I have this guy living in my house. This tall, witty, occasionally infuriating guy, whose across-the-room smile can still make me blush, 15 years after “I do.”
Only problem is it’s way too easy as a parent of kids with special needs to simply not look across the room.
Do I know my husband is my primary relationship? That he’s the only one who’s still going to be sitting across from me when the kids leave home—if they leave home?
In practice, I’m a residential treatment program, educational contortionist, treatment team member, cheerleader for all the other team members when they’re discouraged, and the mother of four—two with comorbid Bipolar and adolescence.
Which is probably why, after I tuck my girls in bed, I look down the hall at my husband, turn the corner, walk downstairs, and grab a book or turn on a movie. I want to engage him, but I can’t. There’s just nothing left.
Not then, anyway.
Fortunately, we’ve found a few ways to protect married life against the juggernaut of special needs in our family.
Schedule time together… During the day.
There’s only so much energy to go around. Like money we tithe to show we trust and honor God first, we can tithe some of our schedule to our spouse to show them they’re still our Number One in the family. When my husband has had seasons working from home, we plan a mid-morning 30 minute hangout time. When he works outside the house, we plan to get up earlier than the kids for some quiet together time before the daily chaos starts. When that hasn’t been possible during different seasons of our marriage, we institute the “I only have eyes for you” rule: the first 90 seconds we interact after not seeing each other for a few hours, we hug, look at each other, and let all life’s other demands take a back seat.
Don’t underestimate the importance of sex.
Really. It doesn’t have to be a big rose-petals-on-the-bed deal every time, it just needs to be a priority. When I’ve fought this, thinking (as we women do), “I don’t feel like it,” guess what? The feeling rarely returns on its own. You saw my job description (above)… would YOU feel in the mood when days are like that? At some point, my husband and I heard about a church whose pastor challenged married couples to have sex for 30 days in a row. Yes, I balked, ranted, and whined that there was no way that was possible with a family like ours. But trust me, there’s a way. And the connectedness and playfulness intimacy weaves into marriage—especially one with challenges like we’ve got—is so worth it.
Nip resentment in the bud.
If you’re the primary caregiver for your child, then perhaps you’ve found yourself resentful of your spouse at times. Resentment can sound a little like this: “I’ve worked extra hard all day, managed her care, haggled with doctors, defused ignorant comments, cleaned up messes that practically required a Hazmat suit, AND YOU WANT TO KNOW WHY WE’RE EATING FROZEN BURRITOS? (Or why the laundry’s not done, I’m not ok with you working late, and the thought of hosting the holidays makes me want to bury myself alive)??”
Maybe it’s just me, but caring for our kids beyond what’s typical can lead to big resentment over already-common marital issues. Don’t let it.
Resentment (unforgiveness) is, as Anne Lamott says, “like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”* The only one who suffers from pent up resentment is the one who’s holding on to it.
Let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot like that. Whatever it takes, we have to find a way to share what we need, be honest about what hurts us, and release ourselves through forgiving our spouse for their humanity.
Does it take a some effort to stay connected? Yes. Do my husband I do this all well all the time? Not even close (we almost became a divorce statistic, years ago). But is happy marriage possible for parents of special needs?
It is. It really, really is.
*Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. New York: Anchor Books. 1999.