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Special Needs Stress and Marriage: Can You Have One Without the Other?

Managing therapy bills, parenting strategies and other marital challenges.

Men and women are very different. A no-brainer, right? You only need to monitor the television preferences in our homes to prove that theory.

"You're watching 1000 Ways to Die, again?"

"Yeah, well it's better than those dumb Real Housewives shows you watch. They make me wanna die!"

In our experience, those differences are most apparent when it comes to parenting, or more specifically, parenting our children with special needs.

Neither of us ever imagined this would be a concern for us. When we dreamed of parenting our future children, we envisioned spending time with our kids on the playing fields, not in the psychiatric field.

Of course, that's not exactly how things have turned out.

"How come all of the other dads in the neighborhood take their kids to soccer on Saturdays and I take ours to social group?"

"Don't you worry, Mike. I see the way those parents behave at games. Those kids will be in therapy before you know it."

Sure, we fight about the things most couples fight about, money, sex, etc. Though our sources of those fights are somewhat different.

"Patty, these co-pays are really adding up. I've got to put you on a therapy budget."

"Not tonight, Mike. I took a Klonopin and I'm dopey."

Our biggest fights, however, involve our different approaches to parenting our special children.

"You give in to her too much!"

"Yeah, well you don't understand her issues! Have you read her neurospsych reports? Do you understand how hard her life is?

It's no wonder that according to some studies, the divorce rate among special parents is estimated to be over 80%. We weren't even aware of this until a woman at one of our presentations raised her hand after our talk and said,

"I've gotta tell you, I'm just blown away."

"You liked our talk, did you?" we beamed.

"Yeah, yeah, it was great, but I just can't get over that you two are still married to the same people."

That we are. There are probably a few good reasons for that. One, of course, is that underneath all the stress in our lives, we have genuine love and concern for our spouses. Plus, with with all the copays, testing, medications, lawyers, and advocates we have to pay for, divorce is not an option, as Gina's husband always points out.

"Gene, we'll be together forever; we can't afford a divorce."

"I know, Mike. I'm never letting you go. At my age, where would I find someone with such good mental health benefits?"

We also realize that our kids struggle enough with managing the pressures of being different. Home is their safe place, where they can count on their parents to be there for them. One time, for example, when Gina's younger daughter was having sleeping difficulties, Gina found herself sleeping in all different parts of the house with her daughter. Gina didn't think anyone noticed her "bedhopping," until her teenage daughter, Katie, who is often in her own little world, came running to her in tears.

"Tell me the truth!" she sobbed. "You and Dad are getting a divorce! You don't sleep in the same bed. Please don't get a divorce! I'd want to die if you did!"

Truthfully, we've both experienced dififcult times when we weren't sure our marriages would make it. Times when we didn't seem to understand each other's feelings and struggles.

"Gene, I can't take her anxiety and crying! I gotta get out of here."

"You have to get out of here? I've been with her all day. If anyone is running away, it's me, pal!"

We've also had times when we just didn't think the other cared as much.

For example, as mothers, it's not uncommon for us to stay awake worrying about our children. "Will they get married? Will Jennifer be OK at college? Will Katie pass her state assessment and graduate with her class? Will Emily ever make a friend?" When that happens, it's hard not to feel resentful toward our husbands who simply have a different way of dealing with things, especially at night time.


It wasn't until a father approached us after one of our talks that we changed our ways of thinking.

"Thanks for your talk. It really helped me. My daughter who has autism is being teased and I just don't know what to do. My wife goes to her support group, gets her feelings out, and feels better. Guys don't do things like that. I am so angry. There's nothing I can do to protect my little girl."

Later that evening, Gina went home and discussed this with her husband. "Mike, I've been so busy worrying about the kids and how I feel that I never ask you how you feel."

"You're the mother. You get the worst of it."

"Yeah, but how do you feel?"

"It breaks my heart to see my girls struggle. When kids tease them, I want to hit someone," he said, with his eyes filled with tears.

Since that talk, we've both gained some insights into how our husbands deal with the struggles. We've also opened the lines of communication with them and made it a point to spend alone together.

"Michael, would you like to come to CVS with me to pick up our family's prescriptions?"

"Mike, I thought we'd have a quiet dinner in the closet tonight."

This has helped us better understand our differences, and do something we hadn't been able to do - forge a united front. Though some things will never change.

"Mike, there's no way I'm watching a Planet of the Apes marathon! I'm going upstairs to watch TV."

What differences do you and your spouse have over parenting your children?