How to Keep Your Marriage Strong While Raising Children with Special Needs
We have been asked repeatedly to discuss how to keep a marriage strong when raising children with special needs. We feel this topic is so important, and we wanted to be sure we had incredible resources to share before we jumped in!
Now that we’ve done the research and gathered advice from real people in the same boat, we’re excited to share what we have learned.
Table of Contents
- How to Keep Your Marriage Strong While Raising Children with Special Needs
- From Our Readers: Advice for Navigating Marriage and a Special Needs Child
- From the Experts: Your Marriage and Raising Children with Disabilities
- Fact VS Myth: Divorce Rates Among Families with Special Needs Children
- Date Night Ideas for Parents of Disabled Children
From Our Readers: Advice for Navigating Marriage and a Special Needs Child
You and your spouse have been blessed with raising a child/children with special needs, and whether this is a new experience for you or something you have both witnessed before, we know it can be tricky to navigate.
We spoke with several couples with children with disabilities and special needs. For their privacy, we have left out their names, but here is some of the excellent advice they wanted us to share with you:
- “Our youngest son has Down Syndrome, and when we first found out, we were scared for our family. We had no idea how to navigate a child with special needs and didn’t feel our family or our marriage was cut out for the job. We are so very happy to say that our son has brought nothing but joy and love into our home, and we are sure many other families feel the same way! Yes, it’s hard. Yes, our marriage suffered in the beginning. But now that we’ve been doing this for five years, we feel we have a pretty good system and a routine figured out. Our best advice is not to panic, realize that no parent is perfect, and understand that it is absolutely necessary to put your marriage first at times. We know it’s hard, and we know it feels selfish to put the kids on the back burner for a few minutes. But trust us when we say it isn’t selfish, and it doesn’t make you a bad parent. Making date night a priority and spending each evening together as a couple has helped us tremendously.”
- “Our youngest son was born with several physical disabilities, and for the first few months of his life, we were told he wouldn’t live past two years old. Of course, this news was absolutely devastating, and we didn’t know how we would ever recover from losing a child. Thankfully modern medicine came to the rescue, and our son is now 15 years old. But before we knew that our son would be okay, our marriage suffered greatly. Both of us tried to be strong for the other, and we never discussed our true feelings. We put our relationship on the back burner, thinking that it was the only way we could focus on our baby. If we could go back in time, we would tell our younger selves to trust in the Lord but also in each other. We’d also tell those young, scared parents to take time every day to focus on their relationship. Those first few years of our son’s life were challenging enough without the strain on our relationship. Our marriage situation didn’t help anything, and in fact, it probably made things much worse.”
- “I am a mother of six children, two with disabilities (our babies are twin girls with Down Syndrome). I enjoy anything “family” (boating, camping, travel, kid events etc.), activities with friends, cheering on my kids in all that they do and running a business with my husband, among several other things. With all that on my plate, sometimes I lose sight of being a wife. My husband works a lot, so our time is limited together. And time to do just something together isn’t something we’re very good at, especially because we both absolutely love being with our kids. But, we do take time every once in a while to just do something together without children. We try to find things that make us feel young. Date nights (these are a MUST DO-please do them as often as you can) have consisted of miniature golfing, shopping, or just taking a short drive together. Another MUST that I think helps to keep our marriage thriving is compromise and forgiveness. If we ever have a conflict or disagree, both of us are willing to say sorry, forgive each other, and try harder. I have a friend who has a down syndrome daughter; she once told me that her daughter was the “glue” that kept their family together. I’ve loved that and kept that in my thoughts. I also think the Lord sent us two angels because we needed double the glue. Haha. One other thing I’ve learned is that when you have three strings tied together, they can never break. Those strings are, in essence, the husband, wife, and Christ. When Christ is the center of your life and marriage it is far easier to enjoy life and overcome trials. I know that not everyone is fortunate enough to not have marriage last because of certain circumstances. I know that I wouldn’t have gotten this far without the few things I’ve mentioned here. Both my husband and I have found so much joy in having kids with disabilities. When you look for the positive, enjoy the good things, pray always and work together as a team with your family and friends, it’s amazing— not always easy, but truly amazing!! A couple of my favorite quotes are “enjoy the moment” and “love never fails, ” which have helped me through hard times. It takes a Village, and I love my village.” * the picture below is a photo of this beautiful family!
- “Raising a child with special needs isn’t easy, and it’s a team effort. You must put your marriage first in order to navigate the lifestyle and challenges that come with raising special needs children.”
- “It doesn’t matter what kind of special needs your child has. It’s all tricky! We learned the hard way that we can’t do it alone. Bring in family, friends, and anyone who is willing to offer help. If someone offers to babysit for you so you can have some time alone with your spouse, then DO IT. That doesn’t make you a bad parent! Your kids need parents who have taken the time to focus on their relationship so they can turn around and focus on their kids. If your cup is empty, you can’t expect to fill anyone else’s cups. Honestly, I feel like this advice goes for anyone who is raising kids, period.”
We LOVE all of this solid advice! We love how each couple mentioned that it’s important to put your marriage first, no matter the situation with your children.
As far as how to navigate your marriage and a special needs child, keep reading for some great advice from experts.
From the Experts: Your Marriage and Raising Children with Disabilities
There are hundreds of fantastic articles out there that discuss how to keep your marriage a priority when you are raising disabled children. A quick Google search of “how to keep your marriage strong when raising children with special needs” has over 270,000,000 results! WOW!
Lucky for you, you won’t need to read through two million posts to receive some solid advice! Below you will find our favorite tidbits of advice from four great articles. We have linked each article so you can go back and read it in full if you have the desire!
Dr. Gregory Popcak wrote the article Marriage and a Special Needs Child. In this article, we found two pieces of his advice that we loved:
1. You’re in it together. Under any circumstances, a couple needs to be a team, but this is rarely as true as when a couple is confronted by the challenges that can come with raising a special-needs child. But the challenges can become a blessing if the couple responds to each challenge together. The research is consistent that the marital problems couples may experience in this situation are not so much caused by the time and effort it takes to attend to the child’s needs but rather by the tendency for couples to retreat into themselves and stop communicating with one another.
2. Take time for each other. Every couple needs time alone, but it is critical for the parents of a special-needs child who need time to process their stress and reconnect. Getting this time can be difficult because finding competent childcare can be a challenge, especially if the child’s disability is serious. But even when date nights out are impossible, it is essential that a couple at least carve out some time at home where they can be alone to play, pray, talk, and be intimate with each other. Studies consistently show that people who deal with stress by reaching out instead of pulling in, can learn to thrive despite–or even because of–their challenging circumstances. Cling to each other in good times and bad.
Dr. Popcak also discusses the need to reach out for assistance and support. He recommends making a list of the things you feel would best support your child in achieving their potential and helping your family function best. After you’ve done this, discuss this list with the people in your lives regularly. Allow the people in your life to offer help, and don’t be afraid to seek assistance.
In the article Prioritizing the Relationship with your Spouse while Raising a Special Needs Child Lisa Thomas, LCSW, LMFT, DAACS opens up about the challenges that arose after her son was diagnosed with Fragile X syndrome.
“Long discussions about therapies were a hot topic of conversation with my husband, and medications were a close second. We talked about Fragile X day and night. Our relationship as a married couple of 12 years was demolished down into discussions that accompanied having a special needs child. I feared a divorce might be the next thing coming as a dark depression swept over me. I was either researching my child’s syndrome, caring for him directly, or I was sleeping — being unconscious was my only refuge from the pain. Even caring for my typical daughter was sad to me because I cried over everything she could do on her own and dubbed each ‘a miracle.’
Connecting with my spouse was the last item on the list.
Actually, if I’m being brutally honest, it wasn’t even on my list.
Going on dates only provided time to talk about Jack’s syndrome at a different table that wasn’t in our kitchen.”
After several months Lisa realized she needed to get help. So she organized her son’s care, reached out to a psychiatrist to discuss her mental health, and she joined a Facebook group specifically for families who have children with Fragile X syndrome.
“Finally, it was time to reconnect with my husband, whose patience should get an award. I began by asking him to go on a lunch date with me. It had been eight months since the diagnosis, and I’ll bet we hadn’t had but a handful of conversations that didn’t revolve around Fragile X.
He liked that idea and suggested that we try to have a date night together once a week and use that time to not talk about either of our beautiful children. I told him I thought that was a great idea, and we could start the next night. He smiled bigger than I had seen him smile in eight months and said, ‘I would love that. I have missed you, Lisa.'”
12 Powerful Ways to Strengthen Your Marriage as Special Needs Parents, written by Alix Strickland Frenoy for Special Learning House, is another fantastic resource! We particularly loved number four from their list:
4. Find someone who can stay at home with your child so you can have some time to go out and do a fun activity for just the 2 of you.
Again, make time for each other – without the kids. Spending time together as a family with your children is wonderful, but you also need to spend time alone with your spouse for your relationship to thrive. As a special needs parent, I know you may be concerned about leaving your child with someone other than you or your spouse. You may be worried about your child’s allergies, comfort level with new people, difficult behaviors, and difficulty communicating… the list goes on and on. I get it, but I know you need this time with your spouse. Find someone you trust and educate them about your child so that you know your child is safe and happy when you’re not there.
Lastly, we loved an article from Autism Centre Awareness, Inc where Maureen Bennie answered the question, “How do I keep my marriage strong while raising a child with autism?”
Number six on her list of advice states, “Don’t be afraid to seek counseling. Sometimes it helps to have an outside party help determine the family’s needs. It can be helpful to know your feelings and worries around autism are normal and shared by other parents. If one spouse feels too discouraged to start counseling, go alone and begin to make positive changes. Most people feel overwhelmed raising a child with autism. I still experience periods of intense anxiety, like at the beginning of the school year. Transitions still cause huge amounts of stress in our personal lives. However, we have learned to ride these ups and downs and know that they will pass.”
The article wrapped up with Maureen stating, “There is no one answer to a successful marriage in the face of autism, but keeping connected with your spouse helps. Surround yourself with supportive people who will listen or can give you a break when needed. Above all, don’t be afraid to ask for help when needed.”
Fact VS Myth: Divorce Rates Among Families with Special Needs Children
It’s common knowledge that the divorce rate is terribly high. According to a study in 2022 by Miles Mason Family Law Group, PLC, “expect the divorce rate to be at least 44.2%. This is based on a marriage rate of 6.1 people per 1,000 total population and a divorce rate of 2.7 people per 1,000 total population.[xii] So for every 6.1 people who get married, 2.7 will be divorced.”
However, it’s a common misconception that parents of children with disabilities are at a higher risk of divorce.
In fact, we found a study that took place over the course of 50 years. The Relative Risk of Divorce in Parents of Children with Developmental Disabilities: Impacts of Lifelong Parenting was conducted by Eun Ha Namkung, MSW, Jieun Song, Ph.D., Jan S. Greenberg, Ph.D., Marsha R. Mailick, Ph.D., and Frank J. Floyd, Ph.D. for the National Library of Medicine. The study concludes that “divorce rates were not elevated, on average, in families with a child with developmental disabilities.”
If you are one of the thousands of couples that have heard your marriage is doomed due to your situation, please have hope! This cannot be farther from the truth.
ALL marriages are complicated. ALL marriages suffer trials and tribulations. ALL couples face challenges, and we’re pretty confident that such challenges nearly push them to their breaking point.
You can take preventive actions to ensure your marriage is strong and divorce-proof, regardless of your family dynamic.
We feel it’s important to note that each family’s situation is vastly different. What may work for one family doesn’t guarantee success for another. However, everyone we spoke with, as well as the experts above all, made a point of telling parents of children with special needs that it’s important to set aside time to work on your relationship with your spouse.
Have you ever been on an airplane? If so, we’re sure you will recall when the flight attendants go over the safety procedures should there be an emergency on the plane. During a specific part of their demonstration, the flight attendants tell all passengers to put their own oxygen masks on their face before helping others, even children.
This advice relates to your marriage.
To take care of your family and your children, you must first take care of your marriage.
Date Night Ideas for Parents of Disabled Children
Now that we’ve discussed the importance of prioritizing your marriage, let’s talk about an easy (and sometimes overlooked!) way to remain close with your spouse. Date night!
A common question we are asked is, “how can we enjoy date night while raising a child with special needs?”
We know finding someone you trust to take care of your children isn’t easy. Not everyone has the option to rely on family, and we know finding babysitters can be extremely difficult. If this relates to you, then please don’t fret! Weekly date nights are still possible even if you don’t leave the house.
Here are some of our favorite at-home date night ideas:
- 25 Best 2-Player Card Games + 10 Top 2-Player Board Games
- A Sexy Escape Room for Two
- Couple’s Version of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?
- Cupcake Bake Off Date Night
- Comedy Movie Date Night
- Fondue Date Night
If you want to get the entire family involved at home, check out these fun, family-friendly dates!
- Try Your Own Great Family Bake-Off
- A Fun Ping-Pong Family Game Night
- Build Your Own Pizza Competition
- The Ultimate List of Good Family Movies Your Whole Family Will Enjoy pairs perfectly with our Popcorn Bar Date Night!
- Backyard and Outdoor Family Games
And finally, if you can get out of the house, then you need to check out our favorite out-of-the-house dates!
- Find New Treasures On This Fun Garage Sale Date
- Explore Your City on a Lime Scooter
- Pick Your Date Night Adventure
- Kidnap Your Spouse Date Night
To all you parents out there, you are rock stars! We hope you found this post helpful, but more importantly, we hope you know that you are doing an awesome job taking care of your family.
Hugs from the Divas!
- Prioritizing the Relationship with your Spouse while Raising a Special Needs Child by Lisa Thomas, LCSW, LMFT, DAACS for National Fragile X Foundation
- 12 Powerful Ways to Strengthen Your Marriage as Special Needs Parents by Alix Strickland Frenoy for Special Learning House
- “How do I keep my marriage strong while raising a child with autism?” by Maureen Bennie for Autism Centre Awareness, Inc
- 10 Ways to Strengthen a Marriage and Avoid Divorce by Wayne Parker, Medically Reviewed by Carly Snyder, MD for VeryWellMind
- Divorce Rates Statistics and Trends for 2022 by Miles Mason, Sr. for Miles Mason Family Law Group, PLC
- The Relative Risk of Divorce in Parents of Children with Developmental Disabilities: Impacts of Lifelong Parenting conducted by Eun Ha Namkung, MSW, Jieun Song, Ph.D., Jan S. Greenberg, Ph.D., Marsha R. Mailick, Ph.D., and Frank J. Floyd, Ph.D. for the National Library of Medicine.