It's going to be hard, but WORTH every minute.
Whether you’re married or not, you’ve probably heard the dismal stats on the rate of divorce — 50 percent is a big figure. Only half of us married folks, statistically, will go the distance. And you, like the majority of people, have probably personally witnessed the break ups of couples you thought would make it through anything.
What's worse? According to University of Wisconsin at Madison researchers, couples with an autistic or special needs child are TWICE as likely to end their marriage in divorce than one without a child with disabilities. But Lori Eschenbrenner M.S.C., a family and couples therapist whose own son was diagnosed 16 years ago with Asperger’s, tells us that “it doesn’t have to be this way! I knew that this (diagnosis) was not something that had to be detrimental to a family; it is simply finding a new normal.”
All marriages, no matter their situation, can have that rock solid foundation. Here are four steps you need to take to build an incredible marriage when you are raising a special needs child:
1. Schedule a date night (alone)
On any given day, a child can suck the energy right out of a parent. There’s only so much cleaning up, wiping, and question answering that a person can take, am I right? With a family whose child has Autism or any special need, you can probably guess that those parents have to be on their A game 24/7.
Where’s the time to sit down with your spouse and connect? Those two minutes before you both collapse into bed at night? While it may seem that’s all you have to give at the end of the day, it’s pretty critical that you make an effort to spend some quality time with your spouse each week.
Pick a weekly date night and stay at home and watch a movie (chick flick or not) after the kids’ bedtime, or go out for a quiet dinner where you can actually eat delicious food in peace. Whatever your date night, set the day of the week and stick with it! You (and your child) will be glad you did.
2. Talk openly and honestly about EVERYTHING
One of the hardest things a special needs child faces is communicating their thoughts, and as most couples know, it’s also a key piece of any successful marriage. Now, that doesn’t mean your relationship turns into the latest Lifetime movie complete with monologues and hearts on sleeves, but parents should be open to talk out their thoughts, fear, hopes, and frustrations with one another.
Being able to confide in your spouse about the crappy day at work or the viral cat video your kid watched 50 times and loved changes the entire dynamic of your relationship and is a great example for your child. If you can communicate clearly and openly with each other, and your child follows suit, aren’t you giving him/her the greatest example for their future marriage?
3. Know when to call for help
Parents of special needs children are on-call 24/7 for a wide range of reasons, and that can lead to exhaustion, irritation, and plain old strain on the marriage. Counselors who specialize in working with special needs families can give parents all kinds of helpful information — whether it be references for additional help, connection with other families of special needs children, or play dates and groups to help children (and parents!) develop friendships.
Those resources found in local groups, counselors, and educators pay off in dividends by helping parents build a powerhouse of support and information that can take the strain off the marriage, and it'll give you the feeling that you have to do everything yourself.
4. Stick together and be willing to change your goals
For many parents of special needs children, there is sometimes an initial feeling of loss — loss of the life they thought their child would have, loss of the dreams they had for themselves (even if being an NFL quarterback was a bit of a shot in the dark). In reality, these children will go on to lead awesome and meaningful lives, so don’t let the stress or fear of the unknown tear apart the marriage you’ve invested in. One resource that puts this change into perspective really well is called Welcome to Holland by Emily Perl Kingsley.
Take the time to pull yourselves together and recognize that you and your spouse are getting to watch a new picture form before your very eyes. How amazing is that? Your child needs the support of both parents working together to reach his/her potential and be truly happy.
Following these steps can help you take a step back and realize that you should both be working together as a team to raise your special needs child with grace. It's totally possible to make it through, as long as you use the resources that are available to you and stick together.
Stuart Fensterheim LCSW is a loving, passionate husband, father, entrepreneur, and author. He is the owner and clinical director of The Couples Expert Relationship Counseling Center. For more information, download the brochure. To schedule your FREE 30-minute telephone consultation with one of the couples experts click here!