Are “Special Needs” Hard on your Marriage?

Have you ever received a live plant as a gift? Maybe it was a tree or bush and intended to be planted outside. Perhaps it was too delicate for the outside elements and therefore intended to be a houseplant. Either way, the plant needed a specific amount of sunlight, water and other nutrients. Once in a while it might have needed extra care such as removing the dead leaves. What would happen to that plant if it didn’t receive sunlight? Or it never received any water? Or it became ill with some type of disease and you just left it alone? The answer is obvious – it would wither and eventually die.

We can draw the same analogy with relationships. If you never communicated with someone you consider significant in your life, that relationship would likely cease to exist.

In my series of articles about navigating life when you care for someone with some type of disability, I’m sharing with you some of the jewels I’ve uncovered along the way. Whether the person in your life with the disability is a child, parent, other relative or a friend, I believe many of these principles are applicable to you. This one, however, is a little more specific. I want to talk about your relationship with your spouse.

Just like a green plant, your relationship with your spouse is very much a living thing. Your spouse needs sunlight (your warmth, love and affection). Your spouse needs water (your acceptance, honesty, praise and admiration). Your spouse needs nutrients (your undivided attention, and actual meals together wouldn’t hurt a thing). Sometimes your spouse even needs a gentle pruning (the healthy “checks and balances” that thriving marriages have). Do these things with each other consistently and I can almost guarantee beautiful results.

However, the reverse is usually also just as true. Ignore and avoid your spouse, withdraw affection, and keep secrets from him or her, and I can just about guarantee disastrous results. Even if these negative actions are unintended or subconscious, they can still have such a damaging impact on your marriage.

If you care for someone with a disability, or in some way another source puts a strain on your relationship with your spouse, you’re going to need to be very intentional in working to keep your love alive. Historically, statistics have shown that having a child with special needs places an extra strain on a marriage to the point that it commonly was part of the reason a marriage ended. The good news is, you can choose to not become part of those statistics! My husband and I vowed over 20 years ago to love each other “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part.” We of course had no idea what the future held for us when we made those promises. And it hasn’t always been easy, but I can attest that having children with disabilities has brought us closer together rather than driving us apart.

I’d like to offer up some ideas on nurturing your marriage. You can begin these right now and most of them cost nothing but some time, forethought and possibly swallowing some pride (if necessary). None of these are earth-shattering, but they could be a big game-changer for you and your spouse.
Tell each other, “I love you,” every morning first thing and every evening as the last thing you say to each other. While you’re at it, may as well share a smooch then too.

Praise your spouse in public and in front of the kids. If you’ve been making negative comments about him/her in public and in front of the kids, now is the time to stop that – it’s very damaging to a person’s ego and gives the idea to the other listeners that you don’t value your partner much.

Leave a love note for him/her to find. This doesn’t have to be an eloquent or lengthy poem. You can just draw a heart, write, “I love you” in it and leave it where it will be found. The note might be an especially great idea if you don’t see your spouse at the beginning or end of your day due to work schedules.

Send an affirming text message or email during the day.

Make his/her favorite meal or treat. Or make plans for a sitter and go out for a meal together; again, work schedules may dictate which meal this is. Breakfast can be just as romantic as dinner if you approach it that way.

Figure out a time each week the two of you can steal away and be together and talk about things that don’t revolve around the ones you provide care for. Dreams, plans and even things that may never happen are fun to consider together, like a little mental escape from the day. You don’t even have to leave your home to do this, go to your room and shut the door to be unavailable for 15-20 minutes.

Choose a book to read together and talk about it. If you’re not a reader, then choose an album (old or new) to listen to and discuss.

Hold hands.

Take up a hobby together: hiking, biking, woodworking, photography – the sky is the limit. Be creative! You may just discover a family business here!

As important as it is to say, “I love you,” it’s at least as important to learn to say, “I’m sorry.” We’re human, so we’re prone to making mistakes. We usually are the most genuine with our family, which lends itself to occasionally being not-so-nice to our spouse and kids. Especially when under any kind of stress. So learning to admit fault and seeking forgiveness goes a long way to happiness and healing in a marriage.

These are just a few ideas. And they’re kind of generic, so I’m sure you can make your ideas even more personalized and special by putting a little thought into it. Isn’t your marriage worth the effort? Of course it is! Going this road together is so much better than doing it apart from each other, because we were never meant to walk alone.

***This originally appeared as an article on the Good Men Project website****

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