Marriage and Caregiving Can Go Together

When I got married, I did not expect to get divorced.  That is probably what every divorced person says.  It’s almost funny.  It’s funny because it’s true.  I expected it to be hard.  I expected it to even be an ordeal at times.  I also expected it to be good.

So, what went wrong?

I don’t have any divorced friends.  I am the black sheep within my social circle now.  I’m also very private by nature so only a select few know the real truth behind my divorce–the reasons I ended it.

Domestic abuse.

I’ve been silent for a while on this blog because I’ve been active elsewhere, documenting the entire process.  It’s kept me sane.

That’s not what I’m here to discuss though.  I’m here to talk about how caring for children with special needs and/or disabilities can and will impact your marriage.  How it will distill your personalities and reveal the flaws and what you can do about it so that you become better, not run over in the process of caregiving.

My marriage was never great.  That should be stated.  It wasn’t even good.  It was middling.  We should never have had children together, and I don’t mean that in a regretful way.  What I mean is that children should be born into a family where they are equally desired by both parents.  In retrospect, I don’t think he wanted them or knew what it meant to be a father.  A good father anyway.  He was the distant, uninvolved father who worked, brought home the paycheck, and involved himself with them at his convenience.  He was Generation X’s Don Draper.

He also rarely involved himself with me in meaningful ways.  One of his favorite ways to spend time was sitting in bed together, parallel reading.  I had something different in mind when it came to spending time in bed together, but he was not generally up for that–unless I wasn’t.  Then suddenly he was.  There were always games afoot.  Psychological warfare.  These games made him the victim in our relationship and in his life.  I didn’t see it until our youngest daughter was born.

Milly was our first daughter to be diagnosed with anything.  She was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and anxiety along with sensory processing disorder at 4 years-old.  She, however, came into this world an overwhelmed mess.  She did not sleep as an infant or toddler which meant that I didn’t sleep.  I was diagnosed with chronic migraine disease and fibromyalgia a little before her diagnosis all due to four years of sleep deprivation and the strain of caring for a young child with some kind of undiagnosed disorder.  That was when I started getting sick.  That was also when he started hiding–running away from parental responsibilities.  In the midst of my search for answers as to why our daughter screamed constantly, he yelled at me, saying, “You just want something to be wrong with her!”

Pause and observe this.  This is denial, and this is a common reaction in couples.  One person in the coupling usually denies or minimizes the child’s “issues” and, statistically speaking, it’s usually the father.  I don’t know why.  It’s a frightening proposition to be faced with.  A sick child.  The “what if” script starts: “What if…what if…what if…”  A natural response might be to run away and pretend that nothing is wrong.  Another reaction is to blame the partner.  They might be doing something to make the child behave that way.  Is it the day care? Is it the in-laws? Is it your faulty genetics? Blame comes on the heels of denial, but blame is simply the emission of anger and emotional discomfort aimed at a target.  We all do it.

It is in this moment, however, when those first wedges are driven into relationships.  When one parent is seeking answers to help a potentially sick child while the other denies and shifts the blame.  This is what sets the stage for marital discord down the road.  Why? It erodes trust, and trust is the currency in all relationships.  In close relationships, I have to know that you have my back, and you must know that I have yours.  When your child is potentially ill and in need of help, that is the moment to come together and share fears.  So when one partner uses the other for target practice, that is a betrayal of that most sacred trust.  It is a form of abandonment within the relationship not to mention one partner has just left the other partner to figure out the problems all on their own.  The relationship was temporarily sacrificed as a coping strategy.

What happens from there? The abandoned partner usually begins remembering all the other times they were abandoned by their mate.  It’s a gestalt experience.  And the seeds of discord have not only been sown but are now being fertilized.  Depending upon emotional maturity, character development, and past issues with one’s family of origin, a person can either get past this or not.  I’ve seen this dynamic play out within other relationships wherein there were children in the middle of receiving a diagnosis, and it definitely played out within my own marriage.  It was a devastating experience.  As the primary caregiver, it caused feelings of isolation, anxiety, and fear, and I didn’t know who to turn to.  My spouse wasn’t on the list because he removed himself.  As far as he was concerned, his kid was fine, and, if his kid was fine, then I was fine, too.

Then, Grace got sick.  There’s nothing like a psychotic episode to wake a person from their oblivious slumber.  His denial reigned supreme.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

Eadaoin hit puberty and bipolar disorder came to the surface.  It was like someone signed us up for some kind of nightmare roller coaster ride, and we couldn’t get off.  I was barely holding it together, and I kept looking to him for some kind of support.  Anything.  He just locked himself away in our bedroom which he had turned into his office.  I had nowhere to go.  I thought that if we could maintain some kind of connection–any kind–maybe we could rely on each other for something.  I pushed for sexual connection.  That’s when the worst of the domestic abuse started.  Clearly, he didn’t want to be involved in anything.  We were on our own.

A year after I had corrective surgery on a hip injury he caused I called it: “I think it’s over.”

He agreed.

So, what is to be learned here?

  1. Always put on your oxygen mask first.  What does this mean? Tend to your stuff! If that means going to therapy, then go.  If that means going to the doctor for a physical, then go.  If that means joining a gym and getting in shape, then go.  If that means changing jobs, then do it.  There is only one you, and, if you are a caregiver, then someone really needs you.  Take care of yourself so that you can be present.  More than that, if you are in a long-term relationship, then be the person who you would want to be in a relationship with.  I can’t emphasize that point enough.  Someone chose you.  They met you, liked you, and then fell in love.  With you.  They decided that they wanted to spend their life with you.  That’s a very big deal.  Never forget that they can always change their mind should you suddenly become a total dick.  I’m being frank here because it needs to be said.  We must always be developing our character and maturing our personality as well as taking care of our bodies so that we can rise to the circumstances that life throws our way.  This is why you must, must, must make your health, well-being, and ontological state a priority.
  2. Assess the state of your relationships.  Doing a survey of how you are doing in your relationships is key to developing your character as well as addressing bad habits that naturally develop over time.  Are you known for anything in particular by your friends and family? Are you the person who loses their temper? Well, get on that.  It’s time to be known for something better.  Are you always late? For everything? Develop your empathy and address that shortcoming.  Doing an honest personal inventory of who you are now vs. who you would like to be is a courageous and valuable thing to do.  It sets a course and provides a spark of momentum.  It’s intentional and says to the important people in your life, “You matter to me.  I know that I affect you.  I want to do better by being better.”
  3. Make amends.  This is a hard one, but it goes a long way.  Talk to the people in your life.  Had my ex-husband and I actually discussed past hurts in a meaningful way and combined them with a plan to heal the wounds (this is accountability), there might be less pain today.  He was never able to engage me in any kind of emotional discussion.  Nothing was ever addressed.  So, I was never able to hold him accountable for anything.  In the end, I was blamed for my own abuse.
  4. Grow up.  I know many people who hold onto childhood dreams of what family and marriage should look like.  They insist on keeping certain traditions alive because they find it personally fulfilling, but it hurts their family relationships.  When you have children with special needs, nothing in your life will ever be all-or-nothing again.  Everything will become about compromising, and you will take the hits.  This will feel painful to you.  I guarantee that.  You will have a moment, at least one, when you step back and look at the landscape of your life, and it will feel utterly unfamiliar to you.  This feeling of depersonalization often ushers in the experience of grief.  It’s at this moment when you feel just how hard it all is.  How much you have lost.  Just be honest with yourself and let it flow.  It’s okay.  You can see the good in the child or children you love while feeling hurt and betrayed at the same time.  That’s the dialectic of caregiving.
  5. Do a proper grief work.  If you do a proper grief work together, sharing your experiences with each other, then you will grow closer.  Ordeal is one of the best bonding experiences.  My ex-husband never went to the hospital with Grace and me.  He never went to an appointment.  He never went to the Behavioral Health ER either.  You know who did? Girlfriends.  Do you know who I am close to now? Girlfriends.  My girlfriends and I remember those early days of the disease onset, and we can even laugh about it as macabre as that sounds.  We were scared together.  They loved Grace, too.  So, I grieved with them instead of with my husband since he never left the bedroom.
  6. Stick together.  Above all, be a couple.  You were together before you had children.  Don’t ever forget that.  Find at least one thing that makes you feel connected and commit yourselves to it.  Never give that up.  If it’s sex, then have sex often.  If it’s hiking, then hike as often as you can.  If it’s watching sports together or playing sports together, then get out there and do it.  Protect your relationship fiercely.  Do not let in-laws tread upon it no matter how well-meaning they are.  This is your relationship.  Make it the number one priority in your life.  Even above your kids.

This is what I have learned after nineteen and half years of marriage and nine months of separation with a pending divorce.  I have never been someone to look to statistics for answers.  Of course, now I am a statistic.  You don’t have to be.