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Taking Care of Your Marriage When Your Child has Special Needs

When the Turrentine family moved from Minnesota to McKinney two years ago, the family of five was dealing with more than a new city. Madria, 41, and husband Jason’s oldest son Elijah, 10, has cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder. (The couple also has two younger sons, Micah, 6, and Josiah, 2.) They needed to amass a local team of therapists, medical experts and teachers quickly to help them navigate Elijah’s needs in a different place. Jason, 50, was learning the ropes at a different job (the catalyst for the move). And Madria, previously a working mom, was now charting the stay-at-home waters.
 
Major life changes — new jobs, roles and home — intensify whatever strengths and weaknesses are present in any marriage. Toss in a kid with a disability, and the challenges, pressures and stress increase exponentially. So it’s no surprise that studies suggest that parents with children with special needs divorce at a higher rate (nearly 50 percent) than the general population.
 
As parents, you devote much of your time (sometimes 100 percent if your child has a severe disability) and energy to the care of your child. Then you have to focus on siblings, and what’s left in a day may go to your spouse — or yourself. But these couples can beat the odds and not make working on their relationship seem like another task on an already overwhelming to-do list.
 
Look for outside help
Terah Harrison, a counselor at Logos Counseling Services in Southlake, who treats parents of special needs children, says that these couples are an underserved population who could truly benefit from therapy. “There is a huge need for them to seek counseling, but they are so focused on their kids that they don’t focus on themselves individually or as a couple,” Harrison says.
 
The Turrentines recognized red flags of disconnection early on. “We were arguing, we weren’t agreeing on things and we weren’t on the same page, “ Madria says candidly. So they sought the help of a counselor immediately, and the couple quickly realized the benefits of not only couples’ therapy but individual sessions as well.
 
All couples — but especially spouses who have special needs children — would thrive with three different forms of support, says Jeremy Lanning, a counselor who treats families with children with special needs and learning differences at Lifeworks Group in Fort Worth. “It’s very important that parents get emotional, professional and social support,” he says.
 
Emotional support, Lanning explains, comes from someone who can understand your situation — like a support group or online community — mainly “ a place where you can receive empathy.” Professional support means enlisting the help of a professional. And social support “allows you to be connected outside your immediate environment,” he says. So seeing movies, having dinner, going to church with friends, co-workers or others all help create a social support.
 
The Turrentines found social support through worship at One Community Church in Plano, a ministry with a special needs-centered child care program. Now Madria and Jason attend service together, something they’ve only been able to do on occasion since Elijah was born. “My husband and I used to go separately in Minnesota, which was hard because we weren’t praying together, “ Madria explains. But beyond sharing Sunday services together, the Turrentines settled into a network of friends, even special needs-competent babysitters through church.
 
Commit to time together
So date nights have become a regular thing. Every other week, the couple goes to dinner and just focuses on them. There’s no discussion of kids or family obligations, such as money or in-laws, allowed at these adults-only evenings (the Turrentines sometimes double date). It helps the couple reconnect and get better in tune with each other. (Check out the Respite Care resources in the directory starting on page TK to find competent care in your area.)
 
While regular couple time outside the home is extremely important, dating your spouse daily and making time for intimacy is key to maintaining a healthy marriage, says Mary Sanger, a psychotherapist and co-founder of Insights Collaborative Therapy Group in Dallas and author of Ready to Talk: A Companion Guide to Psychotherapy. “A couple needs a bare minimum of 10 minutes a day to focus on themselves. A coffee in the morning, a glass of wine at night, something to carve out time for each other without being distracted is imperative,” she explains. And for couples where one spouse travels a lot for work, you might need to get creative with that 10 minutes by FaceTiming or writing in a shared online journal. Bottom line: You need to reconnect every day, Sanger advocates.
 
For Frisco mom Janice Connolly, 40, and her husband, David, also 40, daily time together is spent working in the family business — BHD Collective, a photography and video studio — that allows them a shared creative outlet.  Janice handles the photography while David focuses on the graphic design and video aspects of the company. “Doing projects together is what works for us,” says Janice. Because the couple’s day-today-routine leaves little time for each other. Janice homeschools their three children — Hannah, 10, who has Social Pragmatic Communication Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); Catherine, 8, who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and ADHD; and Joshua, 5, who has speech and communication challenges and a vision impairment.
 
Divide and conquer
The division of labor, both professionally and personally, helps the couple better understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Embracing your differences with your partner allows couples to “take on issues together as a team” rather than putting a wedge between them, Lanning explains. Parents may have different ideas about the right treatment or course of action for their children, but it’s important that they not just tolerate the other’s point of view but understand and welcome it. It’s better to embrace differences rather than correct a partner because spouses who feel criticized withdraw from co-parenting.
 
“Sometimes in marriages, we don’t communicate how roles are divided, it just happens and then it becomes routine,” Sanger says. But resist pushing the auto-pilot button in a relationship. Couples raising kids with disabilities can feel depleted if one parent is doing all the caregiving, for instance. Share responsibilities and give credit for the other’s effort.
 
The Turrentines let the other’s area of expertise take the lead when it came to the division of labor. Madria handles the kids’ education decisions and household duties; Jason provides for the family and makes the necessary repairs around the house. When discussing future family plans and responsibilities, the couple relies on a checklist to ensure they’re on the same page and always aware of each other’s desires and needs.
 
And if those assigned roles aren’t working or desires and needs aren’t being met, be proactive before marital resentments build. Be flexible and change things up. Ask for help sooner rather than later — like before you get overwhelmed, angry and destructive — whether it’s asking your partner to help with household duties or sending them in to battle with the insurance company.
 
Take time for you
Give each other a break at least a few times a week. Sanger stresses the importance of self-care and its positive impact on the entire family unit. “Each parent has to have the ability to self-soothe, to really understand their needs and wants and to communicate those needs and wants to their spouse, family and friends,” she reveals.
 
Prioritize time alone to self-soothe and find inner peace. Try deep breathing, meditation, prayer, listening to calming music, taking a warm bath, unplugging for an hour or two, even retail therapy, Sanger advocates. It's impossible to care for a marriage — or your children — if you don’t coddle the relationship with yourself.
 
David uses his hour-long commute home to focus on himself. He decompresses, listens to NPR and streams podcasts. When he gets home, he takes an extra 15 minutes for himself. He changes his clothes, gets something to drink, and then he’s rejuvenated and ready for Janice and the kids.  
 
So what’s the antidote for staying together when you’re juggling the seemingly endless logistical and emotional issues that come with parenting children with special needs? In order not to end up as one of those scary divorce statistics, experts agree that it’s going to take work. That should come as no surprise. Seek outside support, spend time together, renegotiate roles and responsibilities often and nurture yourself. And do it all now before it’s too late.
 
“Couples need to make their marriage a priority before it gets bad, Madria offers. “People pursue counseling and other forms of support when one foot is already out the door, and by them it’s too late. She and Jason utilize their support systems and tools more as a marriage refresher “while we’re still in love,” she says.