BY DEANNA PICON – With time and proper communication, you can eliminate the little sparks of misunderstanding and prevent them from becoming full-fledged fires.
Sustaining a healthy and fulfilling marriage or relationship while raising a child with special needs is no easy task. Managing all aspects of a child’s daily living—including personal needs, school activities, therapy and medical appointments—can leave little time for oneself, much less a partner. However, it’s important to realize that a strong marriage or relationship is your best defense against life’s pressures and parenting challenges. By applying some realistic and achievable strategies, your marriage can be a priority again. If you’re able to keep your relationship from becoming “child-centered” or disability centered,” your focus can shift to your partner. And what a refreshing change that will be!
EVERY MARRIAGE GETS TESTED
Sharing your life with another person isn’t always easy. At some point, everyone is tested by something—it could be unemployment, infidelity, illness, or one of a thousand other problems.
Well, this is your test. Make sure your relationship passes it. Parenting, at one point or another, puts a strain on every parent. And the specific challenges of having a child with special needs can feel like a lot to handle for everyone at times. But whether you’re experiencing your highest high or your lowest low, there’s only one thing that remains consistent.
Your partner is the only person who knows exactly what you’re going through and loves your child as much as you do, and is also on the same life-long journey! Bottom line? You’re stronger together than apart, and the key to staying together is communication.
Don’t expect the other person to read your mind or figure out your mood from clues that you drop – you both have better ways to spend your time and energy. Instead, talk to each other. This doesn’t mean polite conversation or questions about when the new trash schedule begins. This means providing a safe haven for each other. Vent. Laugh. Be honest. Check in with each other frequently to ask “How’s it going” or “How are you feeling”.
Even at the risk of hurt feelings, it’s important to trust each other enough to speak the truth. Let your partner know exactly how you feel and when the stress of parenting becomes too overwhelming. Tell each other things like “This is really hard for me” or “I can’t handle this one”. A reassuring hug can go a long way when you’re feeling down and out, or lost and confused.
With time and proper communication, you can eliminate the little sparks of misunderstanding and prevent them from becoming full-fledged fires. All it takes is patience, practice and the knowledge that, even when you disagree, your partner is not the enemy.
GIVE EACH OTHER PERMISSION TO BE HUMAN
Once you get those negative feelings on the table, it’s important to give each other permission to “blow off steam” every now and then. Don’t judge each other or take it personally in the heat of the moment.
As hard as it may be, remember that your partner’s behavior or actions aren’t really being directed at you, but rather at the situation. So when your partner gets upset about the dishes not being placed in the dishwasher properly, and this was never an issue before, it’s probably just the anger about the current circumstances. In moments like these, it may be best to walk away and let your partner cool off for a few minutes. A little time and distance can work wonders and help change your perspective.
Give each other breaks and “time outs”. Take over a task for your partner if you can. Lighten the load for a few hours or even a couple of days. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how these simple gestures will make you feel closer to your partner and better about your relationship.
SCHEDULE SOME COUPLE TIME
Wish you had more time together as a couple? Then take it. Every couple needs and deserves some time together to reconnect and keep the emotional and communication bonds strong. Parents of special needs children may find themselves feeling guilty for having a good time, even if it’s only once in a while, but there is no reason to feel this way. By giving yourself permission for joy, you will bring home new and positive energy for your whole family – your child included.
So give yourself a much-deserved break. Participate in hobbies, events and activities that you and your partner enjoy. Do some of the things you did before you had children. Take a walk together and hold hands. Go bowling or dancing. Have fun again.
If possible, schedule “date nights” for yourselves on a weekly or monthly basis. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive; a movie or a meal at a local diner or restaurant is fine. And an old-fashioned picnic in the park with some sandwiches and chips can be very romantic. Write it on the calendar. Hire a child caregiver for a few hours or ask a good friend or family member to stay with your child.
Above all, when you’re out together, do not discuss your child(ren). Have a conversation about the two of you. It will probably be the first time you have in years. Show each other appreciation for all the wonderful or demanding things you are doing as partners and parents. Tell each other, “You’re doing a great job” every once in a while. It’s always nice to hear compliments, especially from your spouse. Thank each other for acts of kindness, such as letting you sleep late one morning. And remember, attention and affection for each other does not have to be reserved for just date nights. A little extra effort on both sides can generate ongoing intimacy. A kiss goodnight, a gentle touch as you pass in the hall, a love message by e-mail or text. These little gestures can mean so much.
Just like affection, cooperation needs to be mutual and ongoing to help sustain your relationship.
You may have different approaches, perspectives and points of view. That’s fine. Expected, even. But at the end of the day, you both want the best for your child, so accept your differences, build on your strengths and share your common points of view.
As partners and teammates, you both have to take shared involvement, responsibility and accountability for your child. No parent is allowed to “opt out” of their obligations just because the other parent is “doing such a great job” of managing everything. You have to be fair and respectful of each other, and step up to your share of the duties—IEP meetings, medical visits, etc. If not, resentment
and anger will set in. It may be helpful to actually write down who will be responsible for managing different aspects of your child’s daily routine as well as household chores. Divide the labor as fairly as you can, recogning the other life demands you each face.
Create a game plan together. This will be a “living” plan that will vary as your child grows up and the challenges and/or issues change, so be prepared to keep updating it as time goes on. With so much to do, some things are going to fall through the cracks. That’s how life is. What you and your partner have to decide is which failures you can live with and what you can’t allow. Maybe the carpet does not have to be vacuumed every day, but the dogs must be taken for a walk.
Discuss the differences between what you need and what you want, recognizing that there is a big distinction between the two. For example, your family needs to eat dinner every day and you want them to have home-cooked meals. So, you’ll have dinner daily, and most of the time you’ll cook it yourself.
However, you agree that you’ll go out to dinner on Friday nights, order in pizza every Tuesday and pop a
frozen dinner in themicrowave or toaster oven every once in a while. Understand that everything is negotiable and subject to change, but the idea is to agree on the important things for both of you.
Compromise is essential. You both have to make sacrifices for the good of the marriage and the family. No one should feel like they got the “raw end” of the deal. It’s important to feel the end result was fair and best for all concerned.
YOU & YOUR PARTNER – THE LOVE FACTOR
There may be times when it doesn’t feel like your partner loves you, or you think that you don’t know your partner anymore. There may be times when it seems like your relationship is falling apart,
and you start fearing a possible future alone. Just keep in mind that these are temporary stages your relationship is going through because of the unusual stresses in your lives. It doesn’t mean you have a bad relationship or that you’re going to break up.
Even after employing all the relationship strategies above, there will be times when patience is in short supply. There will be times when you have your own pain to deal with. You’re both going to need a lot of patience and understanding, and that’s okay. Just remember, you can do it and it will be worth it. You love each other. Be patient and compassionate.
Acceptance and healing doesn’t happen overnight, so cut each other some slack; you’re only human.
Go ahead and hate the diagnosis. Hate the situation you’re in and the impact it’s having on your relationship. Just as long as you remember to keep loving and supporting each other. Try to keep things in perspective. There may be difficult times in your marriage, but you can emerge stronger and more united from it. At the end of the day, all that matters is that you have one another. •
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Deanna Picon is founder of Your Autism Coach, LLC, which provides personalized guidance, support and seminars for parents of exceptional children. She is a parent of a non-verbal, young man with autism. Deanna is the author of The Autism Parents’ Guide to Reclaiming Your Life. She can be reached through her website at www.YourAutismCoach.com