Is Your Child with Special Needs Challenging Your Relationship?

Anyone who’s been married or in a committed relationship can tell you that trying to blend the needs and priorities of two people to create a happy partnership is no easy feat. Throwing children into the mix makes for even greater challenges as the focus shifts away from you and more time is devoted to the kids.

But when one of those children has special needs – such as learning issues, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or falling somewhere on the autism spectrum – the strains on your relationship can be even more pronounced. (For the purposes of this article, I’m confining the term “special needs” to include children who have learning issues or have been diagnosed with ADHD or autism, and am not addressing emotional or physical disabilities.)

I often see conflicts arise in relationships when parents aren’t on the same page about how their child’s disability should be managed and the variety of ways those rifts play out. Here are some examples:

Kathy is a stay-at-home mom of three kids whose oldest child has been recently diagnosed with ADHD and has become a source of disruption at home. The 8-year-old is easily distracted and impulsive, often leading to conflict with his two younger siblings. Kathy’s husband, Rob, has begun staying later at the office during the week to avoid the nightly chaos of dinnertime and putting the kids to bed. Instead of the couple sharing the workload, these tasks – along with the challenge of getting their oldest child to focus on his nightly homework – now fall on Kathy’s shoulders as Rob struggles with how to handle his son’s behavior.

Tom and Suzanne have been happily married for close to a decade but have started arguing frequently about the types of services they each think are necessary for their 9-year-old son, who’s been diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Tom doesn’t think the expense of additional speech and language therapy, on top of the services their son receives at school, is necessary while Suzanne feels strongly that their son is benefitting from those additional services. They also disagree over the amount of occupational therapy their son receives weekly at a private practice and Tom questions whether all of the out-of-pocket services, and significant expenses, are really helping their son.

Chip and Lisa disagree constantly over the best way to manage their daughter’s reading disability and attentional issues. Chip is pushing to seek professional help – like working with a nutritionist and cognitive behavioral therapist – to help their daughter and is even open to trying medication. But Lisa also struggled with these issues in school and feels strongly that their daughter can learn coping mechanisms to manage throughout life without any formal intervention, just like she did.

Other challenges I have observed in couples who have a child with special needs include:

  • Loss of intimacy
  • Diminishment of free time individually and as a couple
  • Feeling guilty about a child’s disability
  • Denial by one parent of child’s diagnosis
  • Focus on the child with special needs takes attention away from other children in family
  • Child with a disability becomes the sole focus of conversation

Even in primetime media we’ve begun to see realistic examples of couples raising a child with special needs. Over six seasons, the NBC television show “Parenthood” showed the highs and lows of raising a child on the autism spectrum and the strain it can put on a marriage. In one of the early episodes, the mom anxiously tries to schedule a date night with her husband after being informed by a friend that there was a high incidence of divorce among couples who have a child with autism. The couple’s attempts are thwarted throughout the episode but in the end, they are able to find time alone and continue, over the following five seasons, to fight becoming another statistic.

An article in The Washington Post last year blew a big hole in that notion that many couples with a special needs children end up getting divorced, and the author makes the case that it’s just another challenge for couples to work through. “If you learn to adjust and adapt, it can become quite strong,” the author writes.

So what should parents do?

For my clients who have a special needs child, I suggest that they try the following:

  • Schedule (that’s right, put it on the calendar!) time to do things together and pursue individual interests
  • Share connections outside of your parenting roles
  • Become well-informedabout your child’s diagnosis through research and speaking with professionals
  • Remember to check in with each other to ensure that you have a shared strategy and goal for managing your child’s needs
  • Think about how you’ve managed conflict in other areas of your life and whether those strategies need some tweaking for success

It also helps for couples to take advantage of some of the many support groups that exist to help parents navigate life with a kid who has special needs. One great place to start is to see whether your child’s school district has a Friends of Different Learners group (it’s like a PTA for parents raising kids with special needs). Some other good resources include:

What couples need to keep in mind is that there are many challenges involved in creating and maintaining a happy relationship and raising a child who needs special attention is just one of many you will encounter together on your journey. But always be mindful that even though neither you nor your partner caused your child to have this special need, only the two of you – working together – can assure that your child will have every opportunity to thrive.

All material contained on this blog is for information purposes only. This information is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional psychological advice. Always consult a qualified professional prior to utilizing any of the information provided in this post.

If you feel that private therapy would be beneficial, please feel free to contact me to schedule an appointment.

photo: Greyframe