Death and taxes are inescapable. No one will leave this planet without eventually facing these two issues. That's just a fact.
Like death and taxes, conflict in marriage is virtually inescapable. All married couples will deal with conflict. The key word here is all. Because conflict occurs in all marriages, the goal of marriage is not to be conflict-free, but to handle conflict correctly when it occurs. If you don't have conflict in your marriage, just be patient: It's only a matter of time.
When a couple adds the responsibility of caring for a special-needs individual to an already busy schedule, the potential for conflict radically increases – due to the increased number of decisions needing to be made, and responsibilities to be carried out and agreed upon by both spouses. The long-term success of any relationship depends on how well a couple is able to handle routine stress and the conflict that can result.
In marriage, one of our goals should be to learn to handle and resolve conflict in a healthy way. At one end of the spectrum are simpler issues like how to best squeeze the toothpaste tube or how to put the toilet paper on the roll. At the other end of the spectrum — and particularly when there are special needs concerns — couples are confronted with issues that are more critical and immediate, such as who will stay at the hospital overnight with the child, administer medicines when home, take "night duty" when needed, call the doctors, maintain the medical records, keep track of the paperwork, provide transportation — not to mention the responsibility of other children who also need to be fed, bathed, put to bed and taken care of in a variety of ways. Every one of these issues (and it's not an exhaustive list) presents the potential for conflict.
When we married, we had expectations about how we wanted our life to be; our own concept of what "normal" would look like. When taking care of an individual with special needs became part of our marriage and family dynamics, what we thought of as "normal" immediately, dramatically and drastically changed. Neither of us signed up for taking care of a child or parents with special needs when we got married.
When we don't get what we want or expect, when our desires are not fulfilled, when we don't deal with the hurt and conflict properly, that's when our unrealistic expectations often lead to a lack of fulfillment in our relationships. The result is conflict and anger, possibly even divorce. We have seen marriages of those caring for children with special needs tragically end in divorce because the couple could not agree on how to handle the many necessary decisions. They were unable to find their "new normal" as a couple.
Coming to grips with this "new normal" requires helping one another with the additional care-giving responsibilities. Good communication is also vital when it comes to making wise decisions for the marriage, the person with special needs and the rest of the family. As a couple, we resolved not to move forward with any critical decisions until we came to a point where we could both agree. (The only exceptions are emergency situations, in which case the one in the midst of the situation can make that immediate decision.) This agreement has kept us from many conflicts. It may require a lot of time and sometimes lively discussion to reach an agreement, but once we get to that point, both of us are satisfied.
For a marriage to be well connected and moving forward, the couple must recognize that they are a TEAM: Together Each Accomplishes More. It's what a good sports teams is all about, as well as a good marriage — especially as it relates to raising and taking care of individuals with special needs.
We find our new normal through positive communication, working together to provide care, planning for the future, taking time to cultivate our marriage — both in our daily routines as well as in the area of romance and intimacy. In short, we work as a team to accomplish all that God desires of us. In managing and resolving conflict, we provide our child(ren) and spouse the stability we all desire.
Need help finding a counselor? For a trusted referral, call Focus on the Family's counseling department Monday through Friday between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. Mountain time at 800-A-FAMILY (800-232-6459).
Information and more resources are available on the Focus on the Family Marriage Ministry page.