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For Your Marriage

Marriage and a Special Needs Child

Carolyn called me through the Pastoral Solutions Institute to discuss her marriage to Tom.

“We were like a lot of couples. It used to be hard to find time for each other what with work and the boys, but when our Jimmy was diagnosed with profound autism, it was like a bomb went off. Tom just withdrew into work and all my time was taken up taking Jimmy from one doctor to another and trying to keep my other kids’ lives as normal as possible. All of a sudden, the little bit of time Tom and I had was totally gone. Between that and how resentful I feel toward him for leaving everything to me, the tension is terrible. I don’t know where to begin.”

Carolyn and Tom are like a lot of families with children who have special needs. According to some research, the divorce rate for couples with special-needs kids hovers around 80 percent. More hopefully, however, other studies indicate that 18 percent of these couples in this situation say their children have brought them closer together. What’s the difference between the couples who rise to the challenge and those who don’t? Here are some tips.

The challenges of raising a special-needs child can become a blessing.

  • You’re in it together. Under any circumstances, a couple needs to be a team, but this is rarely as true as when a couple is confronted by the challenges that can come with raising a special-needs child. But the challenges can become a blessing if the couple responds to each challenge together. The research is consistent that the marital problems couples may experience in this situation are not so much caused by the time and effort it takes to attend to the child’s needs, but rather from the tendency for couples to retreat into themselves and stop communicating with one another.
  • Make time to pray together and communicate about schedules, feelings, and needs. Be sure to find simple ways to take care of each other. Little actions like saying, “I love you,” calling from work to check-in, and thoughtful gestures that communicate your appreciation for each other are critical to keep up morale and marital rapport. It doesn’t have to take a lot of effort, just thoughtfulness. Making a “love list,” in which you and your mate identify simple ways to attend to each other, can give you ideas for the days you are so busy you can’t even think. (See my book: For Better… FOREVER! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage for more details).
  • Deal honestly with your frustrations. Sometimes parents struggle because their feelings of intense love for their children become intensely complicated with frustration, exhaustion, irritation, resentment over the care that is required of them, as well as guilt for feeling anything negative about their child, for whom they would happily give their lives even on their worst day. These negative feelings usually pass soon enough, but couples can help each other manage these emotions by being willing to express them to each other, tolerate them from each other, and nurture each other through those difficult reactions and help each other get back on line. It can be frightening to confess these negative feelings to each other, and it can be tempting to want to shut down your mate when they are expressing their frustrations (even when you feel similarly). But couples who find the courage to confess and listen, are the couples who rise to the challenges because of each other’s support and love.
  • Take time for each other. Every couple needs time alone, but it is critical for the parents of a special-needs child who need time to process their stress and reconnect. Getting this time can be difficult because finding competent childcare can be a challenge, especially if the child’s disability is serious. But even when date nights out are impossible, it is essential that a couple at least carve out some time at home where they can be alone to play, pray, talk, and be intimate with each other. Studies consistently show that people who deal with stress by reaching out, instead of pulling in, can learn to thrive despite–or even because of–their challenging circumstances. Cling to each other in good times and bad.
  • Get assistance and support. Make a list of the support and resources you feel you need to help your child achieve his or her potential and to help your marriage and family function at its absolute best. Even if you think it is impossible to meet some of these needs, write them down. Then, don’t be shy about telling everyone you know about these needs– regularly. As Christians, we are privileged to be part of a community that is obliged to respond to one another in generosity and love. Don’t feel that you are burdening others with your requests for babysitting, housekeeping help, respite, or support. Renounce the pride that tells you that you shouldn’t trouble other people with your problems or needs. Give others the gift of allowing them to be a gift to you.
  • Seek help quickly. When you are traveling down the road of raising a special-needs child, you can’t afford a breakdown. Seek assistance at the first sign that you are experiencing a spiritual, emotional, or relational problem that you aren’t sure how to get through on your own. Most disabilities have national organizations dedicated to researching treatments and supporting families. Contact them early, and become involved in your local chapter and any support groups, social outlets, or advocacy opportunities they offer.

Additionally, make sure that you are getting regular spiritual direction, and even if your family is doing well, strike up a relationship with a counselor you can trust so that if you need an answer to a quick parenting question or require a marital adjustment, you don’t have to spend weeks looking for competent help. Prior planning helps assure that help will be available right when you need it.

About the author
Dr. Gregory Popcak is the author of eight books integrating the Catholic faith and psychology. He is the director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization that provides counseling and other services to couples, families, and individuals.

© The Couple to Couple League International, Inc. P.O. Box 111184, Cincinnati, OH 45211-1184. Used with permission.

Editor’s note: The Catholic Church observes October as Respect Life Month. There are many ways to promote and protect life; the above article focuses on one. For more information visit the Respect Life website.