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Marriage under pressure: when your child has special needs

When the whole family is caught up in the whirlwind of life with a child with LD, it's easy to neglect your marriage. This article offers coping skills for couples.

By Kristin Stanberry

Raising a child who has a learning disability (LD) requires a lot of time and energy from parents. At times, the whole family may be caught up in the whirlwind of adjusting to life with LD. In this situation, it's easy to neglect your marriage. Remember it's essential to nurture your relationship during such challenging times. Partners who understand and support each other can better help their children and each other. Having a strong, healthy marriage also gives your children a sense of security.

Follow your tracks

When focusing on your marriage, you may find it useful to imagine two different tracks running parallel to each other. Track One includes a couple's outward behavior and actions - things that are easy to observe Track Two runs parallel to Track One but involves deeper feelings under the surface. For every behavior on Track One, there are corresponding emotions at work on Track Two.

Track one: watch for warning signs

When a child has LD, his relationship with one or both parents can intensify. This is normal and expected. However, pouring extra energy into your child's well being can make it easy to ignore signs of stress in your marriage. Try to stay aware of how you and your spouse are behaving.

There are some common warning signs to be aware of. For example, do you or your spouse:

  • Devote most of your time, energy, and attention to your child and have "nothing" left for yourself or your partner?
  • Avoid being at home and find excuses to stay away?
  • Seem to be addicted to drugs, alcohol, food, work, or exercise?
  • Have trouble communicating with your partner without blame, anger, defensiveness, or frustration?

It's best not to ignore signs like these, hoping they'll disappear. Try to face problems together and resolve them as soon as possible. It takes courage to ask your partner about his behavior. It can be even harder to admit to your own shortcomings.

There are many ways to improve how you behave with each other and your family. Often, a licensed marriage counselor or clergy member can help you change the patterns you've fallen into. Let's explore some steps you can take right now.

Work as a team

It's critical that you and your partner both understand your child's LD — and how you can help him. Whenever possible, participate in these activities together:

  • Back-to-school night and Open House
  • Parent-teacher conferences
  • IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings
  • Your child's medical appointments
  • Seminars about learning difficulties

Doing this allows each of you to hear information directly and ask questions. You'll also get a clear sense of what's involved. That way, you can make better decisions as a team. If you handle the day-to-day management of your child's LD, your spouse will better understand the work you're doing.

As the father of a second grade student explains, "By attending the parent-teacher conferences with my wife, I found there were some tasks I was comfortable volunteering for. I offered to complete most of the paperwork, which I'm good at. That left my wife more time to help our daughter with her homework."

Give each other some space

It takes energy to help your child and maintain your marriage. To stay healthy, you and your partner may need time away from each other and your responsibilities. Try to give each other a break from parenting duties on a regular basis. Then, use your free time to enjoy activities, hobbies, or social plans that help you relax and recharge.

When you and your partner are together, be sensitive to each other's need for space and privacy. One stay-at-home mom cringes when she describes how she used to greet her husband when he returned home from work. "He was barely in the door when I'd unload all the problems I'd had with the kids that day," she admits. "He'd give me the silent treatment all evening." After several arguments about this, she realized he needed to settle in before helping her. She found that if she let him unwind for a while, then he was happy to play with the kids while she fixed dinner. They learned to wait and discuss problems at less hectic times of the day.

Rediscover each other

When your child's needs demand your time and energy, romance may be the last thing on your mind! But rekindling your relationship is critical if you and your partner are to stay strong and happy.

Make it a point to schedule regular dates with each other. Your time together can be as simple as taking a walk after dinner or as special as the two of you getting away for the weekend. Use this time together to rediscover each other. Avoid talking about your child's problems. To accomplish this, hire a sitter or enlist help from other family members.

Track two: when actions and feelings don't match

Often, a person's behavior reflects what he feels inside. But if you and your partner are stressed and have lost touch with each other, one or both of you may behave in a way that hides your true feelings. From there, communication often breaks down and your marriage suffers. There are steps you can take to understand each other better.

Understanding your partner

If your partner's behavior frustrates or confuses you, there may be a "disconnect" between outward behavior (Track One) and inner feelings (Track Two). One woman recalls how her husband's silence bothered her as she struggled to help their son who has AD/HD. She thought back to another time when her husband seemed aloof and unconcerned. It was before she had surgery. "He didn't seem to care about my operation. Months later he admitted how afraid he had been that something would happen to me during surgery. He couldn't tell me at the time."

That memory prompted her to ask him how he really felt about the current situation with their son. Professional counseling helped him sort through and express his emotions. "It turned out my husband felt guilty because he couldn't solve all of our son's problems," she explains.

This story is not uncommon. Like many men in our culture, her husband needed encouragement to verbalize his feelings. And when he did speak up, he expressed a sense of inadequacy for not being able to protect his wife during surgery, or end their son's struggle. Men often prefer to look for immediate solutions rather than learn to understand and manage a problem over time.

Finally, consider the different emotions you've felt about your child's LD. Your spouse may be processing his feelings in a different way. And his past experiences may influence his reaction to your child's LD.

Helping your partner understand you

Sharing information honestly and in ways that are comfortable will help you and your spouse understand each other better.

If your partner seems to have a hard time hearing you talk about feelings, try writing him a note to express yourself. This will help you focus on what's important and give him time to consider your concerns without having to respond right away.

Looking to the future

Working to repair and strengthen your marriage can be hard work. The path to a better marriage is seldom smooth; you'll encounter bumps and detours along the way. But if you and your partner agree on your overall goal, the journey will be a bit easier. "Some of the couples I counsel make a clear commitment to stay married," a therapist relates. "Once they set that as their goal, then the other pieces fall into place."

Your marriage is a union of two people with individual needs. Your child and family situation are also unique to you. Working together, you and your partner will find the best path to take. The reward comes when your understanding and love for each other deepens. There's a good chance your marriage and family will not only survive — but also thrive — from the challenging experience you are going through.

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.

 

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