My husband and I were required to have 3 premarital counseling sessions before getting married. 3 sessions of talking about the big questions. 3 sessions of filling out questionnaires and considering how we envision dividing household chores. 3 sessions of being told that marriage is hard work, and 3 sessions of believing it won’t be too hard for us, because “we’ll be different”. We’re in love. Ha! To be young and naïve again.
Of course, like all marriages, our nearly 18 years has not been all wedded bliss. We’ve argued. We’ve had years where I fantasized about packing a suitcase and just taking off. My husband has chewed too loudly and left his shoes in the wrong places. I’ve left cookie dough bowls filled with soaking grossness in the kitchen sink even though he’s asked me about a bazillion and one times not to. And there’s been the bigger hurdles, too, that have required far more grace and forgiveness.
And, being that we’ve both got our own varieties of gifted intensities, we can clash and annoy each other in quite intense ways. We can also love and appreciate each other in quite intense ways, too. And we’re both mental health therapists, so that adds a whole new level to things. And no, despite some of my clients believing that must mean we have perfect communication and conflict resolution, our therapy skills only arm us with better ways to get under the other person’s skin.
But, despite all of this. Despite our intensities and our skilled digs, and our mistakes and the hard times we’ve weathered together, there has been nothing more perilous to our relationship than raising a twice exceptional child.
No one prepares you for this lifestyle. Pre-marital counseling doesn’t ask the question, what if you have a child with differing needs, with more intense needs. No relationship book prepares you for the absolute soul-sucking exhaustion caring for a child who aggressively melts down multiple times a day will bring, and then preps you for the guilt and separation and disconnection that comes about because you have absolutely not one drop of anything left to give to your spouse. It’s not a coincidence that most studies show the divorce rate among parents with differently wired kids to be approximately twice as high as couples with neurotypical kids.
There’s been many times I’ve been worried we’d become part of that statistic. And yet, we’re nearly 18 years (13 of those as parents and 10 of those as parents of the intensely differently wired kiddo) and still going strong. Right now, anyway.
Here are a few things we’ve been able to do that have helped our relationship survive.
Allowed each person to grieve in their way and in their time. When we were young and “in love” we dreamed together about what our family would be like. We had names picked out (none of which we used). We imagined how we’d parent together, take vacations together, raise them together. In none of those dreams did we imagine one of our children losing her words, stimming, breaking into aggressive meltdowns, and having sensory processing issues to the extent that we have to lug weighted vests, blankets, and a bag full of other sensory gear with us at all times.
We have to grieve the loss of our dream. We have to grieve the loss of the way we thought our lives would go. We have to grieve for our beloved child who will have extra challenges living in this world for her entire life and we have to grieve for the things we have to set aside or let go of in order to have the time, energy, and patience to raise her and love her well.
All people grieve differently. Some get angry. Some get sad. Some get depressed. Some get anxious. Some get all of those things within the span of an afternoon. And it can take months and years to fully grieve. Really, there isn’t a complete end to grieving. There’s an end to mourning, but various things will pop up throughout the years that trigger the grief and the recognition of the loss of what we thought it’d be again and again.
As partners, we need to allow each other to grieve in our own way and provide the support that the other person needs in a way that they understand. This isn’t always easy, and we had multiple rough patches on the road toward acceptance, but understanding that we’re both grieving, helped.
Trusted what each other sees and experiences. We didn’t always agree on how to complete the parent observation forms for KBear’s initial evaluation. I had noticed things that my husband didn’t. KBear behaved certain ways with me that she simply didn’t when with my husband. And, as is common, this pattern has continued. We’ve both witnessed all the glory of the big meltdowns, but I tend to see them more regularly than Jon, for lots of different reasons. And while sometimes I kinda resent him a little that he has the easier path in that way, and sometimes he accidentally insinuates that I must be doing something wrong, for the most part we understand each other and know it’s simply the way it is. We trust each other to be having the best of intention. We trust that we’re each doing our best. We trust that what the other person experiences is indeed what the other person experiences and we try our best to support each other in it.
Encouraged each other’s self-care. Every three months, I go away for 2 nights to be completely on my own. I usually use that time to write or create other content. It allows me to get into my flow and go. Every couple of weeks my husband says, “When are you getting together with Rachel next? It seems like you need a girls’ night.” I encourage my husband’s gaming and don’t complain about the late nights he spends chatting with his long distance buddies. I send him out for afternoons to do whatever the heck he wants to do without kids. We alternate who gets to sleep in or take naps. We look out for each other.
Recognize that Temporary Survival-Mindset is Going To Happen. My daughter is in the midst of a rough patch right now. Significant chunks of my days these past few months have been spent managing and regulating her overload. We understand that right now, we have no energy left to give each other. We understand that right now we have no energy left to keep the house looking the way we’d like it to. We understand that right now we’re each clinging on til bedtime and then need to collapse in separate aloneness. And we’re ok with that. I mean, we’re not OK with that, but we know it’s temporary. It won’t always be this draining. There will be times when it eases up and we can reinvest that energy into our relationship again. But, for right now, we know we love each other. We know we’re committed to each other. And we know we’ll be able to reconnect again. . . . someday . . . maybe in a decade.
Prioritize Time Away Together. Because we often can’t connect in the same way we’d like to on a day to day basis, we make sure we have time each year to get away from it all and just breath and be together. No kids. A true vacation. In fact, we typically take a weekend in the fall and a weekend in the spring. Each and every year. I know it’s difficult to find people to watch the kiddos overnight. But, maybe even hiring someone would be worth it, if you can afford it. Or ask their friend’s parents. Or drag your third cousin twice removed into the family fray. It is so crucial to get to remember that you actually like hanging out together.
Understand That We’re Going to Parent Differently, but try to be on the same page as much as possible. We have general ground rules that we’ve agreed to and that our kids understand. But beyond that, we let each other do our parenting thing the way that works for us. Each of us has our own relationships with each of our children, and the other of us doesn’t interfere. Not my responsibility what my daughter’s relationship with my husband looks like, today, tomorrow, or 10 years from now. That’s up to them.
Noticed when we’re in danger. It’s difficult on a relationship to co-parent a differently wired kid. And we’re not immune to the damage the stress of it can cause. We often slip into taking our frustrations out on each other, because that’s more acceptable than taking them out on our kids. But, it’s not okay. Sometimes the rough patches last months and we begin to just be roommates. At those times, when we feel total disconnection rearing its isolating head, we say something. We talk in the kitchen and come up with a plan to reconnect. We notice that we’re in danger and we remind ourselves that we don’t want to be a statistic. We recommit to each other and we invest in each other. We look back at where we’ve come from, laughing at the immature love we had sitting in the premarital counseling sessions, and we marvel at how the difficulties have grown us, individually, and as a couple. Then we drink wine and fantasize about when the kids all move out.