Keeping a Special Needs Marriage Going

Marj Hatzell

We've all heard the statistics. Nearly 50 percent of American marriages end in divorce. While that in itself is a sobering statistic, for years it was rumored that the statistic for autism in families and divorce was near 80 percent. But is that true? Do families dealing with special needs truly have it worse than everyone else?

Signs point to "NO!" While it is indeed stressful to have children with such demanding needs, the truth is that ALL children can induce stress on a marriage. In reality, the national divorce rate is at its lowest in over 30 years. That's saying something right? And, according to studies done by Brian Freedman, PhD, of Kennedy Krieger Institute and Robert Naseef, PhD, psychologist, and author, the divorce rate among autistic families is no worse than the national average.

But you're not getting off that easily.

See, marriages take work. And special needs marriages? Let's just say that it takes a teensy bit more effort to do those little things that keep a marriage afloat. See, parents of children with special needs suffer burnout at an alarming rate. They can't just use ANY babysitter. They can't drop their kids off at just any Mother's Morning Out Programs or Parent's Night Out programs as easily. They often cannot just send their kid to play at a neighbors' house when they need a hot shower. In many cases, families and friends are ignorant as to how to help a special needs family. That means that most special needs parents, my husband and myself included, have to be hyper-vigilant. We spend far more time with our children than most "normal parents" we know. Not that we resent that, honestly. (Okay, it's occasionally a tad draining.) It's just not that easy to get the heck out of Dodge. 

That's why putting in extra effort to go out, without your children, is critical unless, that is, you like muttering to yourself while rocking in a corner and sucking your thumb. I'm sure you're pretty darn useful in that state. By all means, have at it. But if there's one thing we have learned, it's this: A solid marriage can survive nuclear holocaust.  If our relationship is strong WITHOUT the special needs, then it will survive, period. And in order to keep our marriage as dandy as it was when we married 14 years ago (EGAD. FOURTEEN?), there are a few things we do. And I'm here to enlighten you (you're welcome!):

  • Find family and friends who you can trust with your children. When they offer help, TAKE IT. You cannot do this alone and you shouldn't try. If you have trouble finding babysitters or respite workers, check with your place of worship, neighborhood teenagers, or local colleges. You'd be surprised at how many special ed majors are looking for babysitting jobs. It's a win-win because they get experience and a reference, you get the help you need and if they aren't charging you an arm or a leg or your firstborn child, it's golden. And you can train them yourself! Do not tell me you can't find anyone. You aren't trying hard enough. Unless you live in the middle of nowhere and banjos are playing in the background, in which case, I feel for you.
  • If you find you can barely tread water, get help. Find a qualified therapist or find a local parents' group to help you cope with the stress of having a special needs child. No one understands it like they do. They might be a great inspiration, a good source of advice, or an example of what NOT to do. One of the three.
  • Communicate with your spouse DAILY. Don't go days without speaking because it sucks rocks. Don't get so bogged down in the routine that you forget to connect. Send emails, texts, phone calls (hubba hubba!). Kiss them goodnight every night.
  • Divvy up the work. You can't do it all and neither can your spouse. If you have to do a chore chart, do it. Make sure you are both carrying the weight of your family and your relationship. This ain't the '50s, yo. 
  • Take good care of yourself, you belong to you. You also belong to your family. They need you at your best and if you are miserable and crying and stressed out, that puts undue stress on your relationship. Take a hot bath, get a massage, do major landscaping renovations, whatever keeps you going and in the right frame of mind.
  • Schedule REGULAR dates. Even if the day arrives and you are "too tired" to go, force yourself. Whether you walk around the mall window shopping or have hot dates planned (like picking out bathroom tile and selecting benefits! SO ROMANTIC!), the point is to get out and spend time with one another. It's difficult to reconnect if your kids are constantly interrupting your conversations. Your spouse needs to feel important, loved, listened-to, sexy, funny, all-of-the-above in order to feel like they can be an effective parent.

If you can get away for an overnight, go for it. We just spent our anniversary weekend ALONE in Grandma's cabin and it was 60 hours of pure bliss. Sleeping and eating without kids stripping nekkid and running down the road is kinda nice, see. WHO KNEW? And, it turns out that sleeping in a bed ALONE with your spouse is pretty darn awesome, too. AND! The sleeping part? Alone? AHEM? Wink wink, nudge nudge. That's cool, too. Of course, it has to last us a year but we'll take anything we can get. Heck, it's nice just to do grown-up things without having to talk about Star Wars Legos at the dinner table or eat food at a restaurant with CLOTH NAPKINS. And no cartoon characters on the menu. So, what are you waiting for? Go out on a date!

Any special needs parents have any other suggestions to add?

Photo via Marj Hatzell

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