Life is not always fair, just and beautiful. And often life doesn't turn out as you had expect.
But the truth is, when you're dealt a "bad hand," you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back in the game. Giving up, feeling sorry for yourself, and crying over the unfairness of it all doesn't cut it in life. Parents of special needs children certainly know this is true.
Raising children with special needs challenges even the strongest marriage. But here is the truth: You cannot let your child's disability or ailment interfere or destroy your marital relationship. As we always tell our clients, based on our 30+ years of research around the world, "the parents' relationship with each other trumps everything else!"
Here are 10 tips for nurturing your marriage while caring for a special needs child:
1. Talk openly and honestly about your feelings and frustrations. In times of stress, we often keep everything bottled up inside until it explodes out over the slightest disagreement. But this approach won't work if you want your marriage to survive and thrive. In successful marriages, there are no sacred cows. Happily married couples share insights about everything — the good, the bad and the ugly. They create a safe space let of steam and just listen to one another. They are each other's best friend.
2. Keep the flame of your love affair alive ... every day. Can you rattle off a list of activities, topics and destinations that light you and your spouse up and reconnect you to fun and romance? Have you figured out what clears your mind and gives you an unobstructed view of your world together? If not, start today by carving out time to have a romantic date with each other, get a hotel room, go for a long walk together, drink a bottle of wine watching the sunset, write each other a love note, or snuggle in bed a little longer in the morning. Little loving gestures made every day are what thread a successful marriage together.
3. Tackle all financial challenges with teamwork. Balancing the family budget requires teamwork, especially when the added challenge of taking care of a special needs child comes your way. It requires common goals. It most certainly requires family support. People in love support each other through thick and thin — through tough times and uncertainty. So lean in and figure out those finances together.
4. Don't blame each other when things get tough. The blame game never works in love and marriage, in fact it's destructive. It's easy in tough times to blame the one you love for your collective misfortune, but shaming or chastising each other in challenging times only makes things worse. Frustration is normal, but resist the urge to lash out at each other when pressure mounts.
5. Don't wallow in self-pity. It is a wasted emotion. No problem in all of history was ever solved by feeling sorry for yourself. Successful couples grab "the bull by the horns" and work for solutions. Pause to rest and comfort each other? Yes. But indulge in self-pity? No.
6. Prioritize time alone together. Yes, finding time alone is challenging, especially when your special needs child requires a great deal of constant care. But your relationship matters, too, and also requires constant care. Private time alone together is essential to a successful marriage. Connection and communication improve tremendously after refreshing your mind and spirit. You have to belong to yourself before you can belong to others.
7. Nurture a network family and friends. You and your spouse do not have to do this all by yourselves. Ask friends and relatives for help. Solicit support from aunts and uncles. Seek support from your neighbors. Don't be shy about asking for help. Don't be deluded into thinking you can do it alone (or should do it all alone). When you give concrete tasks or make specific, manageable requests, loved ones are usually happy to jump in and help out.
8. Recognize when you need professional care support. At some point, you may need help from professional caregivers, perhaps even an assisted-care or similar facility. Don't destroy yourself with guilt if that time comes. At this critical juncture in your child's life, someone else may very well provide the best care. That is not a failing on your part. Make the choice that is healthiest for your whole family.
9. Tend to your own health and happiness. Engage in a daily exercise program. Sleep. Eat healthy — lots of fruits and vegetables. Take your vitamins! Make sure you both take your own medications on the prescribed schedule. And don't forget your annual physical exams. It is nearly impossible to take care of others when you don't take of yourself.
Make no mistake about it, caring for a special needs child is sometimes stressful beyond belief.
Don't let the negative impact shatter your marriage! The comfort and joy of a solid marriage helps you overcome almost any obstacles that comes your way.
Drs. Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz are America's #1 love and marriage experts and the authors of the award-winning and bestselling book, Building a Love that Lasts.