Marriage isn’t a breeze for anyone. We all face challenges like balancing work and family and somehow finding time to nurture our relationships amid our busy lives.
Couples parenting children with physical, emotional or mental disabilities, though, face an extra level of difficulty. And that can take its toll. For example, one study found that parents of children with autism have a 10 percent higher chance of getting divorced.
The relationship advice I would give to any couple takes on even more relevance for parents of children with disabilities: The most important thing you can do for your marriage is to pull together whatever resources you can to help manage stress.
The Stress Adds Up
Parents of children with disabilities can face extra stress on many different fronts:
- Paying for treatments or therapies for the child can stretch the family’s finances. Of course taking the child to these therapies can disrupt daily life.
- When a child has a more severe disability, one parent may actually need to leave the workforce and stay home with the child. Of course, this can create additional financial strain, as well as feelings of isolation for the parent who stays home.
- Caring for a child with health issues can place demands on time, which may limit a family’s ability to engage in activities and friendships they once enjoyed. It’s also easy to neglect your relationship when time runs short.
- The emotional part of caring for a child with a disability can be hard. Chronic worry about your child and their future can be draining. Feeling frustrated when demands are high is normal, but many parents also feel guilty for feeling this way.
- Being spontaneous can be difficult when your child’s every day life requires extensive planning and preparation. The monotony of a rigid, demanding schedule can become exhausting.
Stress Makes It Hard to Relate
So much stress has a very real effect on your brain. Dr. Daniel Siegel says that under extreme stress, the primitive area of the brain geared toward survival hijacks the part of that brain that reasons, plans and makes good decisions. He calls this “flipping your lid.” When this happens, it’s almost impossible to be rational.
As you probably guessed, it’s a struggle to be a good partner when you’re in this mode. You have trouble processing information and hearing each other. That makes it hard to have empathy. You may also become defensive and have difficulty being open. Since you’re in self-protection mode, your capacity for being patient with each other may be compromised.
Give Your Marriage Care Too
No doubt, you and your husband are fully committed and resourceful when it comes to seeking help for your child. But it’s important to also apply some of that care and dedication to your marriage. When your partnership is strong, that’s better for everyone in your family.
One vital thing you can do for your marriage is getting practical help to deal with your challenges. That help could take different forms, from seeking respite care to asking friends and family if they can take on an occasional babysitting shift or errand run for you. Don’t hesitate to try marriage counseling if you need a constructive place to figure out how to protect your marriage while supporting your child’s needs.
You should also take a look at the expectations you’re placing on yourself. Being a devoted parent doesn’t mean never taking time to focus on your marriage. Remember, without daily maintenance, your marriage is at greater risk for deteriorating. Since you probably don’t get much alone time with your husband, learn to maximize the value of small moments when you can connect throughout the day, like when you both first come home after work.
The best way to manage stress is to practice self-care. Don’t make the mistake of neglecting your own basic needs because you are always focused on the needs of your child. Remembering that you need rest, nutritious food and support will make you a better caregiver. It’s also helpful to talk about how you and your husband respond to stress and how to engage each other at challenging times.
The two of you can be each other’s greatest ally as you work together to do what’s best for your child. It’s entirely possible for a marriage to grow stronger in the face of adversity, as long as you manage the situation well. For more ideas on maintaining your bond, check out my book Strong Women, Strong Love.