Marriage is hard. Relationships take work.
For those of us who have kids with special needs, there's an added list of challenges to the ones that all couples endure. Statistics say our marriages are harder to make work, but I believe you can use anything as a reason to "fail."
Any of us can choose to give up or feel sorry for ourselves. We can sit and cry over how unfair life is or we can take a deep breath and move forward. Parents of special needs children are strong, but we are more than just parents. We are superheroes, and our needs must be met, too.
As you read this, know that my husband, Mark, and I work hard to find a balance. We don't always have great days, and we certainly know what stress is in our marriage, BUT we have also found a mutual respect and reached a delicate balance.
I am by no means a relationship expert, but as an expert of my daily experiences, I've have come up with a few tips to help couples stay strong in special-needs families. Here's what I continue to practice in my own marriage.
- Make time for your spouse. I know this sounds so simple, but so many of us don't. I have learned making time does not have to include anything fancy or last too long; it's just time to be present with each other. Mark and I love to have tea together at night; we may not even speak to each other, but just being in the same room brings comfort.
- Acknowledge that you don't have to like everything about your spouse everyday. Whew, that is a real one. And, guess what, your spouse probably doesn't like everything about you. No big deal. But letting yourself embrace this can take a big burden off. When my hubby reads this, he will smile, and still (gently) remind me over and over not to leave a pile of dirt on the floor after I sweep. (Really? Who cares? I swept!)
- Accept that it's okay to have different ways of doing things. Different thoughts can open up more opportunities for your child. Trust your partner! It isn't a competition. Mark and I do not always have the same thoughts or opinions on discipline, best plans for school, medical treatments, etc. But we talk it out, weigh the options. Sometimes his way is better; other times it may be a combo.
- Remember that you are a team. Teams don't always win, but they gain strength in working and learning together. Give up some control (oh, I know, this is a tough one!), and it will provide immediate relief!
- Share the responsibilities. You don't have to do everything by yourself, and you shouldn't do it all! Sharing the responsibilities allows you to have a break and also allows you to feel more like a team. When your partner tackles something, give him credit for the effort. Who cares if you could have done it better? You didn't have to do it!
- Use your support system. You do have one. We have no family near us, so I still practice with asking my friends small things, like Can you take my son Marky to class (or to the party), so I can have a quick dinner with Mark? It is so nice to feel such love back from so many. And more than one thing happens when I ask for help; Marky gets to be with his peers and others get to know him, and I get a little break.
- Never blame each other. Blaming will do no good. There are many times when I want to say, See, I told you so. Or my husband may want to say, I knew that was a bad idea, but he'll bite his lip instead. But really, how will blaming help? It's destructive.
- Always practice forgiveness. Sometimes saying "sorry" may be difficult, but a forgiving action won't be. Grab a hand, lean over, and ask for a hug. Emotions may still be raw, but try not to let resentment build.
- Find the humor in as much as you can! Yes, laugh! Laugh at things NO one else may find funny, but that both of you really understand. My husband and I have so many inside jokes that many may not laugh at, but that's okay!
- Don't forget to be romantic and intimate. Keep your love alive and be creative. I know this one tends to get put off. When I talk with friends who have kids with special needs, we all talk about being too tired, too cranky, and too busy. But write letters to share the things you love about each other, or bring your spouse breakfast in bed just because. Simple, sweet, and so important. I add notes to Mark's lunchbox and even bring home flowers for him.
- Make time for yourself! YES, you. We all need a little alone time. This is different than time with your friends. I need to have alone time and not feel the need to be "on" for anyone. I need time to allow myself to think, cry, or just be. By the way, I LOVE to cry. It is so cleansing.
- And have an outlet. This may be a night out with friends, a movie marathon, or a trip to the library. Whatever it is, do it, plan it, and keep it going! My husband plays drums in a band. I support him, and I know that it's therapeutic and takes a tremendous amount of stress off of him. I don't have a set outlet (mine changes), but I am making the time to do something for me.
- Stay healthy. Vitamins, exercise, doctor appointments. Take care of you first! (Hmmm, must take my own advice and make a doctor's appointment!)
- Get some sleep. You need sleep, or the level of cranky at home will be through the roof. When you are sleep deprived, you are more likely to be on edge. Many kids with special needs don't sleep through the night. If this is the case for your kid, take turns getting up with your partner.
- Be spontaneous. Send loving texts, serve dinner by candlelight, or do any little thing to bring a smile to your spouse's face. I really think taking a minute to appreciate your partner is so important. And yes, you can find the time to do so! (Do you see a recurring theme here?!)
Appreciate each other's efforts. See from each other's perspectives. Embrace each other's differences. Doing all this can and will strengthen your relationship. And spend a few minutes focusing on each other, not just your kids -- it will help you remember the person you fell in love with, and why you fell in love with them.
For special-needs parents, our daily lives may be more difficult, and we may not always be prepared to deal with everything. But tough times doesn't have to be a recipe for divorce. Difficult does NOT have to mean impossible!
Carissa Garabedian is a married mom of three children and two Shih Tzus who loves to cook and leave food on her friends' doorsteps. She is also the founder of KnowDifferent.net, a site focused on resources for special needs kids and families to create a sense of community. Follow her on Twitter @knowdifferent and on Facebook.
Photo of young couple in love via Shutterstock