Marriage & a Child with Special Needs
For better, marriage delivers sustaining support, love and laughter, but those gifts can quickly become diminished by finances, chores, careers, and ideas of how things “should” be done. When kids come into the marriage mix so too do more chores, exhaustion, and less time together. If your child has a special need, there’s increased worry, appointments, evaluations, therapy sessions and more. Because of these stresses, marriage for parents with a special needs child requires a double dose of fine-tuning along the way to stay successful. Here, experts offer tips on how to stay connected, supportive and yes, in love, while raising a child with a disability.
One common mistake parents can make when they have a special needs child is defining who they are based on their child’s disability. Mothers may not talk with their spouses about the everyday struggles they encounter with aspects of their child’s therapy, from transportation to practice. These moms can become resentful and emotionally drained. Men, on the other hand, tend to feel the burden of not being able to “fix” their child, and may withdraw from the situation or deny there is an issue.
“This is very complicated stuff,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a family psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond With Your Child (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). “Couples that collapse are the ones who hold their feelings inside. There should be a checking-in with each other on a daily basis for even 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted connection. This means that two willing partners shut off their cell phones and computers and commit to talking about the day and its stresses.”
These “check-ins” are meant to offer spouses the opportunity to be heard fully and completely. The point, Walfish says, is to focus on making your relationship a priority.
The Other Perspective
When the demands of a special needs child clamoring for attention, Walfish says one parent often becomes the one to financially support the family while the other manages the child and/or children full time. This imbalance can bring stress and resentment to a marriage. One common problem is when one spouse quits work to “take over” therapy issues. This sometimes mean numerous therapy sessions, testing, school meetings, learning the rights and laws for your child, and creating real world situations in which therapy can be practiced. It can be draining, emotional and lonely. On the other hand, the spouse that continues to support the family financially has the added pressure of becoming the sole provider. Working all day then coming home to a busy house where you’re needed can also be overwhelming. Walfish says to try and be mindful of what each of you is doing to provide for the family, no matter what the roles are.
Elaine Hall, author of Seven Ways to Unlock Autism (Jossey-Bass; 2011), says when spouses are not seeing eye to eye in regards to therapy or direction taken with their child, it may be best to have third party assistance. Walfish agrees. She suggests looking to the school district for help, as there is usually a school counselor that can offer free services to ease the financial burden. Monthly meetings can be placed on your child’s Individual Education Plan (I.E.P.) so that a child-free discussion with all therapists can take place. The therapists can provide hard to hear information and explain things in a detached and clinical format. If the parents have different opinions on how to best proceed, the therapists have the necessary experience to offer pros and cons of varying options, and can help guide you and your spouse to a workable solution.
Walfish says “all couples should have a weekly ‘Date Night’ in order to add more glue to the bricks and mortar laid in the foundation of the marital relationship. The objective of a weekly outing should be fun and relaxation, with no discussion of anxiety-provoking things like difficult kid issues.
It’s OK to admit that sometimes conversations don’t always go according to plan. Renee Groenemann, a local life coach and counselor suggests a list of “rules” for date night, the first of which is to not have any rules. “It puts too much pressure on a thing that’s supposed to be enjoyable,” Groenemann says. Instead, she advises couples to create and articulate an intention for the date and what they want to get out of it as a couple and as individuals. Then, she says, “Hold gently to that intention, so it doesn’t become a rule.” Plan your date with your intention in mind. For example, if all you want to do is go out and laugh, choose an activity that is designed for merriment. If you want to be creative, try something like a paint-your-own-pottery place.
Groenemann says date night might be your only chance that week to connect and so you’ll inevitably talk about the kids. “Make that part of your intention,” she says, even if it means spending the last few minutes of your date in the car talking about therapy, a doctor’s visit, or changes to an I.E.P.
Hall reinforces the idea that the concept of date night is to rebuild or strengthen the intimacy within the couple, so if times do get tough, you have these great moments to fall back on. While the disability of your child or financial restrictions may make it seem as if a weekly date is impossible, be resourceful. Can you put on a favorite child’s movie and sit on the back deck? Feed the kids an early dinner, and enjoy an adult dinner later? If you don’t live near family, is there a neighbor willing to come over? Lingering over dinners may take too much time and be expensive, but taking walks holding hands or playing card games are free!
Hall also encourages spouses to show gratitude toward each other to create a loving, enriching environment. Though at first it might feel forced to find things your spouse does, you will begin to realize all that your partner does to support you. Maybe it’s picking up milk on the way home from work, or putting therapy into play, a home cooked meal or gassing up the car. All of these things are easy to take for granted, but are helpful. If you think something nice of your spouse, be sure to tell them. The feeling of love will follow.
Though marriage isn’t always easy or fun, there are proactive steps that can be taken to avoid major breakdowns when raising children requires more stamina. Things will get better, the hard work does pay off, and working as a team will certainly help the family as a whole. J
Julia Garstecki is a freelance writer and educator living in western New York.