Parenting a child with physical, developmental or mental-health disabilities can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. But it also can create intense strain in your marriage and test your faith. We know because our marriage barely survived after our daughter was released from the neonatal intensive care unit. We lived for several years in crisis mode as we began to manage her genetic disorder and care for her at home.
During this difficult time, we discovered some essential marriage principles that deepened our love for each other and strengthened our marriage. Our relationship became more resilient as we cared for our daughter. Here are four ways we grew closer during this trying time in our marriage.
1. Take Advantage of Short Respites
One of the most important habits we found to deepen our bond is spending regular time together. Still, leaving the house for a date night can feel impossible amid complicated circumstances. And retreating to the bedroom won’t shut out the noise and stress of caring for a child with special needs. We’ve found that if you want to carve out regular time together, you’ll have to think outside the box.
So instead of an evening out, we’d take a walk together or enjoy a picnic in the park. A friend or family member might care for our child for an hour or two. And we enjoyed taking short breaks as a couple that could offer reduced stress, a rejuvenated relationship and something to look forward to.
Finding outside support is also crucial. When someone told us about a three-hour respite program once a month at a local church, we were ecstatic. We looked forward to that break all month long.
Start with short respites: Plan a one- or two-hour break together that will get you out of the house this month. Answer these questions:
- “When will we go?”
- “Who will care for our child?”
- “What will we do?”
2. Share a Lighthearted Outlook
This might sound odd or trivial, since the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting a child with special needs are anything but lighthearted. It’s difficult not to take life seriously when your child’s development or health is on the line. But humor can help couples cope better while in the midst of caregiving stress. A lighthearted and cheerful outlook can also improve your mental health and help you feel closer to each other. We rejoice that a joyful heart is good medicine (Proverbs 17:22). In fact, laughter triggers chemical reactions that make us feel good and lower stress hormones.
Our daughter, Bethany Grace, has taught us to welcome each day with a joyous and lighthearted attitude no matter what’s happening. She proudly yells “woo-hoo” when she’s excited, and we’ve adopted her joyful spirit. Sometimes we’ll break out in a “woo-hoo” when just the two of us are together. This uplifting outlook is freeing and refreshing. Since we started celebrating and laughing more, we’re much happier as a couple.
Start being lighthearted: Find ways to add humor to your relationship. Share a joke, watch a funny movie together or celebrate small victories.
Find Joy While Parenting Children with Special Needs
3. Support and Validate Each Other
Validating each other’s emotions is essential in any marriage. We look to Proverbs 12:25 where it says that anxiety weighs us down, but a good word makes us glad. Couples caring for children with special needs often experience painful, overwhelming, and even traumatic events on a daily basis. Supporting and validating each other amid these challenges is critical.
As we struggled to manage the pressure cooker of caring for our daughter and balancing daily life, we found our own ways to cope and survive. When we needed each other most, there were times we couldn’t figure out how to connect or support each other. As the distance between us grew, we each felt the other person couldn’t understand what we were going through. Here’s how we each processed the challenging nature of our parenting:
Todd: I went into a practical survival mode, focusing on work and the overwhelming day-to-day financial and household tasks. I disconnected emotionally because there was no time to feel or talk about feelings when there was so much to do.
Kristin: I began to drown in my trauma and grief, as well as the stress of trying to keep my daughter alive. I felt like Todd didn’t care about my emotions or what I was going through, and I pulled away from him.
4. Offer Uplifting Words
Now, after years of counseling and fighting for our marriage, we finally learned how to validate each other’s painful experiences, thoughts and emotions. We began to reconnect and feel loved again. Simple affirmations such as “That sounds really hard” after a difficult doctor’s appointment or a taxing day helped each of us feel heard, understood and supported.
We also found that extending thoughtful phrases like these strengthened our marriage:
- “It makes sense that you’re feeling this way.”
- “I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
- “How can I help you?”
- “How can I pray for you?”
- “I know you’re doing your best. Thank you.”
Though you may not understand how your spouse feels, it’s important to communicate that you want to understand and that you believe what your spouse is sharing.
Start supporting each other emotionally: Post your own thoughtful phrases where you can see and read them each day. Then, as challenging situations arise, use them while you and your spouse are talking.
Over time, as you steal away for an hour or two together, share a joke and validate each other on challenging days, God will weave together your individual efforts to strengthen your marriage.