2009

As the brother of someone with serious developmental delays - which is to say the brother of someone who had two kids and then dumped the kids with her husband, and ran off to learn to be a rodeo barrel racer out in the country - I fully understand your concern. And yet, I'm here to tell you that no matter what you do, it wont be the right thing.

If you agonize over this, making impassioned pleas to your sister-in-law and laying out all the reasons why this is a bad idea, it will only do a handful of things - and none of them good. It will drive a wedge between you. It will inspire her to chase after this man harder. It will take up your precious time, wasting it with trivialities. And ultimately it will prevent you from being what your sister-in-law needs: a supportive and healthy family.

If you say nothing, she may still pursue him. She may still marry him. And she may still have children with him. And he may still live up to whatever doomsday scenario you are playing out in your head. But the good news is that the odds are lower that she will do that simply in an effort to assert her independence from you and from her family.

The doomsday scenarios can be terrifying. What if they have children and pass on the disability? What if he becomes violent when he can't argue on her intellectual level in a heated discussion? What if they are incapable of supporting each other and become a burden to the family? What if, what if, what if... But the truth is that those scenarios could (and do!) play out in relationships between two perfectly "healthy" people.

We're all just longing for a bit of companionship, and we are often blinded by that desire. Let your sister-in-law try for it also, with full knowledge that people change and grow and learn more about themselves by trial and error. This may be one of her trials. This may be an error. Or this may be the love of her life.
posted by greekphilosophy at 7:38 AM on August 11, 2009 [11 favorites]

Keep in mind that you might not be able to do anything about it, and disapproving of romantic relationships tends to cement them. Best thing to do might be shut up and put up, for the time being.
posted by kathrineg at 7:38 AM on August 11, 2009

I have no opinion on your question "Should I just get over it, or is this fundamentally wrong for her to do?", but you could do some research, maybe talk to people who are experts, or at least familiar with the type of situation you describe. You may find some data that will help you decide how to feel about this situation going forward.

Although you didn't say what type of disability this man has, one place to start is this list of organizations posted by the National Down Syndrome Society.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:39 AM on August 11, 2009

He's perfectly nice, apparently harmless, and she thinks he's sweet.

I find this horrifying for multiple reasons.

Very clearly your issue, not theirs. I hope one day you can look back on this question and hear the way it sounds to everyone else. I can relate feeling concerned or protective about who my family members are dating, but your extreme reaction to this is inappropriate.
posted by hermitosis at 7:50 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd be freaked out if any of my siblings started dating somebody that was developmentally disabled. But, there's really not much wrong with this situation, so long as your sis-in-law isn't really taking advantage of him - in a use-him-and-lose-him sort of way. The "this seems exploitative" is the worst part of the social equation, but I'm not sure I see it here.

There are a lot of bad relationships out there. I understand being protective. But, I mean, in the larger scheme of things, she is going to get into relationships, some of which will not end well. So will he. Why not let them do it together? You never know how it might turn out.
posted by jabberjaw at 7:59 AM on August 11, 2009

The main concern I would have in this situation is whether he's capable of informed consent. He lives in a group home. What do his caregivers think of their relationship?
posted by crankylex at 8:07 AM on August 11, 2009 [7 favorites]

We are all reading a lot into this very difficult question, myself included.

In the US typical nuclear family scheme of things, this is not your business. But not everyone lives that way, even in the US or similar countries. To you and your wife and her family and sister, this might very well be your business. There is no way of knowing without details about the dynamics of your family, how yall all think of "family," sister-in-law included.

That said, I completely agree with palliser. This seems like a question for your family to discuss with a professional. "What kind of professional?" is the question.

Consult your family doctor or the nurse line provided by insurance companies if you are in the US. Either should be able to direct you to the kind of professional guidance you need.

But I would start with websites for caregivers of special needs adults (or whatever you want to call adults like your sister-in-law's boyfriend). You may even find a forum to pose this question.

And if you practice a religion, you might also speak to clergy for peace of mind.

Finally, your concerns do NOT make you a judgmental, condescending, or a bad person. This is an unusual situation, made even more complex because your sister-in-law comes from a very sheltered background, and you're not really sure what level she's functioning at herself. Now she has a potentially sexual relationship, likely one of her first if not first of its kind. At the very least, someone needs to take her to Planned Parenthood and familiarize her with birth control. Good luck and don't beat yourself up for asking a really hard question.
posted by vincele at 8:09 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

She's nearly 30, and has been coddled by her parents to a degree that has stunted her growth, emotionally and developmentally. She still lives with her parents, doesn't drive, leaves the house only for her job (full-time, caring for the elderly with Alzheimer's in a retirement facility), and I suspect she's chronically depressed.

are you sure she isn't just a little developmentally disabled herself? You say her growth has been stunted by the way her parents have treated her, but perhaps they've treated her that way because of her natural capacities?

I appreciate your concerns, and would think it odd if intellectual but depressed people I knew were deeply emotionally involved with those whose mental capacities were severely limited, because it would strike me as setting up an unfair power dynamic and not being a good motivational source, so increasing depression. Whether I would say anything would depend on particulars, but I don't think you're wrong to notice if you think your sister in law is an intellectual sort.

However, you haven't given specific indications that your sister in law is interested in mental pursuits. She has a college degree, but having taught adjunct in local colleges, I know it depends heavily on what kind of college it was whether that is meaningful or basically just more high school. Otherwise she likes caring for Alzheimer patients, going to church, and staying home with her parents. Maybe you are projecting your own desires onto her life a little bit. She could have a very average or low average IQ and be okay with a life that isn't focused on ideas or achievements. She could just want to find someone nice and be happy and maybe have some babies and that's it. No need to even learn to drive.

So just check that you're really thinking of her, and not what you would want if you were in her position. You might have cause for concern, but try to see it from her perspective first.
posted by mdn at 8:19 AM on August 11, 2009 [10 favorites]

Could I gently suggest that maybe your sister-ij-law has more profound stuff going on mentally than being the victim of coddling? A lot of people are overprotected as children but still act on the urge to strike out on their own independently.

Look, I don't know your sister-in-law, and perhaps I would share your opinion that there's nothing wrong with her that living on her own and therapy couldn't fix. But you seem to be very clear on categorizing her as "normal" and him as "having something wrong with him," despite the fact that you characterize her as emotionally and developmentally stunted, unwilling to live independently, and suffering from chronic depression.

I'm not entirely certain where the concerns over exploitation are coming in, but I think that you're implying that your sister-in-law has decided to pursue this man because he's a "sure thing?" If she's using him, then yes, of course that's creepy and wrong. Or she may really be developing feelings for him. If so, maybe she's framing it in more blasé terms because she herself, like a lot of people, are uncomfortable with neurotypical people dating developmentally disabled people?

Regardless, I think that when you talk to her about this, you're going to need to suppress your visceral reaction to her new relationship. Getting her defensive is no way to discuss your concerns with her.
posted by desuetude at 8:28 AM on August 11, 2009

I know that this goes against the grain, but I find myself agreeing with you.

I'm not sure of any way to intervene that wouldn't really get your sister totally hopping mad at you. But, you should at least be honest, and let her know somehow that you disapprove, and why. She should know that you're not willing to have him sit at the table with you for family gatherings.

I don't have any good answers. Even with more facts, I don't know that I could afford you a sound strategy for dealing with this. The only thing that comes to mind is that sometimes, developmental disability is hereditary, and if she has kids with this guy, they could be in for a lifetime of convalescent care for not being able to feed themselves. (That's a worst-case scenario, of course.)

Good luck, man. I feel for you.
posted by Citrus at 8:29 AM on August 11, 2009

If your SIL is as you say - emotionally and developmentally stunted, not too bright (regardless of her education), then it's probably not exploitative or unethical to be dating a mildly retarded man. If she were intellectually normal - or at least close to it - I would be as horrified as you are. It's impossible to say without knowing both parties very well, and I don't think you'll find a definitive answer in this thread.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:29 AM on August 11, 2009

She should know that you're not willing to have him sit at the table with you for family gatherings.

Whoa, Citrus. Where the heck did that come from?
posted by crankylex at 8:31 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

You're getting a lot of crap for this, and perhaps you could have used more sensitive wording; however, it's perfectly valid for you to have problems with it. Someone who is developmentally disabled is often thought to have the emotional status comparable to that of a child. Ethically and socially, it is completely unacceptable for an adult to engage in a romantic relationship with a child. I think this is probably where a lot of your initial repulsion is coming from. Obviously this man is not a child, but if his emotional and/or mental state truly is comparable to that of a child's, then the relationship could be exploitative and/or unhealthy. But that doesn't that their relationship is unhealthy. As it is, it doesn't sound like you have enough information to make the call on whether or not the relationship is unhealthy. So I'd advise you to get to know the guy and approach the situation with an open mind before damning it.
posted by Polychrome at 8:31 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Read through enough relationshipfilter questions around here and you'll see that lots and lots of (allegedly) neurotypical people have the emotional age of 12-year-olds—they lie, they sneak around, they make unreasonable demands of those around them, etc.—so not to be overly snarky, but if he's sweet and treating her well, I don't know what the problem is.

My wife and I are working on her (teaching her to develop life goals, encourage her to make friends, encouraging her to seek therapy, and so in)

Does she actually want this? Is she seeking out your help, or is she putting up with it because it's less trouble than rocking the boat?

I agree with other folks that it's really not your business, and interfering will likely only push her in the direction you don't want her to go.
posted by rtha at 8:49 AM on August 11, 2009

Nth the idea that you would be getting different answers if the genders were reversed.

I think some of the answers you are getting are a bit daft given the 'immediately started referring to her as 'my girlfriend'' part crossed with 'ultimate goal of marriage'; this relationship does seem inappropriate at best.
posted by kmennie at 9:39 AM on August 11, 2009

holy crap, this makes you sound like an ass.

"working on her"???

is she happy? sounds like it.

is any harm coming of this? doesn't appear to be.

is it any of your business? definitely not.

it would be one thing if this guy were putting her in danger. but he's not, and she's happy for the moment. let her have at least one thing in her life that she gets to be in control of.
posted by unlucky.lisp at 9:55 AM on August 11, 2009

The main concern I would have in this situation is whether he's capable of informed consent. He lives in a group home. What do his caregivers think of their relationship?

This is what you need to be concerned with. I worked in a group home until recently (yay layoffs!) and we had a similar scenario play out that ended poorly for all involved. Here's what happened:

Nice Boy lived in a group home and was, in fact, very nice. He worked at Walmart as a greeter and was friendly to everyone he met. One day he met Sweet Girl, a VBS worker who came in to Wal Mart for supplies. They hit it off. It was cute and she seemed a little special herself, so the staff didn't say much. Both were warned about appropriate behavior and agreed to limits i.e. No closed doors, Don't touch anywhere a bathing suit would cover etc. and things were fine. One day Nice Boys parents came to visit from out of town. This was a surprise visit for Nice Boy,as it was near his birthday. Once Parents arrived they went down to Nice Boys room just in time to see him kiss Sweet Girl.

Bad. news. Parents. freaked. out.

Nice Boy was still legally a minor. Was she? No? She wasn't. Then they were calling the cops. And they did. And Sweet Girl was arrested for inappropriate conduct with a minor. Sweet Girl is no longer allowed to attend church, or her nephews Little League, or the Library because she is a registered Child Sex Offender.

I know it sounds a little scare tactic-ish. But please, warn her to become informed about his legal status.
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 9:55 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

My brother married someone who could be classified as mildly developmentally-disabled, as she generally functions on the level of a 13 or 14-year-old and spent all of her school years in special-ed programs. They're both in their early/mid thirties, age-wise. Brother is relatively normal and quite intelligent (though he has poor self esteem and is prone to depression). She has problems with impulse control, doesn't seem to comprehend complex or abstract ideas & situations, and doesn't understand the potential results of her actions. However, they seem quite happy together, and have no children but a lot of pets - which they dote on adoringly. Truthfully, dealing with sister-in-law can be VERY frustrating to my mom and myself (and brother too), but he accepts her limitations for what they are. And well, he loves her. And that's (got to be) enough for the rest of us.
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 9:58 AM on August 11, 2009

All I can think of is the episode of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" where Sweet Dee thinks she's dating a retard. Turns out he's just a white rapper who lives with his mom.

To be more serious though, my uncle was severely mentally retarded and he had his share of "girlfriends". Although, I'm pretty sure none of those relationships involved anything sexual. They were definitely closer to a third-graders idea of boyfriend/girlfriend than what you and I would think of. Of course he was not able to hold a job or do many things for himself, like shave or buy his own clothes. My uncle was also emotionally stunted and was prone to tantrums and outbursts you might expect from a young child.

It sounds like the guy your sister-in-law (AKA Sweet Dee) wants to date isn't even close to my uncle's level of mental handicap. In fact, being a "nice" guy with a job puts him ahead of many men and women I know. I think the ethical concern that separates someone who has mental development problems from other disabilities is when they have the equivalent mental age, like my uncle, of a young child. Like with a child, most people would object to someone engaging in an adult, sexual and romantic relationship with someone who is 10 years old mentally and emotionally. That doesn't sound like the case with this guy.

Man, I miss my uncle. He was a pain in the ass and we I was too young to fully understand why. I should have been nicer to him. He died about ten years ago, from kidney failure I think. Damn, now I made myself sad.
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:02 AM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

I second palliser and vincele here; as a person who has often been lumped in with people who have developmental issues, I can understand where your concern comes from. There is nothing wrong with feeling the way you are right now, but neither is there enough here to clearly judge whether there IS an unhealthy dynamic. What I might consider, taking shots in the dark, is that she simply may feel comfortable with this man: possibly because of her own developmental state, as an extension of caregiving, (seen that firsthand), or simply because she's looking for a sweet-tempered guy.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 10:03 AM on August 11, 2009


So is that the type of reaction you wanted? Cuz I don't think you're going to get it.

If your sister is happy, and he's happy...and they get along great...FANTASTIC. Whats the problem? Think of all the asshole chick punchers, mental and psychological abusers...and just general assholes your sister could be going out think of this dude who makes her happy.

As for him inviting her to hang out with his friends on their first date...awesome. She can be pretty confident that she isn't the "other woman" in his life.

I was once at a bar where two guys and a girl were sitting at a table. One of the dudes was loud, obnoxious, and kept calling people on the phone to tell them what he's doing at the moment ("hanging out with my girlfriend"). I couldn't help myself so I turned to group and said "I think the bar prefers if you take your phone call outside". He obliged and went outside. The remaining dude turned to me and said "This is my sister, 'Jane', that dude you sent outside is her date...its a first date...and he thinks she's his girlfriend". We all laughed.

I think the dude your sister-in-law picked is better than the typical LA douchebag I encountered. Actually...that makes your sister in law's pick better than at least 25-30% of the LA population just based on that.

Tell her I said "Congratulations on finding a sweet guy who makes you happy."
posted by hal_c_on at 10:31 AM on August 11, 2009

If your sister is happy, and he's happy...and they get along great...FANTASTIC. Whats the problem? Think of all the asshole chick punchers, mental and psychological abusers...and just general assholes your sister could be going out think of this dude who makes her happy.

The problem is not that he's bad for her; the problem is that he may not be able to give informed consent because he is or might be mentally retarded.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:37 AM on August 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

He lives in a group home. What do his caregivers think of their relationship?

By "caregivers," do you mean his family, or group home staff? If it's the latter, they probably don't have much say. My husband has been group home staff for DD adults for close to 15 years, and last night he said something about usually carrying a lighter for one of his clients' cigarettes. I said something about being surprised that the clients can smoke, and he said that program staff really have no say in the matter. Some of his clients drink alcohol as well (and I think there'd been one issue a few years back with a client using drugs), but there's not much that can be done about that either--legally, they are adults and those are their choices to make. I suspect that your sister's friend can date anyone he wants regardless of his housing status.

Family might be a whole 'nother ball of wax--but again, since we're talking about someone who is of legal age despite diminished capacity, there may not be a whole lot they could specifically DO, even if they weren't particularly thrilled by the idea.
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:43 AM on August 11, 2009

It seems to me that there is only one question here: are the people who are supposed to be helping him get by (his guardian if he has one, the group home people, whev.) doing their job.

If yes, then trust them. They have much more experience and probably training in this than you do, and they know the guy better than you do.

If no, there are much bigger problems that need to be solved than this dating issue. Like the fact that this guy isn't getting proper care. Worry about that.
posted by paultopia at 11:02 AM on August 11, 2009

Question, for those who know more than I - how does the state or whoever determine ability to give informed consent in the mentally handicapped? I have an uncle who has lived in a group home since his 20s (schizophrenia) and, while he's usually pretty doped up, I don't think of him as someone who can't understand consequences or make decisions. It's certainly not my area of expertise, though.

(And I stand by my opinion that it's sure as shit not the brother-in-law's place to be making this judgement call, although if it is an issue he could certainly bring it up with the woman in question.)
posted by restless_nomad at 11:11 AM on August 11, 2009

Schizophrenia is not a permanent state, so it wouldn't be analogous.
posted by kathrineg at 11:18 AM on August 11, 2009

Fundamentally, there's nothing wrong with her that couldn't be cured with a year of living on her own and a couple of years of therapy.
What exactly needs to be "cured"? She lives with her parents, doesn't drive and doesn't seem to socialize much. Living a sheltered life is not a disease. Is she happy? She goes to church and she has a job that requires her to interact with people, maybe she's happy with that level of socialization. Unless there's a lot more to the situation that you haven't mentioned, it sounds like Sister isn't somehow living up to some set of standards you and your wife feel are necessary for a happy lifestyle. As far as her boyfriend goes, it doesn't sound like anything untoward is going on. Developmentally disabled people need love and companionship, too, and perhaps Sister feels comfortable with him and has interests in common with him. My only word of caution would be to make sure she knows about birth control; it's easy for a little kissing and snuggling to quickly progress to serious canoodling.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:21 AM on August 11, 2009

Plenty of people still have minimum-wage jobs at age 30, so don't judge him for that.

Also, plenty of people -- secluded, coddled, retarded, disabled -- have sexual and romantic urges that they would like to follow up on. Is that what might be disturbing you?

My sister-in-law has a host of mental health issues as well as probably some developmental delays. She lived in a group home for a while, where she had a relationship with a much older man who had suffered a stroke that destroyed his long-term memory. He was severely disabled by this, but they had a loving relationship that included regular sex (my mother-in-law's only concern was that contraception was used, which it was).

While this may not have looked like a particularly "normal" relationship, both parties clearly adored each other, although going out for frozen yogurt dates, renting a movie, or ordering pizza were about all they could do together unsupervised.

Sounds like this guy is doing a lot better than that, if he's working. And he's sweet to your sister-in-law, so why not just let the situation evolve by itself?
posted by vickyverky at 11:34 AM on August 11, 2009

Also, you wrote "His two best friends have Down's syndrome." How is that so terrible?

Maybe you don't know any adults with Down syndrome, but you don't need to be scared or dismissive of them.
posted by vickyverky at 11:39 AM on August 11, 2009

Also, you wrote "His two best friends have Down's syndrome." How is that so terrible?

No one has stated that being friends with those who are afflicted with Down's syndrome is terrible. However, if your two best friends in the whole world have Down's syndrome, it would be very unlikely that you would be intellectually or developmentally "normal."

He was clearly giving us the details on this man's background. No one posting here thinks that the mentally retarded should be locked in cages, or not allowed to date or to have fulfilling human relationships. The original poster is asking whether he should be concerned that his "normal" sister-in-law is dating a man who may not be able to give informed consent to an adult relationship. If you think that this is merely an exercise in which the asker wants to rage against the mentally retarded, you should either re-read the post carefully, or take it to MetaTalk - your "answer" has nothing to do with the question at all.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:56 AM on August 11, 2009 [7 favorites]

This sounds a bit Benny and Joon'ish to me. I would recommend watching it.
posted by raztaj at 11:56 AM on August 11, 2009

Katerineg, I wasn't trying to equate them, just saying that "living in a group home" wouldn't be an automatic disqualifier.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:02 PM on August 11, 2009

By "caregivers," do you mean his family, or group home staff? If it's the latter, they probably don't have much say.

They undoubtedly have something to say. Whether what they have to say carries any legal weight is a different story. If the feeling from both his family and the staff at the home was that he has a good understanding of the situation and there is no wild imbalance of power that makes them uncomfortable about the relationship, that would go a long way to easing my mind.

If they say Boyfriend has the comprehension of a twelve year old, and while his hormones are raging, an "adult" relationship is inappropriate for him, that's a different story. That's the aspect of the relationship that is potentially disturbing, because it's in essence an adult woman involved with a child.

Would it be possible for your in-laws to talk to the staff at the group home and his parents/family?
posted by crankylex at 12:21 PM on August 11, 2009

If you get a chance, I suggest that you and your wife should see the musical "The Light in the Piazza", about an American mother and daughter who go to Italy in the 1950's. The daughter falls in love, for real, with a local Italian boy, and becomes engaged. However, unknown to the boy and his family, the daughter only has the mental and emotional capacity of a 12-year-old, a result of suffering an accidental blow to the head as a child. The main plot of the musical concerns the mother's dilemma over whether or not to tell the boy and his family about her daughter's condition, which they do not seem to notice, in large part due to the language differences -- and her debate with herself whether her daughter can ever honestly be married at all.

I hope it's not too much of a spoiler if I say that I agree with the mother's eventual decision, which mirrors the comments in this thread, only with a much lusher score.
posted by Asparagirl at 12:59 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have to say, the situation you describe would concern me, too, and I wouldn't know how to articulate my concerns either. I'm very surprised at how many people are on high horses about it, though, and I'd venture to say that your phrasing came off too strong and condescending ant that put their backs up. Also I suspect that many people here are imagining a hypothetical couple in this situation, and not their own friend or younger sibling in this relationship, when they answer here.

If one of my supposedly neurotypical 30 year old friends or coworkers was dating a developmentally delayed person who lived in a group home- WHAT?! Of course I would be shocked and concerned, and want to know more. And I bet in real life, most people in this thread would feel the same. I wouldn't necessarily jump to the conclusion that "It's 100% wrong," but come on, it's very atypical behavior, and it involves a potential power imbalance, and that stuff is always worth noting. We're social animals; of course we notice status and power imbalances. And I definitely agree that this would be deemed WRONG by the Internets in a heartbeat if the genders were reversed, and I don't think it's fair that everyone thinks it's ok just because the possibly more vulnerable player here is male.

I agree with previous suggestions that the woman might not actually be as neurotypical as you think, and I respectfully submit that it's possible that your wife and her family may not be the most impartial judges of her potential and capabilities. Being "coddled" can just as easily turn a person into a wild rebel- it doesn't de facto "stunt" anyone's potential, so coddling may not be the reason your SIL is a little unusual compared to the other 30 year old women you know.

Most of all, I think it's 100% likely that the staff at the group home will have a much better sense of how appropriate this relationship is than anyone here, and your wife should speak to them.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:09 PM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

crankylex: "The main concern I would have in this situation is whether he's capable of informed consent. He lives in a group home. What do his caregivers think of their relationship?"

posted by radioamy at 12:02 AM on August 12, 2009

I also wanted to say that I don't think you deserve everyone jumping down your throat about this. It's hard to word delicate AskMe questions so that you get in all the right information but don't write a TLDR post. I don't know what the answer is here, but I understand why you are uneasy about the situation.
posted by radioamy at 12:07 AM on August 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yeah: informed consent is the problem here. Not sure how you'd find out if he's mentally capable of making these decisions.
posted by timoni at 1:59 PM on August 13, 2009

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