Work to understand each other's needs. Family life can be a test of love and resilience, so taking good notes and working to understand each other's wants and needs are vital to the success and survival of an intimate relationship. Life has veered sharply from what you had expected it to be. Try not to blame each other for the situation. It takes time to sort this stuff out. Be kind to yourself and each other about how difficult this can be.
Spend alone time together. While the issues in any particular relationship are complex, it can be a good start to plan time together alone, even if only for a few hours. In study after study, people who report their marriages to be satisfying describe their spouses as their best friends, and people who are best friends have activities that they enjoy together. Most people get married, in large part, because they enjoy each other and make each other feel good. Who would have married their spouse if the last time they relaxed and/or had fun together was months ago?
A close bond between partners can help parents through the rough spots. You can start with sharing a cup of coffee or tea, dinner out, or a movie or concert.
Take care of your individual selves. Your children have conditions that may require lots of care and supervision. In the struggle to advocate for our children’s needs, our own needs as individuals and as couples get lost. Many people stop focusing on their marriage, but this never helps. As hard as it may sound at first, start to think about taking care of yourself and adding some fun and enjoyment into your life even though it can take a long time for this to feel okay. Take some time for yourself doing things you enjoy. This can be anything from physical exercise or journaling to just grabbing time to read the newspaper or a good book.
Reach out. When possible share the responsibilities at home by working together on chores, childcare, and education. It is helpful when couples both work to learn about their child’s disability, prepare for and attend IEP meetings, etc. Get involved in the special needs community if you can. There’s so much to manage everyday that reaching out to your partner, relatives or friends can help lessen the burden.
Communicate. When a person is in pain he or she may withdraw, or become frustrated and angry. It’s hard to talk about something we have no power to change or fix. At times the reactions of couples can become polarized or opposite. For example, one may notice problems in the child and tend to worry and feel negative while the other holds hope and optimism that in time everything will be fine. Try to consider all of your feelings toward your child - both positive and negative - and discuss issues in ways that will help both of you feel understood and find solutions to problems. In general, the way out requires working through the painful feelings with one's partner and arriving at some form of joint acceptance and effective co-parenting strategies.
Seek assistance. Sometimes a mental health professional (a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist) can be helpful to you in understanding the needs of the children, yourself, and your marriage. Some people are reluctant to take this step, but when it becomes hard to function from day to day, this kind of help may be in order. Just as you would consult more than one specialist for your child if necessary, do likewise for yourself. If your partner is too discouraged, then start by yourself. Sometimes a change in one partner changes the chemistry of the situation for the better. It is intelligent and wise to acknowledge the needs of yourself and your marriage over time as well as your child's needs. Your special family is worth it!
Cindy N. Ariel, Ph.D. and Robert A. Naseef, Ph.D., are psychologists who specialize in helping couples cope with special needs in their family (http://http://www.alternativechoices.com). They the co-editors of "Voices from the Spectrum: Parents, Grandparents, Siblings, People With Autism, and Professionals Share Their Wisdom" (2006). Naseef is also the author of the highly acclaimed book, Special Children, Challenged Parents: The Struggles and Rewards of Raising a Child with a Disability.