Marriage by itself can be a hard thing to maintain — when you add a special needs child to the family, the stress placed on the system and the marriage can cause friction. Follow some tips from licensed marriage and family therapist Rachel Bernstein to work as a team and help you maintain a healthy marriage.
- Help each other get what you need. Bernstein says, “What I have found is that when parents have children with special needs, they often are so used to putting themselves last, that they don’t voice their own needs or they don’t know what their own needs are.” Whether it’s a night out with friends or a full night’s sleep, each partner should allow for these things, and it’s important that your partner “won’t question those needs, won’t put them down, won’t judge them.”
- Complement and compliment each other. “It will complement the relationship to give compliments. Because this is a challenge, you learn new things about yourself as a human being and as a parent, your abilities to have certain strengths that you didn’t know, and you want to compliment each other on that,” says Bernstein. Also consider the superficial — give compliments on how nice your partner looks or notice a new haircut.
- Work as a team. Bernstein comments, “It doesn’t have it be that it’s just one person’s job to go to the doctor’s appointments or IT meetings. It’s important to be able to go together as much as possible.”
Working as a team might involve some gender roles, but it is important to talk about these roles first. Bernstein says, “What I think is important is that it is going to naturally happen that one person is going to focus more on some of the outwardly practical issues like insurance concerns, financial concerns, and another spouse is going to have more comfort with taking on the role of the daily routine — getting to appointments, doing the actual physical care.” Bernstein urges couples to have a conversation about these roles, and falling into these “jobs” is okay as long as it is discussed and decided upon, and you know these roles can change over time.
This discussion should also include equitable division of tasks. “I think because sometimes the roles are relegated, there really is an unfair burden placed on one person over another, sometimes because there is the assumption that they can handle more and they have greater coping skills,” says Bernstein. “After a while, they’re not, because they’re exhausted, so from the start it has to be more equitable and there has to be a decision made and division through discussion.” When one partner has two tasks and another parent has twelve, the situation can cause tension.
The stress of caring for someone with special needs also comes with some blessings. Bernstein advises, “See it as an opportunity. The opportunity is to be able to see it as a gift because it is an opportunity, it is a chance to remember what really matters.”
Bernstein adds, “Many couples and parents get encumbered by and lost in the details of life, and the things that eventually really don’t matter. But when you’re dealing with these issues, just to be able to make it through the day, you get a reminder of what matters, you get a reminder of how to set your priorities, and to really see that as a gift.”
Opening up lines of communication, helping each other out, and remembering why you love each other and your family are a few steps towards maintaining a healthy marriage, and your roles as parent and spouse will become stronger.
Photo by Cindi Matthews
For more information about Rachel Bernstein or to find a licensed MFT in California, visit Counseling California.