When we found out the diagnosis that Connor was on the middle of the autism spectrum, my wife began to attach herself to Connor. He became her mission. She was on the internet, reading books, searching everything she could find to help our son. Moms are maternal so there is a natural instinct to take care of their child when something is wrong. Mothers of special needs children will bond even greater than if they had a typical child, but what they have to be careful about is neglecting their other children. Sam did an amazing job giving her best to Connor and giving her time to Cory and Courtney. Truthfully I don’t know how she did it.
The challenge for couples of special needs children is that while moms are maternal and instinctively attach themselves to their children, dads connect with their children most emotionally. When their child shows little or no emotion and stops speaking, it is very difficult for the father to connect the way he once did. He loves his child, but he’s trying to figure out a new way to connect with his son or daughter again. This in turn frustrates the mom when she doesn’t see the same attachment as she has for the child.
She looks at her husband and wonders what is wrong with him. He’s looking back at her thinking, I’m just trying to figure out how to connect with my child again. This can easily put a wedge in the relationship, and if they have any other issues in their marriage, such as communication or finances, it can pull them further apart. The divorce rate for marriages with special needs children is typically higher for one simple reason: they have more issues to deal with.
The pressure can be overwhelming, and if the husband and wife aren’t able to come together and get help when needed, it can fracture the marriage. The emotional and psychological baggage is heavy. More fathers than mothers will just leave, simply be- cause it becomes too much to handle.
A single mom with four boys shared with me her story of what happened when her marriage was caught in the tug of war of autism. Her twins were born via C-section-both healthy boys weighing six pounds, seven ounces. She had stopped working to take care of her boys, she had no family support and her husband had to work seven days a week to make ends meet.
The twins were growing perfectly, and she was the proud mom who always kept her doctor’s appointments, making sure they got their vaccines on time. She had just gone back to work because the family was living paycheck to paycheck in a two-bedroom apartment—the twins sharing a crib and the older son with his own bed. All of a sudden she noticed her babies start changing. They were getting sick more often, and she noticed that other younger kids were talking and doing things the boys had stopped doing or had never done.
She and her husband thought that maybe the twins were just slower than the rest of the kids. After they turned one, however,she knew something was not right. Taking the bottle away from them was almost impossible, and when she started to potty train them, she knew they did not understand what to do. If she left them alone and they had an accident, they would actually taste the feces and play with it. As the twins continued to grow, she got pregnant with her fourth son. She had to cut her work hours, and her mother would watch the twins. One day her mother men- tioned that she thought the boys might have autism. It was hard to hear, but she knew something was not right. Although her hus- band was against it, she got a referral to Texas Children’s Hospital. He had challenges as a baby but grew out of them, and he thought the twins would be fine just as he was.
While waiting for a diagnosis, the therapist suggested she put the twins in a private school and therapy. She did exactly what was recommended, although she received no support from her husband. He kept saying that she was exaggerating and being overprotective with the twins and that they were going to be fine.
She was doing all this alone while her husband worked, and the truth was that he had detached. He was embarrassed to say that his kids were not normal so she was never able to cry with him. She was also criticized by other family members who said that she was spending too much time taking care of the twins and not caring for her other two boys. The twins were having major behavioral issues and took much of her energy—especially when she was caring for them most of the time by herself. Because she was so tired, and her husband was so detached, their intimacy decreased. He used that to bring guilt to her for not being a good wife. She knew he loved the boys and her in his way. But it was hard for him to admit that they were not going to be the kids he wanted, and she was not going to be the wife he expected. There was a lot of arguing and a lot of anger. She asked her husband to buy insurance in order to get the twins into therapy, but he refused.
Finally the time came for the twins’ diagnosis, and the couple went to the hospital. They were told that the boys had autism and that their minds were like the minds of a three-month-old baby.
This was very hard to hear, and after leaving the hospital they went to the husband’s family’s house, and the family began criticizing the wife, telling her she wasn’t a good mother and that she was not paying enough attention to all the boys.
On the long ride home from their house she cried, feeling guilty for letting the twins get the vaccinations, feeling like a failure as a mom and wife. Her husband said nothing, did not hold her hand or promise they would work through the crisis together. Instead, he told her how badly she behaved in front of his family and reit- erated what they had said about her.
The arguments got worse over time, until the couple finally separated for two months. He saw the boys twice but did not know how to handle them. He finally left the country, and they are not together anymore. Now she is living day to day on income that comes from the boys’ Social Security checks and child support. She was able to get a job cleaning houses for two hours while the boys are in school. They mow yards, watch dogs and help friends host dinners or parties on the weekend. It’s hard to imagine where they are now, the woman says, but she clings to the promises of God and attests to the fact that He has been with them since the beginning and will not leave them. Her special needs community at her church has come around her and her family and God has been faithful.
When you are splitting a big block of wood, an axe isn’t enough, so a wedge has to be used. With every hit the wedge begins to slowly split apart the once unbreakable block of wood until, with one last swing, it splits in half. One blow will not do the job. You have to swing the hammer multiple times to drive the wedge in. In the same way, what the enemy does is try to deceive and chip away at marriages. He wants to drive a wedge between the husband and wife. Before you know it, the union is broken, and all that remains of what was once beautiful is broken in half.
“‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Mark 10:7-9
My wife Sam and I definitely had our issues as well, but the one thing we kept saying to each other was that we wouldn’t back away. We would just keep moving toward one another.
The more you stay together on issues, the less the enemy can put a wedge between you. He can’t hit you if you don’t give him a target. God doesn’t give us grace for two weeks, a month, or a year, he gives us grace for today. It’s so important to just take each day one day at a time and not try to figure it all out. Keep life as interestingly normal and fun as you can. Don’t stop going out on dates if possible. Don’t miss going out on an anniversary trip or dinner just like you would hopefully do if you didn’t have a child with special needs. Make sure you still take your family vacations every year even if it’s for a weekend. Find a church that has a special needs program if possible and go to church together with your spouse and as a family. If your in a crisis mode don’t hold it in, get help for your marriage from a trained counselor and work through it day by day with resources that will help you.
One of the key ways we did is that we learned to pray together. No matter what we knew, we had to come into agreement first with God and then with each other. There is so much power in a marriage when couples learn to pray together instead of separately. Every time the enemy would try to swing a hammer and drive the wedge between us, we would block it with prayer. The more we blocked it, the more tired the enemy got.
When you do this, pretty soon the enemy has to move on to someone else because he knows that, no matter what he throws at you, it cannot penetrate the bond with which God has brought you together. It doesn’t mean you’re perfect or you do everything right. It just means you’ve learned to come together before the enemy can pull you completely apart.