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Marriage Advice for Parents of Children With Special Needs

If you're raising a child with special needs, you probably devote much of your time and energy to his or her care. And then you might have other children who need you, too. But there's someone else who you shouldn't forget: your spouse or partner.

Working on your relationship might seem like another task on an already long to-do list. But when your marriage is strong, you work better as a team. You communicate better. You fight less. And this can make life easier and better not just for you, but for your children, too.

Here are 10 ways that even overwhelmed parents can strengthen their marriages:

  1. Keep talking. Silence says a lot about your relationship, because it begs the question: What are you not talking about? Parents of kids with special needs often hold in their emotions. One parent might feel guilty while another feels angry. One parent might feel overwhelmed while the other feels neglected. Talk about these emotions, but don't judge each other for them. Two people in the same situation can have completely different emotional reactions, and neither is right or wrong. In fact, hearing about why your partner feels or acts a certain way can be helpful and give you a new perspective. Keep talking about the big stuff and you'll be able to keep talking about anything.
  2. Work together. Resentment over an imbalance of childcare duties and other responsibilities can hurt your relationship. If you feel like you're doing most of the work, talk about it and see if there are better ways to split duties. Have the conversation when you're both well-rested and getting along, not in the heat of an argument or when tempers flare. Then, identify each other's strengths together — maybe one person is better at handling the doctor's appointments, while the other can better handle bathing and feeding. Once these roles are decided, allow your partner to "step up" and resist the urge to take over.
  3. Avoid "bossemployee" roles. One parent often assumes most of the responsibilities for childcare and health care decisions. Over time, he or she might start making all the decisions, without first asking a spouse, "What do you think?" Suddenly one parent is the boss and the other feels like the hired help. This leads to resentment. If you're the primary caregiver, don't forget to keep your spouse informed on issues related to medical care, schooling, and other aspects of parenting. This helps to share the sometimes overwhelming demands of caring for a child with special needs. And when this happens, primary caregivers can feel less overwhelmed and partners can feel less like assistants and more like equals.
  4. Keep the spark. When you're exhausted and overwhelmed, you might think there's no time or energy left for physical intimacy. But romance is what binds you together as a couple, and the healthiest marriages prioritize alone time. Intimacy allows you to take care of yourself and your partner in a way that also strengthens the relationship.
  5. Keep alone time as a couple. Make a commitment to have 20 minutes of alone time daily. Share a meal or a favorite beverage and talk about your day. If possible, you might even arrange for a babysitter or respite care and have a regular date night. When you're alone together, try to discuss topics other than your children. Doing this strengthens your bond as a couple and makes you more likely to work together as a team when issues come up.
  6. Argue (sometimes). Disagreements are normal in any relationship. Don't ignore your differences of opinion; instead, embrace them. Talk them through and truly listen to one another. But make sure your arguments are focused on solutions that take into consideration both partners' feelings. Having small disagreements here and there can prevent big, emotionally draining arguments down the line.
  7. Tackle your exhaustion. Raising a child with special needs requires a lot of energy. You are "on" from morning to night, and sometimes after that. How can you find time for your marriage when you are physically or emotionally drained? Figure out what on your to-do list can be ignored. Maybe the house isn't perfectly organized; maybe you don't host the next holiday dinner; maybe you eat on paper plates just to make cleanup easier. It's OK to cut corners to create time you can devote to yourself and your partner.
  8. Take time for yourself. Let's face it: a spouse can feel like just another person who needs or wants your attention. And if you are emotionally exhausted, no matter how much you love that person, you might have nothing left to give. Nourish your spirit and you'll be able to give more to your entire family. Maybe you wake up a few minutes early and enjoy a long shower, or you arrange for respite care so you can get to the gym or go for a walk a few times a week. Figure out what would work for your lifestyle and do it — without guilt. The better you feel, the better you'll be able to care for others.
  9. Learn to listen. When your partner has had a tough day, fight the urge to one-up his or her frustrations with your own struggles. Instead, listen. Sympathize with the situation, acknowledge that he or she needs a break, and express appreciation for how hard your partner works. By listening and acknowledging, you help avoid resentment, which is toxic to a marriage.
  10. Say "thank you." Did your partner get up early so you could sleep in? Did your spouse take a day off of work to finally address that "honey-do" list? Did you get some time out of the house to yourself? Appreciation is a powerful emotion. When you say thanks, you acknowledge your spouse's efforts and are reminded of where they came from — the love he or she has for you.

When the Going Gets Tough

Every relationship has its ups and downs now and then. But if you feel like yours has had more "downs" than "ups" lately, perhaps it's time to get help from a professional.

Many good resources are available to help spouses and families. You might start by asking a member of your child's care team or your family doctor for references of health professionals who specialize in this type of work. Couples counseling, couples retreats or seminars, books, and other resources help many couples overcome obstacles and get back on track.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date Reviewed: 14-06-2015

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