Parenting a child with disability can bring new challenges to your relationship with your partner. It can also bring joy and closeness. Talking openly and valuing your time together can help you keep your relationship strong.
Positive changes in your relationship
There are lots of great things about raising a child with disability. It can make your family stronger. You might also find that you share parenting responsibilities more and talk more with your partner.
You and your partner might see your child’s disability differently, which is normal. This might mean you deal differently with your child’s behaviour and how you relate to your child. This isn’t a bad thing at all. You might get lots of new ideas from the different ways you approach things.
To have a strong parenting partnership, you’ll need to talk with each other about your views and feelings. Sharing your feelings can help you feel good about your relationship. And when you make time for regular catch-ups on how you’re feeling, it can also help you work together better as a team.
New challenges for your relationship
Caring for a child with disability can also bring new challenges and more pressures. Working together as a team to find solutions can help you to handle these challenges.
You might find that you have to pay for transport, equipment, medical bills or essential changes to your house, which can strain your finances. Your state disability support service can give you information on getting financial support for your child’s disability to cover equipment and associated costs.
If you can, try to make decisions together about areas where you can save money.
Changes in employment and family roles
One or both of you might need, or choose, to cut your working hours to care for your child. This can change the way you divide up household tasks. You can talk together about ways to balance the workload with your partner, and look at flexible working hours or job options.
If you’re staying at home to look after your child, try to get involved in local community groups and activities. This can help you feel connected to your community.
Children’s behaviour can be stressful for any relationship. If your child with disability behaves in difficult ways, it can help to decide together how you’ll handle it so that you’re consistent. Talking about this regularly is a good idea.
A psychologist or disability specialist can help you plan appropriate behaviour strategies to help your child.
Having a child with disability can mean that there’s less time for you and your partner to spend quality time together. Spending pleasurable time together, doing things you enjoy and being intimate as a couple can bring you closer – and remind you that you’re people, not just parents!
A family member or friend might be able to babysit, or your local disability service might be able to help you find respite care or babysitters who are trained in looking after children with disability.
Looking after yourselves and your relationship
It’s easy to get caught up in looking after your child’s needs, but looking after yourselves is important too. Part of this is finding time to do things you’re interested in – as individuals and as a couple. It might be sport, music or social groups. A bit of time out helps you feel good – and when you feel good yourself, you’ve got more energy to put into your relationship.
Raising children is a big job for anyone, and raising a child with disability can mean an even bigger workload. You and your partner don’t have to do the same things, but sharing the overall workload of child care, domestic chores and paid work is important. You could think about doing a weekly chart of chores and responsibilities to make sure things are fair. This can also help you make time each week for yourselves.
Talking openly about your feelings and listening to each other without blame or judgment are great ways to give each other emotional support. Using ‘I’ statements can help – for example, ‘I feel as though ...’, or ‘I wonder if we could do this differently’. When you’re talking about difficult issues, you can show you’re listening by saying things like ‘I understand what you mean’, or ‘I didn’t realise you felt that way’.
It’s OK to laugh. A sense of humour can help you let off steam and see the funny side of things.
Working together on problems
Conflicts and tensions happen in even the strongest relationships, and having a child with disability can create greater pressure on your relationship. The following strategies are helpful for sorting out problems:
- Make a time to talk about things you’re worried about. Picking a time when your child won’t be around is a good idea.
- Sit down together and focus on what your partner is saying.
- Try to say exactly what the problem is. For example, ‘I feel like I’m not getting any time for myself. I haven’t been able to get out for a walk for two weeks’.
- Listen to your partner’s thoughts and feelings without interrupting.
- If you don’t agree with what your partner is saying, try to focus on the problem, not on your partner. For example, you could say, ‘I’d like to try a different approach this time’.
- Brainstorm lots of different solutions to the problem to see what might work best. You can also talk about what the solution might look like. You could ask, ‘Are we both comfortable with this?’ or ‘Could we do this better?’
- Ask how your partner is feeling after the discussion, and make sure that you both feel you’ve had a chance to say what’s on your mind.
Support will help you deal with stress and workload. For example, perhaps you could get a friend or a family member to look after your child while you and your partner spend some time together.
Support can also come from:
- family members
- disability associations
- community agencies
- peer support groups, such as MyTime
- professionals such as psychologists or relationship counsellors
- respite care.
Your child with disability can probably get financial support from the government and other support. You can ease any financial strain by claiming whatever benefits you can.
When to get help
Learning about your child’s diagnosis and working through the challenges of parenting a child with disability can trigger feelings of grief for both you and your partner.
It can take time to understand your child’s diagnosis and process your feelings. You might go through a lot of different feelings – despair, guilt, denial, depression and eventually acceptance. This cycle doesn’t always follow a clear pattern, and you might feel all of these emotions at various times.
Every couple will deal with their child's diagnosis differently. But your relationship might need attention if you experience the following:
- loss of sex drive
- withdrawal from each other
- frequent arguments that you can’t sort out.
If you’re worried about your relationship, the first person you should talk to is your partner. You can deal with a lot of worries by talking openly – don’t be scared to talk about how you feel. You might also want to get in touch with a relationships counsellor or a psychologist.