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How to take care of your marriage when you have a child with special needs

I was watching an episode of “Parenthood” the first time I heard the number. The ridiculously high, scary number. You know, the one that says that 80 percent of couples who have a child with autism will get divorced. Yikes.

Except, thankfully, it’s not true.

“It’s an urban legend,” says Laura Marshak, a professor in the department of counseling education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “Married with Special-Needs Children: A Couples’ Guide to Keeping Connected.”

Well, that explains why I could never find any hard data to back up that statement. Because believe me, I tried. I was Googling every possible word combination I could think of, panic-stricken. Nothing.

That’s not to say that couples with a child with a disability don’t face extra challenges, pressures and stress. They do. Marshak says there have been studies that show a higher divorce rate among couples who have a child with special needs, but it’s nowhere near 80 percent, she said.

All marriages have ups and downs. Tossing in kids can intensify whatever strengths or weaknesses are already there. Add a kid with a disability, and well, the stress is amplified. Even though they love their kid like crazy, the worrying and advocating and fighting with insurance companies or schools can wear parents down over time, and make them more snappish with one another.

Sometimes, physical exhaustion from caring for a child who doesn’t sleep well at night wears parents down. Sometimes, one parent puts so much energy into helping the child that they don’t have much left at the end of the day for their spouse. Sometimes, couples feel a disconnect because they disagree about what is best for the child.

Daily life, Marshak said, is more difficult than it otherwise would have been, and not everyone is prepared to deal with that. But it doesn’t have to be a death blow to a marriage, she said.

 “There are more difficulties in terms of lack of time and financial demands, and there is certainly more stress,” Marshak said. “But just because a  marriage is more difficult doesn’t mean that it can’t become as strong or even stronger. People tend to equate more difficult with worse.

“Yes, there are more difficulties. But there’s an arc to learning how to have a good marriage under those circumstances. If you learn to adjust and adapt, it can become quite strong. It is just as possible to have a thriving marriage despite those difficulties.”

Marshak recently shared ways couples can maintain a strong marriage when they have a child with special needs. Here are some of her suggestions (which could really apply to all parenting couples):

1. Do not just become “parent-partners.” When parents’ only connection to each other is through or about the child, it can cause problems, Marshak said. She encourages couples to spend 20 to 30 minutes each day connecting to each other, with no talk of the children allowed. That helps you remember the person you fell in love with.

2. Embrace your differences with your partner. Parents may have different ideas about what their expectations should be for their child, or the best course of treatment. One parent may grieve the child’s diagnosis and the other may not. It’s important to not just tolerate, but embrace your partner’s point of view, Marshak said. When you really try to appreciate your partner’s perspective—instead of insisting that he think like you—it can strengthen your relationship.

3. Be proactive when marital resentments build. Whether it’s asking your partner to pitch in more with the household chores or putting him in charge of wrangling with your insurance company, ask for help sooner than later. If you wait until you’re angry, resentment is already building.

4. Get creative when it comes to romance. Date nights are great, Marshak said, but they might not be an option for some parents of kids with disabilities. So look for creative ways to be romantic at home. One mother told Marshak that she and her husband would have candlelight dinners with their kids on their lap. Or make use of the time when the kids are in school for dates.

5. Appreciate each other’s efforts. Parents may need to rethink their roles so that caring for the child is not exclusively one person’s responsibility, Marshak said. Couples who are raising kids with disabilities often feel depleted, or put upon, she said, when one parent does all of the caregiving. Sharing the responsibilities and giving credit for effort can help make you feel more like a team.