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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.

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.