Close your eyes and go back in time. Picture your first few meetings with your spouse, the awkward eye contact, the skipping of the heart beat, the uninhibited laughter and the fluttering of imaginary butterflies all around. Love is a strong emotion and can make us all go weak in our knees.
The best part is, we all experience it at one point or the other. We dream about creating a small universe, inhabiting it with our partner, having kids and then living happily ever after. But if this would happen all the time, this world would be quite a monotonous place to live in. The truth is, things don’t always go as planned. Life altering events like birth of a child with special needs, which can seem catastrophic to a new couple, who is starting out on this journey of parenthood and have dreamt a different version of life, can threaten the very foundation of their alternate universe.
The partnership, companionship, compatibility and chemistry all disappear like a whiff of smoke and the only thing that remains is the intense desire to become a better parent and bringing the child back to ‘normalcy’! This is when the marriage becomes a lesser priority and when ‘the mother’ takes over ‘the wife’ and ‘the woman.’
When I received SOS calls from three parents in a week, sharing yet another fight or argument with their partners, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going wrong. I spoke to a dozen mothers and a couple of fathers and here is what I found:
Mothers are invested and exhausted beyond their capabilities:
This could be largely blamed on evolution as women are brought up to be the primary caregivers; already fighting with the guilt of bearing a child with special needs, mothers often take their role rather seriously and get caught up in this labyrinth of familial and social pressures, intense thoughts, sea of information and internal emotional conflicts.
This can create an imbalance in the relationship because the mothers get exhausted not just physically or emotionally but also psychologically and mentally, as a result, they isolate themselves not just from the world but often from their partners too. Fathers, who are equally affected by the situation, not knowing how to reach out to her, get either worked up or find their peace in watching TV or doing something else. The ‘unsaid and unheard’ voices inside both of them become a reason for their dwindling relationship, especially in the initial few months or years.
Lack of Empathy
This can’t be stressed enough. Men are brought up very differently than the women and are conditioned to not display their emotions which is seen as a sign of weakness. The result is that even in extremely daunting situations like dealing with the diagnosis; they don’t really show their emotional vulnerability and hence don’t get compassion and empathy like the mothers do, assuming that as men they already know how to deal with such situations.
Later, when they want to show the concern and love to their partners, they are often short of words or actions to make the woman feel understood. In contrast, women tend to show their pain in many different ways. They can cry, howl, go sleep deprived, get cranky, blame themselves or can stop talking altogether. This ‘coming to terms’ may take years and is the most crucial time for a couple. This is mostly the time when couples can drift apart. Knowing and understanding each other’s coping mechanism can help the ‘marriage’ immensely.
The communication STOPS!:
The diagnosis becomes the elephant in the room, the only difference being that everybody talks just about that. The scary (but unfounded most surely!) thoughts of an uncertain future, the compromises that both would have to make in their careers, the countless shards of their shattered dreams, the sibling’s added responsibilities, the financial burden of the medical care, the therapies etc. etc. etc. never stop but the ‘normal’ life and communication stops, leading to consistent stress levels which again takes a toll on the health of the ‘marriage’.
A good friend and a special needs mother, who is separated from her husband confessed, how in hindsight, she feels her husband wasn’t really at fault but the situation was!
“I was 22, newly married, doing very well in my career when I got pregnant. Before our first anniversary I was a mother of a child with special needs and since it was an arranged marriage, we hadn’t really spent enough time with each other or had created any memories by then. My in-laws were only trying to find ‘who to blame.’ My son’s birth shook our marriage to the core and it fell apart. I was busy blaming my parents, my destiny and everyone else and never really thought that my husband, too was going through similar emotions. We drifted apart in the very initial months and never really got back in.
Now when I think about it, I realise I was too engrossed with my pain and thought it didn’t change his life as much because he was still going to work and getting the respite whereas I was ‘stuck’. I started to feel resentment towards him, which was unfair, but I didn’t know any better. I was too young and an emotional wreck at that.”
What can be done to make sure that the marriage at its weakest point can survive this blow? Any marriage needs to be nurtured and many times, even challenging circumstances can also bring the partners closer than ever! What do these people do that can be learned by many who feel helpless and unable to cope with overflowing emotions. Below are the pointers which made the most sense after speaking to the parents who have worked their differences out and have helped their marriage by believing in their relationships.
Talk, talk and talk:
Communication could’ve surely been a better word than talk, but there is a reason ‘talk’ is used instead. Communication happens when both partners are ready to listen to each other and talk it out. In a difficult situation such as this when you find your partner to be withdrawn and confined to his/her own self, don’t wait, but start talking and making yourself available. Be there to make it easy for him/her to start talking when they want to. Talk about past, the things they love or care for. Research suggests that most of the times, marital problems couples face are not as much caused by the child’s needs, but rather from the likelihood of couples retreating into themselves and stop communicating with one another.
You are more than the sum total of your life after motherhood:
Women, after becoming mothers forget they had a life before their child was born. They forget the friends, the hobbies and the things they used to enjoy before motherhood. A distraction from ‘all things maternal’ can work wonderfully for a marriage. Have a life outside of ‘special needs’ or ‘parenting’. Make friends who have nothing to do with special needs, watch movies, enjoy a girls/boys night out. Understand that this is not just important but crucial for you. If you feel disconnected with old friends, reach out to any senior mother/father and pour your heart out. They’ve treaded the same path before you and may have some very useful tips and strategies. Let experience help you.
A few ground rules can save a lot of pain:
There will be issues and concerns till the time you are visiting earth. No two humans can live together in harmony. It wasn’t all heavenly when you were with your parents or with your flat mates. All couples have disagreements, arguments and fights. There is nothing that you are feeling, which millions have not felt before. The one good thing you can do is to establish some rules beforehand. For example, nobody would generalise or use past mistakes in the current argument or nobody would blame the other for what the child can or can’t do etc. Learn to argue fair and square. It can add some spice to the relationship but playing the blame game can surely burn a marriage to ashes. Be careful!
Stop being an expert at home:
In any marriage one of the partners would always be more organised, more knowledgeable, more of a child expert, interested in researching, exploring or googling, but that doesn’t mean the other one’s efforts are any less. Remember bringing a routine to life is an equally important job in this scenario. Both partners contribute in their own way in child rearing. Don’t underestimate your partner’s involvement. The best way is to divide the responsibilities and be respectful to the same. If one partner is good with documents, applications, education, he/she should stick to that and the other one should take responsibility for sports, play dates, extra-curricular activities etc. Sit together, discuss, plan and play to your strengths.
Rediscover each other:
With a special needs child at home, rediscovering each other can be the last thing on your mind. If it is so, reprioritise your list. Working on your marriage is not an option, You HAVE to do it. You two are the most important stakeholders here and your compatibility is going to be instrumental for your child’s future. Rediscover each other.
Keep certain routines which make you spend time together every day. Like evening tea or a stroll after dinner where you can connect like partners and not necessarily like parents. Go to your friends’ house sans kids and indulge in some fun and romance. It will only make you feel better. Finding simple ways to reach out to each other can give your relationship a much needed push in difficult times.
Acknowledge and realise that it takes only a few years for the storm to pass:
The diagnosis, the denial, anger, acceptance all can take a toll on the relationship of special needs parents. However, if they know well in advance how the worst of it is over in the first few months and mostly in a few years, they would feel more motivated to wait it out. The strong emotional reactions are a result of this new situation and not necessarily a personality trait. Knowing this can help parents see things in right perspective and wait till the storm is over.
Take time for yourself:
The last but not the least, ‘spending time alone or with oneself’. It is one of the most important things that can save your marriage. ‘Spending time alone,’ is almost like recharging your batteries; it needs to be done every now and then. If you see that your partner needs it, take charge and take the kids out for an hour or so. They would appreciate it. Fathers do get to go to work and spend some time away from everything. They may not be away mentally, but physical distance can play a huge role in bringing some respite whereas, mothers, especially ‘stay at home moms,’ spend every waking minute with the child and this can prove disastrous for their own emotional health. When you see your other half struggle, lend a helping hand! That’s what a relationship is all about.
You can only give what you have. In order to give love, confidence and happiness to the child, you both need to have them first. Give your marriage a fighting chance before deciding on other alternatives.
This quote from ‘Dave Willis’ sums up ‘Marriage’ beautifully, “A strong marriage requires loving your spouse even in those moments when they aren’t being loveable; it means believing in them even when they struggle to believe in themselves.”
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