Special Needs Parenting: How We Kept Our Marriage Strong

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My husband, Paul and I have spent more than 21 years together. 

When our son Zack was first born, we were united in our fight to save his life and love our two other sons. We were a team, both of us pitching in for everything from late night feedings to diaper changes and the housework.

As time went on and Zack's needs began to unravel bit by bit: controlling feeding and reflux, discovering his hearing loss, failure to thrive, seizures, genetic diagnoses and physical delays. The majority of my energy was directed towards being CEO of this little life. The rest of my energy was for our other two sons, and that really left nothing for my husband. Paul became the sole breadwinner so I could get Zack all the help he needed.  Paul was consumed by the role of sole supporter of the five of us and was exhausted when he came home. Life was not what we planned. We were both sad and overwhelmed by the magnitude of our responsibilities and unable to recognize the stress the other was under. We were stuck.

A few years ago, our marriage was tested. Our journey had taken us to a place where we either needed to listen to each other, make some changes and put our marriage on our "to do" list, or our relationship wouldn’t survive. We made a choice to make it work. We made a choice to be a team again.

While I’m not a professional*, there are some tips that helped bring us back together and taught us how to be a strong couple again.

1.  Know that you are not alone. Find blogs, online groups, join the CTN Family Mentor Program, attend events for parents of children with special needs so that you feel part of a bigger community. Attend these with your partner if possible and talk honestly about the effect that your special needs child has on your relationship.

2.  Find books to help navigate your way through. "Married with Special-Needs Children"  and "More Than a Mom"  are two of my favorites. 

3.  Admit that you both need to make changes to make this work. Marriage is a partnership. The challenges and the responsibility of working towards a good marriage should be shared by both partners. 

4.  Talk honestly about problems and speak the truth! It's hard to admit that you are frightened, sad, angry or even disappointed, but it can be liberating to have the partner you love know how you are feeling- the good, the bad and the ugly.

5. Build a network of good babysitters and supporters. Look everywhere- grandparents, godparents, neighbours, even nurses or nursing students can all be a great resource. 

6.  Date again. A movie, dinner or a romantic night or two away can help you reconnect regularly.

7.  Find individual therapists, marriage counsellors or spiritual advisors for regular "check ins". Your child’s needs can be like a roller coaster.  Have supports in place for the ups and downs. An unbiased opinion or "marriage referee" is great to get you through a recent diagnosis or the birth of a child with special needs.

8.  Give each other time to do the things that you love to do alone. For Paul, it’s soccer each Saturday. For me, a mani/pedi with some friends!

9.  Be in it together. While it is likely that one of you will be predominantly responsible for your child's be in it together.  Go to the big visits together, make the big decisions together and advocate together.

10.  Renew your commitment to each other. Write a letter, poem, renew your vows or simply tell each other why you love each other. On our 9th anniversary, we were fortunate enough to have my parents stay with the kids so we could go to Las Vegas together. Paul surprised me with an Elvis wedding to reaffirm our vows, celebrate what we had learned about each other and get excited about our future! 

By: Heather Hamilton, CTN Family Resource Program Coordinator. Heather’s son Zack was a determined, Elmo-loving boy with special needs who passed away when he was three. 

Do you have some great marriage tips you would like to share? Please email us at info@ctnsy.ca and let us know! We’d love to write another article about this important topic!

*If you or your partner is feeling depressed, in any danger of hurting yourself or others or if your marriage has reached a crisis situation, please reach out for help by calling your local authorities or seek professional help.