10 Ways to Strengthen Your Marriage While Raising Special Needs Kids

Happy Asian family doing activities together at home on vacation.

This post may contain affiliate links; please see our terms of use for details.

  • Parents and families of children with special needs face unique and challenging stressors that can negatively impact a marriage.
  • Open dialogue while listening well helps both partners feel heard and valued.
  • Maintaining and strengthening your marriage doesn’t have to be boring!
  • You don’t have to do everything alone. Help is available; all you need to do is ask.

Raising a special needs child is rewarding and challenging—just like marriage. 

When your child requires extra care and attention, the focus of your marriage and parenting energies can shift to dealing with your child’s needs. Over time, parents can lose touch with each other as individuals—the stress of which brings its own set of challenges and emotions.

It’s normal for all marriages to go through seasons of growth and change, particularly as spouses become parents and lean into their roles. There’s no shame in admitting that your relationship is in a tough space and needs help to get back on track. 

Are you curious about how to help your struggling marriage when you have a special needs child? 

There are steps you can take today to strengthen your marriage—and you may actually enjoy them!

1. Learn Active Listening Skills

Happy married young couple hugging, sitting on cozy couch together.

Before there was your child, there were the two of you: A couple with their own individual relationship.

Over time, we can lose touch with our spouses, to the point where we don’t even know how to talk to the other parent beyond asking if basic tasks have been accomplished.

The healthiest marriages I know of share an essential commonality: They talk to each other. Often. About everything.

The Harvard Business Review11. Abrahams, R., & Groysberg, B.. How to Become a Better Listener. Harvard Business Review. 2021. https://hbr.org/2021/12/how-to-become-a-better-listener reports that those who engage in conversation have two goals:

  • Interpret and correctly understand the words being spoken and the feelings behind them.
  • Show genuine interest, focus, and positive emotions (like caring) to the other participant.

These are the tasks behind active listening. 

Active listening, according to the authors, helps the person receiving information to stay focused on the conversation and includes three separate domains:

  • Cognitive: Concentrate your attention on the conversation to capture all information like conscious facts (the spoken words) and subconscious clues (body language, tone of voice, and inflection) to understand the full message.
  • Emotional: Use empathy to stay regulated and engaged during your conversation. This area includes regulating your emotional responses, like frustration or boredom, that may occur during your discussion.
  • Behavioral: Consistently demonstrating interest and understanding of the other person through your body language and responses.

Along with a series of helpful tips to teach active listening skills, the authors remind us that “if people do not feel listened to, they will cease to share information.”

Over time, failing to listen well can erode the strength of your marriage as much as sugary drinks can lead to cavities.

2. Schedule Time to Talk

Cheerful Middle Aged Couple Talking And Flirting Enjoying Conversation.

One way to start reconnecting with each other is to set aside a specific time to talk without interruptions or distractions. 

I like scheduling these types of conversations—and it’s not because I enjoy having another to-do item on my task list.

Knowing that I will be discussing a certain topic allows me time to mentally process and prepare throughout the day. If I expect the conversation to be heated, I may even write down key points I want to discuss so they don’t get lost or forgotten.

3. Be Open and Honest

Serious african 30s married couple in love sitting at table having heart-to-heart intimate straight talk.

Each partner needs to have space to respectfully share feelings and concerns without interruption from the other person.

It can also be helpful to assume good intentions on the part of the other person while not excusing inappropriate behavior. 

Extending grace and forgiveness can help spouses feel more connected, as well as knowing that whatever is said in the conversation is likely coming from a place of love.

4. Resolve Conflicts Quickly

Angry young couple sit on couch in living room having family fight.

Staff from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services22. Conflict Resolution 101. We Think Twice. https://www.wethinktwice.acf.hhs.gov/conflict-resolution-101 offer these tips for resolving conflicts:

  • Agree to only talk about the topic being discussed. Rehashing old arguments or grievances usually doesn’t help to find a solution to today’s problem.
  • Stay present in the conversation by acknowledging and regulating your feelings. Tension can rise easily during a heated conversation. Take responsibility for your reactions and avoid pushing them on to others.
  • Show grace and forgiveness to each other. As the authors state, “The end goal of conflict resolution is to strengthen the relationship.” Rarely, if ever, is one person entirely at fault.
  • Strive to understand the full message of what the other person is saying. Use active listening to clarify potential misunderstandings and ask questions if you’re unsure instead of assuming. “Tell me more” is far more inviting than “That makes no sense.”
  • Work to find a mutually agreeable solution. In other words, compromise. Both partners will likely need to give a little to reach a solution that works for each person.

If your conversation continues to escalate, it’s wise to press “pause” on your discussion and resume it later when you’re both ready. It’s okay to agree to disagree and for each of you to think the other is wrong.

"Our love, tested by our child's needs, becomes our unwavering anchor in the tumultuous sea of life."

5. Plan Regular Date Nights

Beautiful young african american couple in love sitting in cafe and eating dinner.

A date night doesn’t have to be expensive—or even occur away from home—to be special.

The key is to find what you each enjoy and bring life to your relationship. 

Try these ideas for your next at-home date night:

  • Buy a favorite, inexpensive treat (like McDonald’s sundaes) and enjoy them on the porch together after your children are in bed.
  • Surprise your spouse with their favorite take-out dinner on a hard day. Extra credit if you let them eat it on their own while you wrangle kids at the dinner table.
  • Start a board game co-op with another married couple and share games. One of my favorites is Poetry for Neanderthals—it’s always hilarious and requires very little brain power.
Poetry for Neanderthals
  • MAKE PARTY GREAT: We have fun game. Help team guess word on card. Catch is, use only one sound. No big words or boom stick hit you! Poetry for Neanderthals is the guessing game that needs you to channel your inner caveman. Speak in single syllables and win points with every correct guess. If you start talking fancy, someone from the opposing team gets to bop you with an inflatable club. Looking for a party game for kids and adults that will have the crowd roaring with laughter? You’ve found it!
  • COMPLETE GAME SET: You’ll have everything you need. Just call your crew, tell them to leave their grammar at the door, and let the games begin. You’ll receive 200 double-sided cards, 2 game boards, and a 2-foot inflatable No! Stick, and 1 sand timer. And we know you’ll get a bit too enthusiastic with the inflated club- it’s hard not to. That’s why we’ve thrown in a repair patch with each of the card games for families. In case anything happens, just patch it up, and keep on guessing.
  • WHOLE FAMILY FUN: Kids will love it. Teens won’t get enough of it. Adults will be scrambling to get their own copy. Meet your new game night staple. Poetry for Neanderthals is great for grownups & kids ages 7+ and accommodates 2-6 players. The more of your primitive family and friends you bring in on the fun, the more knee-slapping hilarity will ensue. Break it out after dinner, on lazy weekends, during picnics, or at work when your boss has gone for that conference.
  • ELEVATE THE EXCITEMENT: It make fun big plus big. Laugh loud plus loud. Pal will greet hand. Tell you praise. Say top day of life …. We’re talking about the Poetry for Neanderthals expansion pack! (And we know we’d get bopped a few times there. We live dangerously) The More Cards Box 1 adds 2,000 new words and phrases. Think you can do better than our Neanderthal brains? We’ve also included 20 blank cards that give you the power to personalize the game.
  • Bring the baby monitor and take a short walk through the neighborhood, or even back and forth to the end of your driveway.
  • Play pickleball or another outdoor game, like cornhole, in the driveway. With a little imagination, you could adapt cornhole to the living room with laundry baskets and squishy sensory balls.
  • If you’re both exhausted, there’s nothing wrong with playing a favorite movie or sitting down to watch TV together. Just remember to leave personal electronic devices out of it and talk to each other instead of hopping on social media.

Focusing on “quality time” rather than “quantity time” may reduce the stress of carving out hours for each other after a busy day of caring for children, with or without special needs.

6. Include Intimacy

Smiling millennial caucasian husband with stubble hugs and kisses his wife on cheek.

Caregiving for special needs family members comes with a high degree of personal and emotional connectivity. Parents may feel overstimulated, disconnected, and less than enthusiastic about showing intimacy or affection to each other.

Plus, there are the unexpected interruptions that are part of life with kids.

Spend some of your time together talking about what makes your partner feel loved and cared for. Small acts of love and affection, such as a morning hug or kiss goodnight, can help keep your romance alive.

7. Share Your Goals and Dreams

Loving happy couple talking to each other at home.

A successful team—in the workplace, in education, or in families—is one in which the members share a common goal or objective. 

Sharing goals and dreams helps family members see the broader picture of life beyond simply caring for a child with special needs. This provides hope, meaning, and resilience, which are all essential to preventing burnout among parents and caregivers.

Make a note to regularly check in with your spouse about their future aspirations. Bonus point: Your relationship with your best friend (i.e. spouse) will likely improve as you share your visions together. 

8. Utilize Community Resources

Hugging during support group meeting in rehab.

Start by researching what local support groups or respite services are available in your area. Talking with your child’s doctor, therapists, or case manager about these resources may give you a place to start looking and determining your child’s eligibility for other special needs programs and community services.

I’ve also learned that parents of special needs children can be a goldmine of information. Asking parents of kids with similar diagnoses about what supports they use can save time and energy for you and your spouse.

9. Enlist Help From Family and Friends

Grandparents or cooking kids learning a bakery pudding or cookies recipe.

Learning to ask for help is not a skill that comes easily to most people. 

However, it is critical to your—and your child’s—health and well-being to learn how to ask for and accept help. 

Friends, grandparents, or other family members can provide respite care33. What Is Respite Care?. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2023. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/caregiving/what-respite-care for you to attend appointments (with or without your spouse), spend time with other children, or simply be away from home for a while.

Accepting help means that you have space and time to process the inevitable stress and challenges that come with raising a child.

10. Seek Professional Help If Necessary

Mature stressed married couple and talking to advisor at home.

While seeing a counselor may feel like one more task on your to-do list, many of these professionals have expertise in relationships, marriage, and parenting. 

Talking through issues and learning new strategies to keep your marriage strong can help everyone in the family.

Whether as individuals or as a couple, it may be time to seek professional support44. The Power of Counseling for Parents. Navigate Life Texas. https://www.navigatelifetexas.org/en/family-support/the-power-of-counseling-for-parents with a doctor or counselor if:

  • You feel constantly overwhelmed, sad, angry, or numb.
  • These feelings impair your ability to care for your child or yourself.
  • You use substances (like alcohol or drugs) as a means to simply get through each day.
  • You and your spouse struggle to agree on how to take care of your child with special needs.
  • You and your spouse struggle with basic respect and communication.
  • You or your child have experienced abuse or other harmful situations.
  • You experience thoughts of harming yourself or your child.

Psychology Today55. Find a Therapist. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists has a registry of individual or marriage counselors in your area. Many professionals offer telehealth sessions if in-person therapy isn’t a good fit for your family.

Many couples raising a child with special needs have unique stressors that can take a toll on their marriage. While devoting extra time to strengthening your marriage may feel overwhelming, it is work worth doing for you, your child, and your family.

References

  1. Abrahams, R., & Groysberg, B. (2021, December 21). How to Become a Better Listener. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/12/how-to-become-a-better-listener
  2. Conflict Resolution 101. We Think Twice. (n.d.). https://www.wethinktwice.acf.hhs.gov/conflict-resolution-101
  3. What Is Respite Care? U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023, October 12). https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/caregiving/what-respite-care
  4. The Power of Counseling for Parents. Navigate Life Texas. (n.d.). https://www.navigatelifetexas.org/en/family-support/the-power-of-counseling-for-parents
  5. Find a Therapist. Psychology Today. (n.d.). https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists
Strengthening Your Marriage While Raising Special Needs Kids


Related Posts

Child daughter congratulates mom and gives her flowers tulips and postcard.

Special Needs

Mother’s Day Self-Care: Recognizing and Addressing Maternal Mental Health Needs

It may feel impossible to practice mom self-care, but these simple strategies can help you to prioritize yourself at the top of your to-do list.

Smiling young Hispanic mom and small ethnic daughter relax on sofa in living room have fun play together.

Autism, Behavior

7 Ways To Stop Your Child’s Perseveration

You can support your child’s perseveration with practical strategies, support, and a better understanding of their behavior.

Kid daughter feels upset while parents fighting at background.

Special Needs

5 Reasons Why Special Needs Parents Are More Likely to Divorce

Parents of special needs children face unique challenges and stressors. Why do these factors make them more likely to divorce?