So let’s start with the elephant in the room. Though maybe that’s not the right analogy, because it turns out this elephant is talked about all the time and isn’t actually real.
You can’t go anywhere without someone mentioning this mythical 80% divorce rate of special needs parents. Geez, people, talk about discouraging.
But it’s NOT true! Special needs parents do NOT have an 80% divorce rate.
Fortunately, Key Ministry compiled some ACTUAL facts and studies about divorce rates. Some studies showed higher divorce rates in the first few years and then lower. Some of them even show an overall LOWER THAN AVERAGE divorce rate!
So don’t give up. You’re not doomed to fail. And shame on anyone who would discourage you with that made up percentage. Tell them to go shove it.
But marriage is still hard and adding a special needs child to the family can certainly increase stress levels. So what are some things you can do in the midst of crisis and chaos to keep your marriage thriving?
Well…lots of things, actually and hopefully I can come up with some tips that will help you out.
But first you need to remember this:
You are not your spouse and your spouse is not you.
We are all different people and we deal with stress differently. Really differently sometimes.
You are not going to handle this the same way as your spouse.
Your spouse is not going to handle this the same way as you.
Divide and Conquer
When our daughter was first in the NICU, I’ll admit to getting pretty upset that my husband didn’t want to be there with her as often as I did, but one of the nurses gave me some great advice one day. She explained that dads were rarely there, but that it wasn’t because they didn’t care. They just struggled with not being able to fix it.
And my husband is the quintessential fixer type guy.
It killed him to see her struggling and not be able to do anything about it.
Once I changed my perspective, it was easier to give one another grace and divide up responsibilities accordingly.
From then on, I knew that if we were in the hospital, he needed things to go do. He couldn’t sit around in a hospital room. But I cannot do anything else when we have a crisis. All of my focus goes to our daughter and I can’t handle the rest of life.
So we divide and conquer. And we do it well now.
You are Both Grieving. You are Both Traumatized
Grief and trauma are unfortunately often a big part of special needs parenting. You hurt for your child. You grieve what was lost. You miss your old life and the life you thought you’d have. And you’ve maybe had to go through some very traumatic events with your child.
Because of that, it’s going to be hard to support one another, but even more important to keep doing it.
You may be someone who takes action, keeps busy to avoid thinking about the hard things. Your spouse may be someone who shuts down. Or vice versa. Or maybe you seek out distractions. Maybe your spouse spends a lot of time crying and processing.
We don’t all look the same when hard times hit.
But how quickly do we often jump to OUR way being the RIGHT way? The ONLY way even?
Keep reminding yourself that you are struggling and that your spouse is struggling, too.
You BOTH Need Someone to Talk To
Along those lines of you both struggling, you both need someone to talk to. Because there are going to be times where you worry about burdening your spouse with even more trauma.
Ideally, you both need to get counseling. My husband and I see the same counselor separately. It’s a wonderful situation and we’ve given her permission to discuss our sessions with one another unless we specifically ask her not to. So she’s getting more of the big picture of our trauma and helps guide us on how to support one another.
If you can’t get into counseling, a pastor would be another good choice. If you’re in a church, all the better, but if you’re not, many pastors are still more than happy to sit down with you and talk.
Another option would be another special needs parenting couple, preferably one that is a bit ahead of you on this journey.
Just make sure you BOTH get a chance to talk about things in a safe environment. So often we focus on support systems for JUST the moms and the dads are left trying to process and cope on their own.
Search Out and Appreciate your Differences
This one might take some work, but it’s well worth the effort.
I’ve shared about various personality tools to figure out who you are and that’s an important first step, but if you can use those tools to help you learn more about your spouse, too? All the better.
My husband and I approach the world pretty differently. We’re focused on different things. And that has absolutely led to frustration and conflict at times, but the more we’ve learned about one another, the more in awe we are of each other’s strengths. We’ve also become more aware of how we can help one another.
Strive for Moments, not Date Nights
You might have a very long period of time where date nights are not possible. Whether it’s the lack of childcare for your special needs child, exhaustion, money, whatever, date nights just may not be in your current reality.
Shift your goals.
Look at your schedule and see where you can pick out some time alone. That might be in the morning before the kids get up (not us, my kids can FEEL my eyes open), lunch together at home, or evenings after the kids go to bed.
For us, we try to have breakfast together and we’ve made bedtime very early for our girls, so we can have some downtime together at night. We sometimes have lunch together while the girls watch a movie, and every now and then, we let the girls eat dinner on their own in the living room so we can sit in the kitchen alone.
How often do we get a date out? For a long while it was once a year or so. We’re now at once every 3-4 months and we usually do a day out rather than an evening because of our childcare situation.
And it works. We get to check in with one another often, see how we’re each doing, and talk over things that have come up.
Share Your Interests Even if You Don’t Share Interests
My husband and I share very few interests. Besides food. Food is our common interest.
But we work hard to engage one another on our individual interests. I strive to understand enough about 3D printing to have a conversation about it, to share in his excitement over filaments and printers and projects. And he tries to keep up with whatever new personality system I’m obsessing over, taking note of terms, and letting me talk things out.
You don’t need to have hobbies you do together all the time. Especially when quite a few of your hobbies may fall by the wayside with the chaos of life. Just keep showing interest in your spouse’s interests.
This lifestyle? It can be absolutely ridiculous at times. LAUGH about it!
That time you pulled up to a drive through and the girl told you your van smelled like hospital? HOW COULD SHE EVEN SMELL THAT OVER THE FRIED GREASE SMELL SHE WAS SWIMMING IN????
That time you shot meat puree out of a syringe all over the ceiling? And your toddler? Poor little girl covered with beef and a shocked look.
When you walked into the living room to find your kid’s trach on the floor, her struggling to breathe, but still insistent on watching her movie? Priorities, kid!!!!
Things are FUNNY. They’re also sometimes sad and traumatizing, but laugh as much as you can. You NEED it. You need it for yourself and you need it for your connection to one another.
Hang in There
You are GOING to have hard times. There is no way around it. Especially when you’re dealing with the high stress levels of special needs parenting.
But guess what? You can get through. Look around you. Eighty percent of special needs parents are NOT divorcing. They’re not.
You are not doomed to be a statistic.
You can pull through with a marriage that has held you close to one another even as you both sat crumbling.
Because that’s what marriage is supposed to do.
It’s designed to bind you to this person so that even when things are hard, even when it seems like things will always be hard, you stay next to one another and see each other through.
Hold tight to your spouse. Even when you’re struggling. Even when you feel lost in the stress and chaos and trauma and hardships.
But keep remembering that you are two different people who will react in two different ways to this life.
And that’s wonderful. That’s what marriage is about: two different people coming together to love and support one another, not just when things are good and easy (you don’t need vows to stick around when all is well), but when you’re watching your child struggling, when you’re in and out of the hospital, when your own health is falling apart, when you’re grieving, when you’re traumatized, when you’re tired.
Hang in there. You’ve already come through a lot and made it. Keep going.