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The importance of romantic love to people with learning disabilities

As part of her Choice Support-sponsored PHD research, Dr Claire Bates interviewed people with learning disabilities about their experience of close relationships.


  • Much research has taken place to understand love and what it means.
  • People with learning disabilities can have difficulties finding love for many reasons.
  • People with learning disabilities were interviewed, and they said that having a partner who loved them and who provided company and support was very important to them.
  • People enjoyed a physical relationship; this could be kissing, cuddling or having sex.
  • People who had been abused in some way said it felt good to have a partner who loves and supports them.
  • Good support from staff was important to help people to find love. A drawing was made to explain to staff how they can support people with relationships.


Background: Love is important aspect of life, including to people with learning disabilities both historically and more recently. Participants value the companionship, support and social status associated with a partner. Relationships are considered mechanisms to meet certain needs including feeling loved, company, intimacy and enabling individuals to marry and have children. This article examines the importance of romantic love to people with learning disabilities.

Methods: A hermeneutic phenomenological study, guided by the theory of Van Manen was conducted using interviews with eleven people with learning disabilities examining the importance of romantic love.

Results: The analysis revealed that love was important to them, specifically the companionship and support a loving partner provided. The physical expression of love by a partner was valued highly, especially kissing and cuddling. Most participants had experienced some form of abuse, but it appeared that the love of a partner was reparative and they were able to form satisfying relationships.

Conclusion: Participants’ narratives highlighted the role staff play in supporting them to fulfill their romantic needs. The romantic relationship needs of people with learning disabilities were examined in relation to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy was revised to reflect the value of having a loving relationship to people with learning disabilities and to identify the support they required to facilitate and maintain this.

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