One of the greatest frustrations in caring for a special needs child or adult is the difficulty of trying to understand what they are trying to communicate, and then, as a married couple, trying not to get frustrated when we can't understand each other! Few of us are prepared for all the challenges associated with providing this level of care. In our lack of preparedness, communication can be frustrating and often leads to a lack of unity in the marriage.
Communication is an essential skill in every marriage. Effective communication requires that a couple to seek to understand (by listening) and then to be understood (by expressing). It sounds simple, but it's hard enough to achieve under "normal" circumstances. Add in the variable of children – with one or more of those children having special needs – along with the care of an elderly parent with dementia or Alzheimer's disease, and your communication skills are sure to be stretched and challenged.
We have had the responsibility and privilege of caring for two daughters, a son with multiple disabilities and Joe's aging mother. Her vascular dementia and our son Joey's mental retardation created challenging, frustrating and always interesting conversation around our dinner table. Many of those conversations were often a struggle to figure out and follow. Sometimes the hectic pace, stress and pressures of the day had us whirling in words with nothing meaningful being said.
Family relationships were becoming strained due to the amount of effort it took to make our own communication work! We quickly learned that we needed to create a climate of caring, listening and understanding in our home for everyone – most importantly for ourselves. Without the right climate at home, a couple begins to drift apart. Without a solid commitment to one another, that drifting can ultimately lead to divorce if the necessary corrective steps are not taken. We made it our purpose to become better listeners – giving our focused attention to what was being said by everyone as well as what we said to each other. We took the time to listen and respond lovingly, creating the best possible atmosphere.
It takes energy to really listen to what someone is saying. At the heart of understanding is the amount of effort one puts forth in understanding what others think and how they feel. This is difficult enough when communicating with healthy people; trying to understand a special needs individual can be that much harder.
Improving one's listening skills requires a commitment of both time and attention. Learn to focus on what is being said – not just the way it is said. Take the time to ask clarifying questions. Put yourself into the other person's situation. These are steps to better understanding.
Just as good listening skills are essential to a healthy relationship, so too are good speaking skills. Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7b says, "There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven… a time to be silent and a time to speak." Sometimes we need to be quiet, sometimes we need to speak up, and all the time we need to discern the better option of the two. As we improve our communication with the special needs person in our life, the communication with our spouse should also improve.
A few habits we have found helpful in our journey to improved communication:
- Writing out care issues, daily routines, etc.
- Talking through all major decisions (medical decisions, schooling issues, family challenges, etc.), until a mutual agreement is reached.
- Working to resolve the smaller pieces of each problem rather than tackling the whole thing at once.
- Giving each other our full attention, taking the time to acknowledge feelings, fears, pain, etc.
- Offering solutions without jumping to conclusions, being demanding or judging.
- Discussing thoughts and feelings rather than arguing (or worse – yelling).
- Not shutting down (remember, you need each other).
- Showing respect for each other's ideas.
- Giving everyone in the home the opportunity to communicate their thoughts and concerns.
- Understanding personal family dynamics – how each family member is affected.
- Scheduling one-on-one time – times of uninterrupted, meaningful conversation – with each family member (especially with children who would otherwise miss out due to the attention required by the person with special needs).
Improving our ability to listen and express ourselves takes time and patience, and – most importantly – love and commitment. It's an investment, sure, but it's also one that will pay big dividends with our loved ones and our spouse.
Focus on the Family's ministry is 87.5% donor-funded.