My Marriage is Floundering. Help!
Six Strategies for Strengthening Your Marriage for Parents of ASD Children*
Often couples look towards parenthood with great joy and love. Shockingly, that same bundle of joy can create problems in the marital (or other committed) relationship that may lead to divorce or at the very least, tremendous dissatisfaction. Marital dissatisfaction is, in fact, quite normal when children arrive on the scene, and especially when that involves an autistic child. What’s a couple to do?
Note: Here I will refer interchangeably to marriage, relationship, husband, wife, partner, as my goal is to be inclusive of all committed couples who parent a child or children.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman, and other researchers, have studied the factors that can make or break a relationship. Decades of study and practice in marriage counseling have led them to some surprising discoveries. It will come as no surprise to many of you, that adding a baby to the family causes stress, to say nothing of exhaustion. A child with additional needs increases the level of strain. But let’s start with the basics.
One of the greatest predictors of continuing marital satisfaction actually starts before pregnancy. The degree to which each member of a couple is aware of their partner’s emotional state, and expresses affection and caring, is an important predictor of continued satisfaction with the relationship. The Gottmans talk about “bids,” a type of interaction between couples. Let’s look at an example:
Bob (arriving home from work): Wow, I had such a rough day at work today!
Marie (looking at child): You had a rough day? Look at this place; it’s a mess! And the ABA therapist is going to show up any minute!
How do you think Marie’s response is going to go over with Bob? Bob made a “bid” for Marie’s attention and validation, and she didn’t even look at him, nor really acknowledge his distress. Instead, she redirected the conversation to herself and their child. Let’s try a similar encounter:
Louise (walking in from the garage): Hey honey, I’m so glad you’re here. You know, on the way home from work my car started making this clunk-clunk-clunk noise…
Matthew (holding child’s hand): Honey, I’m sure glad to see you too (kiss). I’m sorry to hear about the car … I’ll bet that made you worried.
Do you see the difference? Here Louise made a “bid” and Matthew responded with acknowledgement, affection and caring. He didn’t offer to take care of the car issue for her --and this is important— because perhaps Louise just wanted Matthew’s attention and validation, not to jump in and solve the problem.
Now, I’m not going to blame one partner over another. Often when a relationship is strained, the couple loses the important sense of “us” and “we.” It becomes a contest as to whose needs will get met, a win-lose game, instead of the feeling of being allies on the same team. The needs of the child may eclipse those of the parents. Everyone’s needs can be acknowledged; but in a difficult situation, not everyone’s needs will be met. If the couple uses a “we” approach, it is more likely that some agreement can be made about how/when to address those needs.
One more feature that contributes to dissatisfaction in a marriage is also related to parenting. Let’s call this the “chaos” factor. When situations seem “out of control” (the definition of chaos), this pushes people to their limits. Most people prefer a stable environment where predictability reigns. With the addition of children, the unpredictability factor goes up; with a child diagnosed with ASD or any of a range of physical/mental disorders, that chaos factor increases exponentially. So how do we increase stability when the chaos factor is present?
There many things you can do to maintain some measure of stability and address dissatisfaction in your marriage; here are a few strategies:
- Take Time for Yourself.
It doesn’t have to cost money for you to go out and take a walk while your partner is available to watch the children. Go to the public library and flip through a magazine, or just sit and breathe. This is not the time to race to the grocery store or run five errands. The goal here is to re-instill calm inside yourself, to think your own thoughts, to cultivate your sense of you and not as mom or dad or partner. Just you. You can’t give to others what you don’t have within yourself. Volunteer to create “me time” for your partner as well. When you are feeling calm and grounded, it is much easier to deal with chaotic situations.
- Take Time for Partner Love and Fun.
Date night is alive and well! Ideally, take at least two hours, one evening per week, to just be alone as a couple, to talk and do things together like you did before you had children. Do something fun! If finances are a limitation, creating a cooperative arrangement with other parents of an ASD child might be appropriate, so you would each get a turn on a specified night of the week. Making it the same night every week, and the same time, will help your child accept this new routine. Maybe a trusted friend or relative would be willing to watch your child or children in your home, in a separate space, while the two of you watch a movie in the living room. The key is to keep a boundary around your special time together so you can revive the affection and positive regard, as well as regaining that sense of “we.”
- Watch for “Bids”
When your partner makes a bid for your attention, even with your nerves frazzled and chaos all around, retrain your brain to respond in the moment with affection, respect, and caring for your partner’s distress. You don’t have to solve his or her problem on the spot; just acknowledge it and express your caring and concern. It only takes about 30 seconds to respond with acknowledgement, validation, and caring. If you’re both able to do this consistently, it can heal many wounds and support that sense of “we.”
- Use the Resources Available to You
Many communities have respite care available for parents who are beyond their limit to care for their child. Respite care gives you that time you need to nap, grocery-shop, or just take a breather. Look at the Autism Speaks website, under resources, to find respite care near you. Ask your provider for referrals to social services that may be able to assist you in regaining your can-do attitude. Find support groups, either on-line or in-person, to help you cope. You’re not alone!
- Know Where to Draw the Line
Frustration and exhaustion often breed anger, which can boil over in destructive ways. Violence between adult partners is unacceptable, and highly detrimental to children who witness or hear it. Violence against children is never acceptable. Abuse can take many forms: physical, sexual, financial, isolation, and more. Know where to go to ask for help: you can always call 911, or make sure you’re aware of your local hotline for domestic violence.
- Marriage/Couples Therapy
Yes, marriages can be saved, even when considerable damage has been done through stress, inattention, disrespect, and even infidelity. Seeing a qualified couples therapist and committing to giving your relationship a chance is a great option. Marriage counseling often takes several months or more. The problems probably didn’t start overnight, so they won’t be solved quickly either; quality therapy takes time. Some couples choose to work with a private practitioner, while others seek support and guidance from religious leaders who have additional training in pastoral counseling. Either way, giving yourself a chance to work through the problems in your marriage may be in the best interests of yourself, and your child.