Romance got more complicated when I became an amputee. But one thing didn’t change: Dating is still hell.
By Diana Theobald // Images by Jennifer Latham Robinson
I’ve had the unique experience of dating two ways: while being disabled, and while being nondisabled. I can confirm one thing: They both suck. Truly. I’m only in my mid-30s, so I’ve had the added joy of dating online this whole time, beginning with OKCupid and its Dating Persona Test. (I think I was The Priss.)
Some dating routines have stayed the same since I became an amputee at 28—the goofy online banter that evaporates once you finally meet in person, for example. But limb loss has brought a few new concerns. When and how do I disclose that I’m an amputee? What do I do about those mysterious weirdos who fetishize amputees, the dreaded “devotees”? Do I have to shave the hair on my stump? Actually, I’m gonna answer that last one right now: Don’t do it. The irritation is not worth it.
Dating looks different for everyone, whether or not you’re an amputee. Even with advice from peers, it took me more than a few years of trial and error to figure out what worked for me. I love where I’ve landed, though. So, if you’ll allow me, I thought I’d share eight lessons I’ve learned about dating and limb loss.
Lesson 1: Don’t Date on the Rebound
In January 2015 I had two full-length, flesh-and-blood legs with the homegrown joints I was born with, and I was dating a rock climber. He was tall and blond. He looked like he’d been scraped off a mountain somewhere. We were an active couple: We went rock climbing at least twice a week and hiked six to ten miles on weekends.
We’d been dating for a year, and my New Year’s resolution was for him to propose.
What he proposed was that we break up. I was building the rest of my life on the foundation of that relationship. So when he broke up with me, my foundation crumbled.
After two weeks of sleepless nights and gut-wrenching heartache, I tried to get back on my feet by returning to rock climbing, this time with someone new at the rope. The guy I found to replace my ex-boyfriend as my belay partner was also tall and blond. I was 40 feet off the ground when he said it was safe for me to come down.
Lesson 2: Let the Weeds Prune Themselves
Five months and multiple surgeries later, I was back on the dating apps as a left below-knee amputee. I was barely walking unassisted, but the algorithm kept serving up the same guys as before my accident—mountain scabs and beach volleyball players. They’d ask me to go hiking, then ghost after I explained that hiking was not in the cards for me just yet (or possibly ever, given the damage I’d done to the rest of my body).
Strangely enough, the rejections helped me heal. They helped me realize that even if my ex and I had stayed together, my accident would have broken us up anyway. He would never have lasted long with a girl who couldn’t disappear into the mountains with him.
A lot of people on these dating apps react to disability like that. At a minimum it’s short-sighted, considering disability comes for most of us eventually. I don’t think it’s unfair to call those people shallow—because if I’m honest, I would’ve ghosted me, too. I was just as shallow before my accident (remember, I was The Priss). Getting injured taught me that this can happen to anyone. Not many people truly understand that, and our time is too precious to spend on the people who don’t. Having a disability makes it easy to weed out the basic bros long before I can fall for them.
Lesson 3: What’s Good for the Google-stalker Is Good for the Gander
At this point, I was not disclosing my amputation on dating apps. I heeded the advice of future Broadway star Katy Sullivan, who had warned me about devotees right after I lost my leg—before I even left the hospital. I wasn’t ready to deal with that form of attraction, so I left my limb difference out of my profile.
Leaving it out felt weird, though. I wouldn’t have wanted someone I was dating to omit something like that. Not that they would have gotten away with it. See, I’m incredible at Google-stalking my dates. Your last five addresses? I have them memorized. That podcast you drunkenly recorded ten years ago? I listened to it twice before our first FaceTime. One time my friend sent me a picture of a random guy from a dating app. From the clues in the photo I dug up his name, phone number, and full work history in about half an hour.
After getting ghosted a few times, I finally went on my first in-person date post-limb loss. I hadn’t mentioned that I was an amputee, and I had no idea how I was going to explain that I had essentially been catfishing him on my dating profile with pre-accident, two-legged photos. He was a comedy writer, and the banter was fantastic. Why risk bringing down the mood? Here’s what I settled on: I would wait for as long as I could to tell him. We were meeting in a dark bar. If I got there early and sat in a booth, maybe I wouldn’t have to mention my limb loss until after he’d fallen madly in love with me.
An hour in, my plan was working to perfection. The conversation was flowing. He was inching closer and closer to me in the booth. I’d managed to avoid any topic having to do with legs. For all he knew, I’d had an ordinary year so far. Certainly no life-changing accidents that required me to learn how to walk again. We’d been drinking for over an hour, and it was all going great. Except for one thing: I really had to pee.
This was only two months after I got my very first prosthetic leg, and I still walked with a Frankenstein-meets-newborn-deer gait. I was in my massive prelim socket, wearing a combined ply of 17 in socks. My right ankle, a limb salvage that included a tissue flap, was still swollen to the size of a grapefruit. No cute date outfit could hide any of that. Once I stood up, he was going to find out the truth. It was time to fess up.
It was not eloquent. I’m surprised he even understood what I was saying, because I was talking so fast, my eyes clenched shut, just getting through it as quickly as possible. When I finished speaking, he was quiet. And then he said: “I already knew.”
“What?” I said, gobsmacked. “How?!!”
“I found a video you posted. Of you walking.”
I had posted a video on YouTube of my progress at physical therapy. It had less than ten views. I assumed those were all my grandmother. So he had Google-stalked me. He Google-stalked me? Well, OK then. Game recognizes game. Touché, sir.
I’d love to say I’d met The One, but you already know I didn’t because we’re only on Lesson 3 (out of 8). We had a few more good dates after that, but then he ghosted. The ghosting happened shortly after he slept over and saw that I used a wheelchair at home. He asked if I would always need it. At that time, I didn’t know that I wouldn’t. I can’t say for sure that’s why he ghosted, but the uncertainty is what makes ghosting so horrible. If that was the reason though . . . . see Lesson #2. Let the weeds prune themselves.
Lesson 4: Don’t Joke About Limb Loss With Strangers
My first amputee date showed me that limb loss didn’t have to bring down the mood. I wondered if perhaps I was overthinking how I disclosed my limb loss to my dates. Maybe it didn’t have to be heavy. Maybe I could find levity in the reveal.
It was late October, and I was back on the dating apps and texting with someone new. He asked what I was dressing up as for Halloween. Shrewdly recognizing a good opening for a light-hearted limb disclosure, I said: “My friends think I should go as a pirate because I only have one leg. I think that might be a bit clichéd, though. What do you think?”
He laughed—or at least, he typed that he laughed. He went on to set up an in-person date with me. “Eureka!” I thought. “I’ve done it! The light-hearted reveal works!”
On the date, it was once again dark, and I was once again sitting, but I was at peace knowing all was out in the open. I referenced my limb loss freely in conversation. He laughed nervously. “Have you come up with a crazy story for how you lost it?”
“The real story is cooler than anything I could make up,” I trilled. “I lost my leg rock climbing!”
He turned white. “Wait . . . . this is real? You—you really lost your leg?”
“You thought I was joking?” I said. “About losing a leg? Why would anyone joke about that?”
“I don’t know.”
“And you went out with me, thinking I’m the kind of person who would joke about that? What’s wrong with you?!”
On a standard bad date, you part with gentle lies like, “That was fun, let’s do this again!” On an amputee-joke-gone-wrong date, you don’t even bother faking it. You just shake hands and leave.
Lesson 5: Never Assume a Sole-mate Could Be Your Soulmate
OK, so the playful approach to disclosure wasn’t for me, but serious hadn’t been right for me either. I decided my approach from now on would be bald honesty. I updated my dating profile with some recent full-body pics, my carbon fiber limb on full display. These dudes could figure it out on their own. Still wary of devotees, I settled on an aggressive defense: If anyone’s first, second, or even third question was about my leg, they’d get blocked. Y’all have been warned.
Shortly after I started showing more (less?) leg on the dating apps, I matched with another amputee. I hadn’t seen that coming, but wow, what a dream! Our first two dates were amazing. We talked extensively about our lives and our legs. We’d both been through so much. It felt like kismet that we had found each other. It was so promising that after our third date/hangout sesh, I went in for a kiss and . . . he turned his head to dodge it. That was not the kind of connection he was looking for.
I assumed that because he was hitting me up on a dating app, he was interested in, like, dating me. Wrong. We might have had a beautiful platonic relationship, but after I misread the signals, we were both so mortified that we never met again. My friends, be clear with your intentions on these apps!
Lesson 6: Even If You Do Everything Right, Something Will Still Go Wrong
One time, a very dumb boy from a dating app set up a date with me, complete with a time and a location. The night before our date, he texted and asked for my Instagram handle. I’ve got nothing to hide, so I sent it to him.
The next day, I got fully stood up. Most people would at least have the courtesy to send a text at the last minute with some weak excuse for canceling. This guy sent nothing. I checked the app—he had unmatched me! Now, I can’t prove anything here, but I’d bet this guy was one of those idiots who don’t scroll through every picture before swiping “yes”—a common phenomenon, apparently. The night before our date, he decides to learn more about who he’s meeting, so he goes back to the app and swipes through enough photos to notice there’s something not quite right about this girl’s left foot. He goes to Instagram for confirmation, and there he discovers that she’s one of those legless succubuses his father had always warned him about. And therefore, the only course of action is to unmatch and ditch the date with no warning or explanation. Like it’s still the 1990s or something.
I texted this hypothesis to him, in much spicier language. I try not to jump directly to ableism to explain every date that doesn’t go my way, but who doesn’t at least send a text? Anyway, he blocked me. But again, see Lesson #2: Weed, prune thyself.
Lesson 7: Ampuversaries Do Not Make For Good Date Nights
I’ve always struggled with what to do on my ampuversary. In 2018, on my third ampuversary, I decided to try a romantic evening with this guy I’d been dating for a couple of months. (He liked to massage my stump, which was kind of cute . . . . other than when he’d hit that nerve that makes my eyes pop out in pain.) But my hopes for an amorous ampuversary were dashed when he bailed at the last minute (at least he sent a text). He faded away shortly thereafter. I got the full-body heartache. I vowed never again to involve a boy in my ampuversary.
I broke my own vow in 2021, this time with a guy I’d been texting with for four months. I thought very hard before deciding to spend my ampuversary with him, since I had been burned before, but he really seemed like a good one. My dog and I went over to his place for pasta, and Snuffles burrowed under the bed and dragged out . . . let’s just call it highly incriminating evidence of two-timing. Before we left, my dog dumped some incriminating evidence of his own in the guy’s living room.
My best ampuversary was the year my friends took me to Vegas. The only guys I encountered were performing in Magic Mike Live. This was and will remain the best way to incorporate men into an ampuversary.
Lesson 8: The Right One Will Show Up When You Least Expect It
The night before Valentine’s Day last year, the pin came unscrewed from my liner while I was walking my dog. I stepped out of my socket and landed stump-first onto concrete.
There was blood everywhere, and I was in level 11 amounts of pain. After I hung up with 911, I thought about calling the guy I’d been dating for a few months. But it was after 10 p.m., and he wakes up at 4 a.m. for work. I knew he’d be asleep. I also knew I always got burned whenever I thought I could rely on a guy. (See Lessons #1 through #7 above.) After the EMTs had bandaged me up, I texted my boyfriend a quick heads-up to let him know what had happened. Then I tried to sleep.
Within an hour, he was at my apartment. He’d woken up, seen the text, and come right over. I was still bleeding and in a lot of pain, so he took me to the ER. We were there for hours as I got x-rayed and stitched up. He wasn’t allowed to come back with me, so he sat in the waiting room alone. When they finally released me, he took me to pick up medication and ordered us breakfast. We got home at 9 a.m. and slept the rest of the day.
And that’s how we spent our first Valentine’s Day.
He stayed with me not just that day, but every night for the rest of the month. He walked my dog, made me food, cleaned my house—anything I needed. He’s sitting next to me as I’m writing this now, laughing along as I reflect on the many frogs I kissed before him.
Relying on other people is scary, and becoming disabled only heightens that feeling of vulnerability. But losing my leg taught me that I’m capable of so much more than I thought I was. And when it comes to dating (and relating with people in general), my legs—the bionic and the biological—are gifts. They’re like two divining rods that rip through pleasantries to expose who people really are. Occasionally I’m disappointed, but more often I learn how exceptionally good people can be. Given the choice, I’d pick dating as an amputee every time.
Diana Theobald is a content diversity consultant. She has held roles in creative development and diversity & inclusion at Warner Bros. Discovery, Marvel, DreamWorks Animation, and NBCUniversal.