Keeping it together – Working through difficulties in a relationship

Keeping it together – Working through difficulties in a relationship

  • All couples have their hurdles and difficulties. It stands to reason that raising children with special needs can present additional challenges to a relationship. Some of these are merely an intensified version of difficulties all parents face.

    For example, research has shown that it costs three times more to raise a disabled child than it does to raise a child without disabilities. Finding suitable childcare for disabled children is harder, and respite can be difficult to access. Many parents of disabled children live in a state of permanent exhaustion – a situation that, unlike for parents of non-disabled children, doesn’t necessarily improve as kids grow older. Exhaustion and financial worries can take their toll on couples, cause friction and even separation.

    Other challenges to relationships are unique to families with disabled children or specific to the disability itself – such as processing emotions of guilt or resentment towards the partner, regarding the cause (or assumed cause) of the disability. There may be differences in the acceptance and reaction to the diagnosis, which can cause issues not just between parents but also within the wider family. Often the parent who is quicker to accept their child’s diagnosis assumes the role of “expert” and pushes for interventions and support, while the other is still denying that anything is different about their child. Such disagreements can quickly escalate, with one partner feeling burdened and unsupported and the other pushed and overridden.

    Annette Hines, host of the popular podcast Parenting Impossible: The Special Needs Survival Podcast, talks of carers’ broken dreams. “When our children or our spouse don’t live up to our ideal family image,” she says, “it shatters our sense of accomplishment and well-being, contributing to the number of divorces”. Hines, who is a special needs lawyer, goes on to list the complications entailed in separation: legal fees, custody battles, child maintenance, etc. Needless to say, separation is not a decision taken lightly by parents of children with SEND – although, in some cases, it may well be the right thing to do. It is the last resort, and parents go to great lengths to avoid it. Sadly, many couples address their relationship issues too late – often turning to counselling to save a foundering marriage, instead of proactively investing into their relationship earlier on. Understandably so; with the demanding routine and responsibilities of carers, finding the energy and opportunity to engage in relationship-building exercises is often a pipedream.

    Family consultant Or Schwarz Cohen, founder of Creative Family, runs couples’ workshops around the world. Like Hines, she refers to expectation and disappointment as underlying causes of marital strife: “We sometimes view our children as our business card: when they don’t fulfil societal expectations, when they misbehave, when people stare at them or judge them, we think – what does this say about me? Most parents would not direct their negative emotions towards the child, who they know isn’t responsible for their disability, instead they take them out on their partner.”

    The solution lies neither in giving in to these emotions nor suppressing them, but in raising one’s awareness of them. “Awareness is everything”, says Cohen and goes on to emphasize the importance of reflecting on how we were all shaped by our experiences as children. “Parents need to recognise the difference between the child that they once were, and the child they now have, and see that child for what they are, without projecting expectations onto them. When it comes to the relationship with their partner, they need to look at their own family history: what notions and values did they grow up with and have brought into the relationship? Are these aligned with their partner’s? And if not, what can be done to accommodate both parties?”

    According to Cohen, awareness helps us move beyond our knee-jerk reactions, look deeper and find solutions. She gives an example of a spouse who would go on weeklong sporting holidays with friends, leaving the other carer to cope on their own. The athlete had always envisioned an outdoorsy and adventurous family that would travel the world, and now, faced with the reality of their child’s limited mobility, they escape the situation. “The solution would not be to judge but to show them what their behaviour means to their spouse, and what it does to the relationship. We acknowledge that adventure is a value for them, but their partner values and needs stability and security. Perhaps three-day trips away from home would be enough? Maybe they could use their sporty spirit to organise suitable physical activities for their child? Or arrange childcare, so their spouse could join them for a couples’ getaway? There can be many solutions, but it all starts with awareness: seeing who I am, who is in front of me – acknowledging each partner’s expectations and finding a common path. My motto is ‘let’s make friends – maybe we’ll end up falling in love’.”

    Staying positive is another key element: “When we shine a spotlight on the positive, the positive grows, when we shine a light on the negative, the negative grows. This is why we need to concentrate on the strengths, AND not only to note the positive, but to describe it, giving authentic and specific praise to our child and partner.”

    When asked what tip she would give couples who can’t attend her workshops, Cohen says: “You don’t necessarily need therapy to develop awareness. Just take the time to look inside, to sit with yourself, sit with your partner, and ask each other ‘what is important for us, what do we struggle with?’ Just have these conversations.”

    Where to turn for help with your relationship

    Relate is a charity offering affordable counselling, mediation and relationship workshops. They also support couples to achieve an amicable separation.

    The Sheffield Parenting Team have a free programme called “EPEC – Being a Parent Together” for parents looking to solve difficulties in their relationship (not specific to parents of children with SEND). To book, call 0114 2057243 or visit their Eventbrite page.

    The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has a therapist directory with an extensive list of private Sheffield-based relationship counsellors.

    Your marriage is not doomed: the surprising reality of partnership stability in families with disabled children

    At first glance the statistic is disheartening. A quick google search warns of a whopping 80% divorce rate for parents with autistic children, compared to “only” half of the marriages ending in a divorce in the general population.

    However, other studies paint a different picture of the correlation between children’s disability and couples’ durability.

    For example, a 2008 study found that the divorce rate among parents of children with Down Syndrome is lower compared with parents of children without disabilities (7.8% compared to 10.8% in the control group).

    In a unique long-term study, published by the American National Institute for Health in 2015, researchers followed the marriages of over 7,000 parents in a Wisconsin community, over a 50-year period. They found no increased divorce rates in families with children with special needs. A surprising finding of the study was that while couples with many children were generally more prone to separation than couples with a small family, for families with a disabled child the result was reversed; couples with more children were more likely to stay together, possibly through the support of non-disabled siblings.

    Blogger and advocate Calleen Peterson calls the Wisconsin study a ray of hope: “Your marriage will take work and care, like any other person’s marriage, but you have just as much of a chance to make it work as anyone else. So ignore this statistic that gets thrown at you and go spend time with your spouse and child.”

    By Eleanor Cantor

Page last updated: 10th May 2024