Struggling in Marriage With a Child Who Has Special Needs

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Lots of couples can’t cope with the stress of having a child with special needs and they eventually divorce. Here’s some guidance on how to make a marriage strong enough to last.

Brian and Treshia were in their early 40s when they discovered they were expecting their fourth child. When their OB-GYN told them the baby would have Down syndrome, neither they nor the doctor — a Christian man — considered terminating the pregnancy. But Brian and Treshia still needed to process the information and grieve. Each had to adjust to the news in their own way.

Baby Timmy was born a couple months later … about eight weeks premature. That added stress to Treshia and Brian’s life. Brian says, “Actually that first week leading up to his birth, and then the three months after his birth, were 10 times more traumatic than the news that he would have Down syndrome.” The fear of losing Timmy was almost constant for three years before the couple started to relax a bit.

Is maintaining a struggling marriage even possible when you have a child who has special needs? Yes! While many couples find the stress of having a child with special needs overwhelming, this experience can bring your relationship to the next level of compassion and grace. Here’s some guidance from Treshia and Brian on how they’ve made it — with God’s help — and how you too can make your marriage strong enough to last.

Commitment and communication

You need to be committed to your spouse and know that your spouse is committed to you for marriage to work, especially if you’re struggling because of the stress of having a child with special needs. That means reassuring your husband or wife that no matter how stressful a situation becomes or how frustrated you might become with each other, you’re sticking around and going to make the marriage work.

“Give each other permission to say, ‘I love you, but I really don’t like you right now, and I don’t want to be around you.’ ” Brian says. “Give each other permission to withdraw — but don’t walk out the front door.”

Throughout their marriage, Treshia and Brian experienced times of not communicating concerns to each other because one of them had an unusually heavy workload or travel schedule. But Treshia says, “That causes a break in the relationship. We’ve found that God wants us to bear each other’s burdens. So, throughout this whole process, it’s allowed us to say to each other, ‘I’m really struggling right now.’ And just be honest with each other.”

Being vulnerable about your emotions and clear about your needs are critical to any marriage. But taking time to clearly communicate amid the fatigue of parenting a child with special needs is particularly critical. Brian says, “I think that’s just being trustworthy. If I’m mad at [Treshia], I’m just going to tell her — versus trying to drop subtle hints and expect her to know.”

At the core of open communication are trust and vulnerability. Both spouses have to risk saying things that might be uncomfortable for the other to hear. Many people have to train themselves to not speculate about their spouse’s intentions. “If she just tells me what’s going on, I need to trust that’s what’s truly going on,” Brian says. “I don’t need to think, She said that, but I think she really means …

Treshia agrees, “It’s easier to give the benefit of the doubt. It’s less drama. It’s less energy. I can take whatever [Brian] says at face value. The worst thing to do is to guess what your spouse is thinking.”

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When a couple has built that kind of trust, they can say hard things when necessary. “Brian held me when I needed it, but at times he also gently pulled me out of my pity party and pushed me to move on,” Treshia says.

Couples who have a child with Down syndrome or other special needs can find inspiration and strength from friends, books, videos and conferences. But husbands and wives need to encourage each other, too. Treshia says, “One of the things that I really appreciate about Brian was that from the beginning, he would say things like, ‘We’re going to get through this. God’s going to give us the grace we need.’ And I knew I could lean on him.”

Grace and space

Married couples can rely on God’s grace to get through the roughest days as they’re struggling with the stress of raising a child who has special needs. Treshia experienced times of special peace, even in overwhelming circumstances. She sensed God’s grace and felt that He was really carrying them through the hardest situations.

Extending grace to your spouse — and yourself — is also important.

Brian and Treshia agree that they had to learn to give each other the right to say, “I just can’t do this right now.” But when both spouses feel that way, they need to adjust expectations. “Those are the days that the basic needs are met,” Treshia says. “There’s always something that needs to be done. But there’s a point where you have to say, ‘Can we make sure everybody’s fed? Everybody’s somewhat clean? Everybody slept?’ Just focus on the people, and the other stuff will eventually get done.”

Treshia and Brian suggest making sure that each spouse has time and space for themselves as they need it. “Don’t be defensive when your spouse says, ‘I just need a minute,’ ” Brian says.

Brian also has a practical suggestion for coping with the stress: Hold the baby. “That brought into focus that all we’re going through is right here. It’s this. It’s this little boy,” Brian says. “Many times, I just would be at the end of my rope. And Treshia would put Timmy in my arms. I’d just hold him for a few minutes and could feel myself relax. Then I’d be ready to go again.”

Having a child with Down syndrome is not easy; it’s demanding, and the pressures can affect your marriage. But that doesn’t mean your marriage is over. You might even find, as Brian and Treshia did, that overcoming the challenges together makes your marriage stronger. Treshia says, “There are so many things that we would not have addressed as a married couple if we didn’t have Timmy in our lives. The big lesson we’ve learned is how to bear each other’s burdens.”

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