Autism magnifies the challenges of parenting, but it doesn't have to destroy a marriage. Although there are many studies out there that predict the toll ASD takes on a marriage—studies that can be incredibly depressing, especially if you're new to an autism diagnosis—a new study out of the University of Miami offers a brighter picture. In this study, researchers looked at the individual traits that make couples successful, happy, and help their families thrive. Researchers asked 67 couples questions about the impact traits like optimism, social and spouse support, benefit finding, and coping styles had on relationship satisfaction. The researchers were looking at the individual traits so they could "highlight the reasons why those families do well, [because] it is the positive outcomes that will truly inform our clinical work and help shape more impactful treatments for families," according to lead study investigator Michael Alessandri.
The study yielded many interesting results, but in a nutshell the researchers found that couples with the highest relationship satisfaction are those who stay positive, find support, build community, support each other, and feel strong as individuals.
I think it's a fantastic idea for researchers to focus on what's working in a marriage—not just the challenges—and teach other couples strategies for success. Here's what those results mean for me:
Today is my wedding anniversary. I didn't wake to flowers or a romantic brunch. This morning, like every morning, my husband, Adam, and I woke up before 5 am, because Liam, our non-verbal 7-year-old with autism was up, ready for breakfast, and making lots of noise. As we do every day, one of us stayed in bed while the other one greeted Liam and got coffee going. 30 minutes later, we traded off. This is how we survive—by switching off caregiving, by sharing household duties, by sending the other one away for a night in a hotel when the stresses of parenting, sleep deprivation, and adult life threaten to overwhelm.
But this is not all there is to our marriage.
This is not all there is to our days.
Yesterday, we took the kids to the children's museum and out for artisanal ice cream at a place on our must-visit-once-we-move-to-Portland list.
Today, we're headed to the beach. We'll celebrate our anniversary as our kids dig in the sand and the Pacific roars on the horizon—because we love the ocean, because we always dreamed of living close enough to take our kids there every week, and because we refuse to believe that autism limits what our family can do.
It hasn't always been like this for us. I know that getting an autism diagnosis can be incredibly stressful on a marriage, and when Liam got his four years ago, we struggled. It took time for us to process it all, but gradually, we opened up to each other, we shared our fears and our hopes for the future, and we found ways to be strong together and as individuals. We sought and created both support and community, and we've learned how to talk through frustrations, how to take time for ourselves and for each other, and how to let stress go. We're not perfect as a couple, and our life is full of very real challenges, but on a daily basis we try to laugh more than we cry or argue. We try to have fun with our kids. We try to see things positively. We try, and we try, and we keep trying. And those are the things that make our marriage work, no matter what life throws at us.
I'd say more here, but really, the ocean calls, the kids are getting restless, and we've got anniversary bagels to pick up in order to celebrate another day in this strange, unexpected, and beautiful life of ours.
Jamie Pacton lives near Portland where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam and Eliot. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton
Image "Happy Couple at Sunset Making a Heart" via Shutterstock and photo provided by Jamie Pacton