Given enough time and togetherness, any relationship between two people will face a challenge or two. And all marriages take a bit of work, no matter how in love you are. “Love is a component, but it really is only one component,” says clinical psychologist Darren Sush, Psy.D., whose Brentwood-based practice specializes in helping parents of children with autism. Many other things come into play in making a marriage work.
Having a child with special needs can impact a marriage in several ways. It can cause couples to ignore their marriage completely as they focus on caring for their child. It can also intensify challenges within the marriage, driving couples to the breaking point. Talk about how often marriages between parents of children with special needs fail might even cause a couple to give up on theirs without trying to make it work.
With more than a decade of working with families impacted by autism, Sush, a husband and father, offers advice to help couples keep their marriage strong.
Don’t ignore warning signs.
When a marriage begins to suffer, there are generally warning signs. Frequent arguments, lack of communication and lack of physical intimacy are a few. Couples struggling with their relationship also often let go of things they used to enjoy together, whether that is reading together in bed, going out with friends, date nights, travel or hobbies. “They just don’t find the motivation to do it any more,” Sush says.
If you notice these or other signs that something is wrong, Sush says it is time to take action. “It’s really easy for parents to sweep these warning signs under the rug,” he says.
Don’t play the comparison game.
Couples often talk themselves out of working on their marriage by comparing themselves with other couples, but Sush warns against this. Don’t let that couple that looks so happy on Instagram make you feel like a failure. And don’t let that couple that is open about all of the troubles in their lives make you feel like you have no cause for complaint (and so shouldn’t devote the time and energy to working on your marriage). “These other couples are not in your shoes and don’t have the same experience,” Sush says. You have to do what is right for yourself and your marriage.
Don’t let go of couple time.
You probably can’t leave your child and run off to Las Vegas for an impromptu grown-up weekend, and even “date night” might seem like an impossible dream. But don’t give up on togetherness. “Try to spend some time together as a couple,” urges Sush. “It’s going to be challenging, and many parents try to avoid this challenge.” This time won’t be like the time you were able to spend while you were dating, but as an important way to keep your relationship strong it is worth the effort.
“Remember the things that you once loved to do, and then try to make them new,” Sush advises. Instead of dinner out and a show, maybe make a candlelight dinner at home (after the kids are in bed) and watch a movie on TV. Instead of a trip to Vegas, plan a poker night with friends. Keep your plans simple enough that they won’t stress you out. “Otherwise, you’re just setting yourselves up for failure,” Sush says. “Find a way to deal, even if it’s not ideal.”
Don’t think you’re being selfish.
Parents of kids with special needs often feel they should be devoting all the time and energy they can to their child, and that it’s wrong to indulge in anything for themselves. But leaving marital problems unaddressed can impact your kids as well as you. “The mental-health challenges of parents don’t just impact the couple,” Sush says.
Struggles within your marriage can even make your participation in your child’s treatment, care and therapies more difficult and less consistent. When you are feeling unhappy, tired and stressed out, you are less equipped to follow through, for instance, on responding consistently to your child’s problem behaviors. For example, if your child is having a meltdown because they want a toy, and you know all of your therapists have said not to respond by giving them the toy, sometimes you just want to give in. “Those times can increase exponentially when you’re not feeling yourself,” says Sush.
Failing to communicate with your partner can also impact your child’s treatment because it is rare for both parents to make it to every therapy session. If you aren’t in close communication, how will you share new instructions and lessons learned, to keep everyone on the same page?
Don’t go it alone.
Rather than waiting until the marriage is definitely in trouble, Sush urges couples to be proactive. “Solve the problem before it becomes one,” he says. “Taking care of yourself is taking care of your family.”
Many times, parents of kids with special needs distance themselves from family and friends who would normally be part of their support system, and available if they needed to talk. Reach out to them, or find others to support you. “It can be an important way of reducing stress,” Sush says.
You can also enlist the help of a therapist. Sush says it is best to seek out one with experience working with families with special needs, who will understand your situation and help you get back to that “team aspect” of being a couple.
Couples in marriage counseling can face some stigma, especially if they have children with special needs. Therapies and treatments for these children can be intense, stretching a family’s time and money. Parents are afraid that spending resources on therapy for themselves make them look like they aren’t focused on their kids.
But Sush says most insurance plans have mental-health services included in their coverage, and some therapists offer sliding-scale fees. If therapy isn’t an option, Sush recommends looking for free parent or couples support groups.
Think of your marriage as the foundation that holds your family up, and it is easier to see why you don’t want to let it fall into disrepair. “Getting support for yourself may not only help you,” says Sush, “but may allow more support for your kids.”
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.