How do I keep my marriage strong while raising a child with autism?
Marriage is work and a lot of it, even when the relationship is a strong and loving one. About 60% of all marriages end in divorce. That is a staggering figure. I’ve read that the failure rate of marriages that have a child with autism is 80%, although I have never seen a confirmed study of this number. Does the autism factor put marriages at a higher risk for breakdown? It can. Adjusting to the emotional, financial, and time strains that an autism diagnosis can bring is challenging, but possible. Here are six tips for how to keep your marriage going during those challenges.
1)Remember that everyone reacts differently to an autism diagnosis
There are many factors that affect a marriage once a child is diagnosed with autism. Every person reacts and responds differently to a diagnosis. Some people experience feelings of guilt, anger, sadness, and loss. Others want to blame someone or find out the reason for a diagnosis. Different reactions can pull people apart or cause them to go in separate directions. Men tend to be more solution oriented and say, “We have a problem here, now let’s find the best way to fix it.” Women tend to be more willing to ride the ups and downs of a neurological diagnosis. They can accept the setbacks, slow progress or small gains.
Women tend to be the ones who search for information, services, attend conferences and trainings, and read the books. It is often women who experience the greatest life changes such as having to give up a job, be the main caregiver, switch careers, or handle the day to day problems and medical/therapy appointments. Quitting a job or reducing work hours can add economic pressure on the family. It is often because of these dramatic changes that women can feel lost. For more ideas about developing a life for yourself without guilt and strengthening relationships, read More than a Mom.
2)Take time to adjust to work/life changes that occur
Once both of my children were diagnosed, I was no longer able to remain in the teaching profession. There was not enough flexibility in the work day to attend therapy sessions. Interrupted nights of sleep made getting up early the next morning near impossible. Losing my career as a music teacher was devastating for me and left me wondering who I was. I had developed such a strong identity through music. My husband was able to remain in his music career and I sat on the sidelines and watched. It was one of the most difficult times in our marriage. We were able to work through this with counselling; I also found a new life purpose when I started Autism Awareness Centre.
3)Find time to be together as a couple
Couples often neglect spending time together when they are overwhelmed with the daily demands of a child with special needs. Couples need to schedule regular activities together. Write it in a day timer like you would any other appointment. Time spent together is essential to keeping a relationship healthy. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy – just going for a walk or coffee can be enough to reconnect.
4)Ask for help from friends, family, or caregivers
The level of support outside of the family can make or break a marriage as well. Having a reliable support system affects how a couple feels. An excellent caregiver is essential for respite. We all need someone to depend on outside of our spouse. I was not prepared for the different reactions each set of grandparents had to our children’s diagnoses. Each of my parents had their own way of dealing with their autistic grandchildren and my husband and I found it puzzling at times. My husband’s parents withdrew from the situation altogether. We found the adjustments with our parents quite trying. The family dynamic changed once autism was introduced.
5)Don’t let one partner carry too much of the daily responsibilities
It is important to be share the responsibility of raising the children and managing the home. Resentment builds when this is left on the shoulders of one spouse. Two heads are often better than one at EIP meetings at the school, medical appointments, and therapy sessions. Share in the decisions, shopping and housework. Working as a team creates a stronger bond between two people.
Don’t be afraid to seek counselling. Sometimes it helps to have an outside party help determine what the needs of the family are. It can be helpful to know your feelings and worries around autism are normal and shared by other parents. If one spouse feels too discouraged to start counselling, go alone and begin to make positive changes. Most people feel overwhelmed raising a child with autism. I still experience periods of intense anxiety like at the beginning of the school year. Transitions still cause huge amounts of stress in our personal lives. We have learned to ride these ups and downs and know that they will pass.
There is no one answer to a successful marriage in the face of autism, but keeping connected with your spouse helps. Surround yourself with supportive people who will listen or can give a break when needed. Above all, don’t be afraid to ask for help when it is needed.
For more information on strengthening a marriage and autism, read Autism In the Family: Caring and Coping Together by father and psychologist Robert Naseef.
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