How to keep your relationship strong while parenting a special needs child

A relationship expert reveals the strategies couples need to stay together.

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Photo: Dean Mitchell/iStockphoto

So, the kids are all right but how’s your marriage doing? “I’ve had parents of kids with autism in my practice assume their marriage will fail,” says Laura Marshak,a registered psychologist and author of Married with Special Needs Children. Marshak explores marriage myths and strategies when your kids have special needs.  
 
What are the rates of marriage failure when a child has special needs?
There’s an urban legend that 80% of marriages break down when they have a child on the autism spectrum. There is great agreement that this just isn’t true. Research findings (about parents of kids with various disabilities) are contradictory. Some studies show a slightly elevated rate of divorce — especially in the first two years after a child’s birth. But some studies show a lower than average divorce rate.
 
Should we pay attention to divorce stats anyhow?
I don’t think they reflect what really goes on in a marriage. Some couples stay married because they don’t want to solo parent or because of financial insecurity. You could have a marriage that is deadened.
 
Is the marriage at risk when a child has special needs?
It introduces a vulnerability and extra marriage stressors. If you don’t protect your marriage (or long term relationship) you become parent partners. This threatens the marriage. You can do a good job for your child but you don’t necessarily do a good job nurturing and protecting your couple relationship.
 
What are the major stresses on the marriage?
Lack of time and financial pressures are issues. Then there are social stresses such as extended family not “getting” the disorder. Often one partner (usually the mother) has to give up her job. It can be stressful relinquishing that role of working outside the home.
 
What strategies keep a couple relationship strong?
•  Be a team. Don’t have one expert parent.
•  Make sure your roles and parenting responsibilities feel fair.That way you’ll avoid stockpiling resentments.
•  Embrace your parenting differences. Take time to listen and actively reflect back your partner’s views.
•  Save 20 or 30 minutes EVERY day to connect with your partner.
•  Ground rules during that connecting time: Turn off the TV. Don’t talk about your kids. Minimize complaining about your day. Really listen to each other.
•  Don’t expect your partner to be perfect.
 
What do you think about couples dating and taking trips together?
I’m a big fan of that. Some couples say they can’t go out. Could it be they’ve forgotten how to be a couple? You need to relearn this. Schedule in a weekly date. Nurture the part of your relationship that’s outside of parenting.
 
What if your child’s needs are so involved that you can’t leave them?
I know a few couples who really can’t leave their kids. Instead they plan and schedule in-home dates. With creativity, there’s no reason you can’t date your partner.
 
What are the characteristics of couples that thrive?
They have prioritized and protected the marriage. They don’t assume that they have to put 100% of themselves into their children. (I don’t think kids thrive when we put everything into them.) Both partners see each other as more than just parents. They take time to connect each day. They regularly have dates and vacations without the children — without guilt.
 
Any final advice for couples with special needs kids?
They need to remember:
I’m as important as my child. So is my partner and my marriage. We’re all important to this family. Taking time to be a couple is a healthy thing to do.  

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