Building A Better Marriage

In which MJ is verbose and apologizes for that beforehand

Since I’m plumbing the depths this week, let’s just call it the theme of the week and keep going.  I want to talk about marriage.

I love talking about human behavior in the context of relationships.  Relationships of all sorts are messy, and, for some reason, I really like that.  I like the complexities, the nuances, and the fact that no matter how well you know someone there will always be something new to discover about them.

Marriage without children is complicated enough.  The idea that two people are going to commit to love each other for the rest of their days seems almost outdated for the 21st century.  After Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s “conscious uncoupling” hit mainstream media sources and their philosophy behind their decision–loving and committing to solely one person does not mesh with human nature–I imagine that there are quite a few people nodding their heads in agreement: “Yeah! I’d like to consciously uncouple from my spouse, too! I think my human nature would like another partner now, thank you very much.”

It’s a very tempting idea.  My physical therapist even said something similar last November! I was lying on my back while she was doing something painful to my neck.  All the while, she talked about marriage and relationships.  We change.  Who we were in our younger years doesn’t line up with who we are twenty years later.  Sometimes we just don’t fit with our partners after so much time has passed.  Sometimes we must move on.  We just don’t like each other anymore.  Then she left the room so that I could get dressed.

Her words struck a chord in me.  Marriage is indeed complicated enough without children, but what might marriage be like when one or two or three of your children are diagnosed with something? How complicated does it really get?


I’m not going to cite any statistics because the stats are all over the place.  Suffice it to say that the divorce rate increases when special needs enter the picture.  Why? Well, from my own experience as well as observing married friends with special needs children, I can tell you that two of the primary reasons that a decent marriage tanks under the pressure of raising a child or children with special needs are:

  • unmet hidden expectations
  • poor communication

Unmet hidden expectations plague every relationship.  We think that we’ve been clear about what we expect from our partners, but really we have all these hidden expectations that even we didn’t consciously know about.  When they aren’t met, however, our disappointment, feelings of rejection, and resentment come out, and usually they come out sideways.  Our partners don’t know what they did wrong, and we’re often not entirely sure why we’re behaving badly.  We just know that we’re hurt or mad or disappointed.

For example, when I was newly married I had a picture in my head of what being pregnant would be like (expectation).  I imagined that my husband would go with me to the prenatal OB visits (expectation).  If he didn’t go to every appointment, I thought he might go to a few (expectation).  I imagined that he would want to go (expectation).  It was our baby after all.  This would be an experience that we would share (expectation).  As it turns out, nothing like that happened.

My husband was in the middle of building his career and was not able to go to one prenatal appointment with me.  I went alone to all of them.  Rationally, I understood the reasons.  My emotional mind, however, was hurt.  The “postcard” that I had created over the years around the pregnancy experience looked nothing like reality.  All of my expectations were dashed.  This is just one experience–one postcard–that defied my expectations.  How many experiences like this might be strung together in an almost 20 year marriage? Oh, so many.

What might our expectations be–what might the “postcards” look like–when a special needs child is introduced into a union? What do we imagine our life will look like? What do we imagine our relationship will look like? What do we imagine our communication will look like?

In my case, I thought that we would share the experiences.  Once again, I imagined that we would go to a few key appointments together.  I thought that we would be able to discuss our feelings.  I know, it sounds so female, but, honestly, that’s what I imagined.  Looking back, I see that I was a bit misguided in my expectations of my husband regarding what I expected of him in the way of emotional sharing.  That postcard in my head was created to meet my own needs.  My husband is an internal processor.  He doesn’t like to sit around and talk about his feelings.  I do that enough for the both of us.  He retreats and processes his emotions and his grief alone.  Can this harm a relationship? Well, yes, it can, but my husband wasn’t thinking about the state of our relationship when he was dealing with Grace’s diagnosis.  He was coping with his own grief and reaction to his daughter’s decline.

That very dynamic is one of the primary reasons marriages fail under the pressure.  All communication gets locked down due to an emotional response to the circumstances.  Instead of couples coming together for support, they retreat from each other.  A rift forms, and all sorts of negative things fill the void.  It’s very hard to build a bridge over that chasm once it’s there.  Why? Well, the relational pressure of a special needs diagnosis in a marriage amplifies the problems that are already there, and you’ll find that you are no longer able to overcompensate for your partner’s deficits anymore because you are now forced to overcompensate for the deficits being caused by your child.  You can’t fight a battle on two fronts.  Something has to give.  Most often, it’s the marriage.

So, what is the solution? How do you build a better marriage under the immense pressure of caregiving? And, I won’t lie.  The pressure is staggering.  I think I’ve aged ten years in the past two and probably have an active autoimmune disease at this point.  There are days I have to tell myself, “I outwitted and survived a murderous psychopath.  I can survive Grace’s schizophrenia.”  We are playing for keeps here.  So, what’s the strategy? Truthfully?

A year ago, I fantasized about not being married.  The marriage felt desolate.  There is nothing more lonely than feeling completely alone while married.  Total alienation from your spouse.  I was practically killing myself trying to take care of my girls and meet everyone’s needs.  All the time.  I felt a certain amount of hopelessness about my future.  About my future happiness.  I felt very trapped.  Trapped in my marriage.

Some time ago, I bought The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook in an effort to do some research as well as add to my skill set so that I could help Eadaoin and Grace at home.  I was already familiar with DBT, but I wanted to be thorough.  One of the first chapters in the book focused on radical acceptance.  As I read through the chapter and came to the list of exercises, I started to sweat.  I saw how little I actually accepted my husband for who he was.  I observed how critical and judgmental I could be just in my thoughts.  I realized that I needed to practice radical acceptance in the present.  I needed to go first.  Someone has to go first.

When relationships are in gridlock, someone has to take the first step.  I took the first step internally by shifting my paradigm.  I started seeing my husband through the lens of radical acceptance.  All those annoying habits? No more judgments.  All those times in the past where I felt disappointed or failed? I couldn’t change the past.  I needed to stop fighting reality.  There was nothing I could do to change how I arrived at the present moment.  I needed to begin accepting that I was where I was.  No more blaming.  No more accusing in my mind.  Radically accept that this was my reality.  Who we were at that moment was who we were.

That shift changed everything.  It was subtle, but it was there.  It was not easy to stay in the place of radical acceptance.  I caught myself on numerous occasions wanting to judge.  I caught old resentments bubbling up, but then I had to ask: Would I want to be judged according to who I used to be or according to who I am now? Slowly, things thawed.  As I worked on my part of the bridge, he started building his part of the bridge, too.  I learned to listen better.  He started sharing more because I was actively accepting him as he was now rather than reminding him of who he used to be.

It’s funny because I have always been a proponent of taking responsibility for our own happiness.  I have always said that I am responsible for my happiness, but, somehow, I did not put that into practice in my marriage.  When you practice radical acceptance, the by-product of that is that you will learn to be responsible for your own happiness and well-being.  I was finally able to give my husband room to expand and be himself, and his expansion has not cloistered me in any way.  On the contrary, our marriage is better now than it’s ever been.  We collaborate and communicate better now after Grace’s diagnosis than we did before.

It is possible to go through very difficult times in a marriage, endure not one but two special needs diagnoses (Milly was diagnosed with autism a few years before Grace was diagnosed with a schizophrenia spectrum disorder), and come out on the other side better and stronger than you were before.  This is the wonder of human beings and what we’re capable of.  Yes, humans can be very destructive, but we can be very creative, too.

Why bother blogging about this? I know a number of women who are the primary caregivers to some wonderful children with profound needs.  They love their husbands, but they feel isolated and alienated in their marriages.  They feel like they are bearing most of the burdens associated with caregiving.  They have had to give up or postpone their own aspirations in place of caregiving.  They feel like they are “doing it all”, and, because so much is required of them, they have little to no time for self-care.  Gone are the haircuts.  Gone is the exercise.  Mani-pedis? What are those? Showering? Uh…if they’re lucky.  Eating a balanced diet? Do french fries and crust off the floor count? Sleep? Who’s counting? Hobbies? What are those? Friends? Who has the time, and where did they run off to?

While the women are trying to patch the dam and wishing for eight extra arms and about three clones, their husbands are coping in their own way.  I see a lot of gaming and working extra hours to avoid coming home.  The women can’t wait for their husbands to come home so that they can at least go to the bathroom alone and eat something other than coffee and a stale cracker while the men’s view of home is one of ‘sanctuary’.  When he comes home from work, he doesn’t want to have to be “on” there, too.  Can’t he just relax and do what he likes? What? He’s expected to work in his home now? If a caregiving woman answers that question, then the answer will be something like a shrieked, “YES!” When you caregive in a home environment, then your home is your workplace.  You are never off the clock.

So, there are two competing views of “home” here–workplace vs. sanctuary.  Underlying these competing views are those hidden expectations.  The primary caregiver, often the mother, views her husband as back up and relief.  He gets home, and she gets to clock out for a while.  The husband views home as a place of rest.  He gets home, and he is off the clock.  He is emotionally and physically unavailable.  He has worked all day.  Why should he have to continue to work? But, his wife has worked all day, too, often in complete isolation.  Doesn’t she deserve a break as well? One partner is taking their reward at the expense of the other, and the child who needs the care is neglected by one parent–the one who views home as sanctuary.  If one parent is making himself or herself unavailable to a spouse chances are s/he is doing it to the children, too.

This very dynamic used to be the dynamic in my own home, and I see the same dynamic in many other marriages.  It is possible to overcome and change that dynamic.  That’s why I’m blogging about it.  I hear a plethora of women complain about this, but I seldom hear women say that they’ve had any success in changing it.

It’s possible.  It’s hard.  It’s really painful.  It takes commitment and a good deal of self-awareness.  It also takes a willingness to look in the mirror and be curious about where you might be contributing to the gridlock because I can guarantee that you are.  I was.  I could not change my husband, but I could change myself.  If you really think about that, the fact that you can change yourself in any relational scenario is pretty outstanding.  Why? Well, if you’re 50% of the problem and you can change yourself, then you can change 50% of the problem by simply changing yourself! How much of your life would change if you changed 50% of the relational problems in it today? That’s a pretty big question, isn’t it?

Doesn’t that give you hope though? Change yourself.  Build a better life.

Start here:

The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation & Distress Tolerance





6 thoughts on “Building A Better Marriage

  1. This is a very brave and outstanding post. You speak for many mothers/wives who are in the midst of primary caregiving. We are also very fortunate to have made it through “the perfect storm”…but it takes a tremendous amount of effort…but well worth it.
    Again, thanks for your courage in writing about this subject. 🙂

    • Thank you for your kind words. I really liked writing this post. I like shedding light on topics that no one likes to talk about. I feel like if I go first or if I’ll talk about, then maybe that will give others permission to talk about it, too. And, these things need to talked about. That’s how we grow and heal. Shared experience is a powerful thing.

  2. Pingback: Make Our Garden Grow | Out of a Great Need

  3. Pingback: No Expectations | running parallels

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