Parenting a child with disability: effects on a couple’s relationship
Coping with the stress of raising a child with disability can make a relationship stronger and bring a couple closer together. Many parents say that it’s a rewarding and positive experience. It can lead to better coping skills, a stronger family, more sharing of parenting responsibilities and increased communication.
Caring for a child with disability can be a lot more work than raising a typically developing child, and the extra demands can result in strain on the parents’ relationship. But this isn’t the only cause of stress. Other factors include:
Financial pressures: transportation, equipment, medical bills and essential changes to the house can all cost a lot, and might put a financial strain on a couple.
Employment: one or both parents might have to reduce their working hours to care for their child. That means less income, which is additionally stressful if costs have gone up. The parent who stays home might also feel resentful and isolated, which can place a strain on the relationship.
Marital roles: when there’s a child with disability in the family, studies show that the roles of mothers and fathers tend to become more traditional, with fathers working outside the home and mothers providing primary care for the child. One or both parents might be uncomfortable with this division of labour.
Child behaviour: according to research, often it’s not the disability that causes most parents stress – it’s any behaviour problems that go along with the disability. The type, intensity and frequency of behaviour problems can really affect your relationship with your partner.
Time pressures: you might have far fewer opportunities to spend time with your partner, go out, keep up your own interests or go on holidays.
Dealing constructively with relationship strains
Spending time together as a couple is the best thing you can do to reduce any strain on your relationship. Find a way to spend pleasurable time together, for both leisure activities and intimacy. You might need to take advantage of respite care to give you time alone.
Here are some other ways to reduce the strain:
Celebrate achievements, your own and your child’s – focus on positives.
Share the workload at home so that one parent isn’t overburdened.
Talk to each other about your feelings, listen to each other and give each other emotional support.
It’s OK to laugh: a sense of humour helps to lighten situations and relieve tension.
Claim all financial benefits that you’re eligible for to reduce financial strain. Make decisions together about areas where you can save money.
Use all supports
available to you. The more support you have, the less stressed you might be and the better your relationship with your partner is likely to be. Parents who have more support say they have greater marital satisfaction and less stress. Support can come from:
- family members
- disability associations
- community agencies
- peer support groups, such as MyTime
- professionals such as psychologists or relationship counsellors.
Conflicts and tensions happen in even the strongest relationships, so they are bound to happen when there is extra stress. The following techniques are helpful for resolving conflict:
- Listen and try to understand.
- Commit yourself to finding a solution when you have differences.
- Be prepared to compromise.
- Focus on the problem situation, not the person.
- Let your partner talk without interruption.
- Sit down while you’re talking, and don’t argue aggressively or shout.
When should I worry about my relationship?
Immediately after your child is diagnosed with disability, your relationship might be affected while both of you adjust to the diagnosis and manage your feelings about your child’s disability.
Every couple will deal with their child’s diagnosis differently. But your relationship might need attention if some of these things are happening over the longer term:
- a loss of sex drive
- not enough time for intimacy
- not enough time to spend together
- talking to one another a lot less
- having more and worse arguments.
Who can I talk to if I am worried about my 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. But if that doesn’t succeed, you might want to get in touch with a relationships counsellor or a psychologist (through the Australian Psychological Society).