What's Love Got to Do with It?

The impact on marriage of having a child with special needs.

Having a baby brings joy and excitement, as well as some trepidation about all of the changes that come with baby’s arrival. Most of these changes are manageable and expected— sleepless nights, a shift in focus from one another to the child, and new activities, expenses and life experiences. Yet, for all of the sacrifices, lost hours of sleep and missed nights out with friends, the couple generally feels grateful for the good fortune that has been bestowed upon them in becoming parents.

Just as with anything in life, however, parenting may not go “typically” or according to plan. While expecting, you likely picture your child’s first steps, first words, big engaging smiles and waves goodbye on the school bus. But when you have a child with special needs, this world that has been drafted as a blueprint may never come to fruition. It often needs revision, rethinking and rebuilding.

A child with special needs often has greater needs than a typical child’s that are more unfamiliar and less expected. The child’s needs may take more time and energy than initially anticipated, and the strain it puts on one’s life and marriage is often unimaginable.

Abraham Maslow, a famous psychologist, established a theory called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. His basic belief stemmed from the theory that only when our primary needs were addressed could we attend to higher level needs. Primary needs are physiological needs, such as the necessity for food, water and sleep. These are needs we address not only for ourselves, but also for our children from their first day of life.

Next, Maslow referred to safety needs. These are resources, such as health, family and property. This is the area where much energy may be spent when addressing the demands of a child with special needs. This might include identifying specialists, having evaluations conducted, organizing schedules to make time for service implementation, researching appropriate schools and the list goes on. The amount of responsibilities is far more extensive for the parent of a special needs child verses the parent of a typically developing child.

The next level on Maslow’s hierarchy is known as love and belonging, or needs, which include friendship, family and sexual intimacy. This is where marriage falls in the pyramid of life. Thus, considering how much time and energy must be spent on the second tier needs, despite a parent’s best intentions, there is not a great deal of time left for the third tier or marriage when tending to a child with special needs. Frequently, this contributes to the complications and conflicts marriages sustain when one has a child with special needs.

The impact of having a child with special needs on a marriage is made more complex by the fact that men and women may process emotion quite differently. Likewise, when learning that a child has special needs, men and women experience and cope with the situation in different and often incompatible ways.

Research sets the divorce rate for families of children with special needs higher than a family of typically developing children. Though the numbers differ in the various studies done on this, it seems that the most important thing for parents of special needs children is getting through the first few years of instability and upheaval after a diagnosis. This makes sense in light of how much unexpected change and tumult often accompanies having a child with special needs and the strain it places on the family system.

Parents must fight for their relationships during critical times and create opportunities to access the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. This permits the marriage to act as a support during difficult moments of having a child with special needs and helps couples achieve long-term happiness. Indeed, it’s imperative to also process the sadness in nurturing and protecting the marital relationship.

A 2002 study about gender differences and coping strategies found that women tend to use social support and relationships to assist in processing their emotions whereas men are apt to turn to hobbies, like sports. The study revealed that the most significant difference was in a woman’s tendency to seek social and emotional support and focus on the problem whereas as a man tended to avoid it. This leaves a huge emotional vacuum in a marriage as women are seeking support and men are feeling that it is easier to cope by not directly addressing the issue directly.

As with any issue in a marriage, it is important not to judge one approach as right and one as wrong. Coping strategies exist for all of us because they have proved effective in getting our emotional needs met in the ways that we each need them to be. As such, to protect the marriage during a tremendously strained and vulnerable time, like raising a child with special needs, engage your partner.