Marriage Under Stress
Becoming a parent for the first time changes our identity forever. There is a balancing act between caring for the needs of children and putting time and effort into the maintenance and growth of ourselves and our relationships. Frequently we must redefine our values and relationships with others. This transition in the development of family life is challenged even further by disability or chronic illness. There is a strain on any marriage whenever a baby is sick. And we always have a sick baby; according to Josh Greenfeld, the father of a child with autism, in A Child Called Noah (1970).
The kind of chronic stress that raising a child with special needs entails can affect relationships at their weakest points. This is just as true for families who have volunteered; by adopting children with special needs or providing a foster home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2000), 47% of first marriages fail and 57% of all marriages end in divorce. Although the findings are inconsistent, there is general consensus among experts that while the divorce rates are comparable, there appears to be more reported marital distress among families of children with special needs (Seligman and Darling, Ordinary Families, Special Children, 1997).
Together you and your partner dreamed of a healthy child - now you face a life very different from what you imagined. Your overwhelming feelings, both individually and combined, are normal and natural in the situation but very difficult nonetheless. The needs of the children are often complex and illusive. Searching to find the cause of children's developmental problems and the best treatment can be a long hard journey. Getting wrapped up in the stresses and strains of everyday life, relationships inevitably suffer from lack of attention. Communication problems, lack of time and energy for personal, marital, and family activities, and social isolation affect many families. When a disability or chronic illness is discovered, powerful emotions surface and may put relationships on trial. How can couples understand each other in the wake of such devastating pain?
For a relationship that is fragile or unstable disability can be the last straw. On the other hand, challenging life events can serve as catalysts for change. Some families disintegrate while others thrive despite their hardships. People can emerge from crisis revitalized and enriched. Hope for relationships really can spring from the crises people experience when their child has a disability.