In October, my husband and I will celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary. We are the very best of friends, a wonderful team and truly in love. BUT, despite all that we seemingly have going for us, according to experts, over 80% of marriages like ours will end in divorce.
We will never forget the beautiful day our son was born. It was one of the happiest, most amazing days of our lives, as we became parents for the first time and saw our son enter the world! It was also one of the scariest and most terrifying days we ever experienced, as we watched doctors rush him from the birthing room to the NICU, purple and not breathing.
That same unbelievable day, a social worker walked into our room and told us that our marriage was doomed to fail because our son had been born with very serious and complex needs. That is a moment I don't think either of us will ever forget. We made a choice that day, and every day since, to beat the odds by being vigilant about our relationship.
Doing the Work
It takes serious, deliberate, hard work to build a marriage--any marriage. But when you add in a child--any child--it becomes even more challenging. Pile on special needs of any kind and the challenge multiplies almost infinitely. Even though a "special needs" marriage is more stressful, it's important to focus on the same issues as any other married couple. We just need to focus with even more diligence. With all the stresses we face on daily basis, this can be extremely difficult.
Here are some basics that we continue to focus on every day in our marriage:
Differences Can Be Strengths
It is a given that no two people are the same, but we can use our strengths to complement each other. For example, often one person is better at dealing with finances, while the other is good at managing the everyday household tasks. Or perhaps one person excels at building things while the other enjoys cooking. When your child has significant medical needs, this may include one of you fielding phone calls from the insurance company and filling in paperwork for social services, while the other manages the day-to-day prescriptions, phone calls to doctors and conversations with therapists and teachers. However you make it work, respect each other's skills and abilities as part of what makes the family work well. It is important and a great way to honor each other in the marriage.
Decompressing is Healthy
Everyone needs a little space, some breathing room to decompress. I learned this fairly early in our marriage, but I have to say that once our son arrived, I needed a break after a long hard day of caring for him! So when my husband came home, I was ready to pass my little guy over and take MY break!
I learned pretty quickly that handing him over didn't work very well. Just because my husband had not been with our son all day did not mean that he was not equally tired or stressed from his day. It took some trial and error, but over time we found that if he had just a few minutes to de-stress upon arriving home, he was then ready to give me a nice break too!
We also found that it was vital for each of us to have breaks, and enjoy time alone. This was extremely important for refreshing ourselves, and then being able to come back to the family again revitalized. A break may just be a brisk walk, a trip out for coffee with a friend, or a short run, but these short breaks made all the difference in the world.
Deliberate Communication Works
Early in our marriage, I would give hints to my husband about my feelings, or expect him to just know what I needed. I thought that if I had to tell him, then something was wrong with our relationship. I learned over time what now seems pretty obvious: he can't read my mind! In order for him to know my needs, I had to clearly tell him. In order for me to know his needs, I also had to ask him. Every couple is different, but taking the time to care about what the other person needs is the first step.
Give and Take
Marriage really is about give and take. Sometimes you give and sometimes you take. The key is that you don't do too much of either, so a healthy balance is maintained. Sometimes you'll be up and sometimes he will be. Other times it will be the other way around. Sometimes you may have to put up with a lot, as your spouse might be going through a very difficult time. You may have to give and give and give, and not be getting much back at all. It will be very tough to hang in there. Other times you will be the one who is receiving, receiving, receiving. But that is what loving someone else is really all about.
What we have found is if we both do our best to put each other's needs first, it works out really well. Over time, things do tend to even out. Of course, during the difficult times it takes patience, forgiveness and lots of grace! But it's well worth the effort and hard work to see the relationship grow stronger.
Making It Happen
When a child has complex needs, it's very hard to make our marriages a priority. But we need to remember that our marriage is the center of the family, the core that holds it all together. Many couples say there is no time for dates, and that there is no one capable of managing their child's needs. Make this a priority! Take the time to train family members or friends to be comfortable with your child's needs so you can have date nights and other times out together. This allows you to schedule time alone together just for YOU! Make it happen!
You may think your children are not aware of your relationship or that it doesn't really affect them, but it does. When things are going well, your kids pick up on it. They also pick up on it when things are not going so well. When you take the time to show affection to your spouse, they see that, too. They notice when you go out on a date night or have dinner together, and take the cue from you on how to treat others with respect, love and dignity.
Take the time to build a strong, healthy marriage for yourselves, for your child with complex needs, and for your family as a whole. It will take continuous, vigilant effort, but it is well worth it to beat those odds!
We have worked so very hard to beat those odds, and will continue to work hard at this for years and years to come.Deborah Tiel Millard
worked full time caring for her son Connor, who struggled with
significant medical and developmental challenges for over eight years
before he passed away due to complications of mitochondrial disease and
hemophagocytic lymphohystiocytosis (HLH). She now utilizes her
experience as a Parent Liaison supporting parents of children with
special needs at a private school in NJ. Deb also supports children and
families through Connor's House, which she co-founded in September 2008. Connor's
House is a non-profit
organization in NJ that supports children with complex health care
needs, together with their families, by creating a community of support
that helps them to embrace each day and live life to its fullest. To
learn more about Connor's House please check out: http://www.connorshouse.org