The next level on Maslow’s hierarchy is known as love and belonging, or needs, which include friendship, family and sexual intimacy. This is where marriage falls in the pyramid of life. Thus, considering how much time and energy must be spent on the second tier needs, despite a parent’s best intentions, there is not a great deal of time left for the third tier or marriage when tending to a child with special needs. Frequently, this contributes to the complications and conflicts marriages sustain when one has a child with special needs.
The impact of having a child with special needs on a marriage is made more complex by the fact that men and women may process emotion quite differently. Likewise, when learning that a child has special needs, men and women experience and cope with the situation in different and often incompatible ways.
Research sets the divorce rate for families of children with special needs higher than a family of typically developing children. Though the numbers differ in the various studies done on this, it seems that the most important thing for parents of special needs children is getting through the first few years of instability and upheaval after a diagnosis. This makes sense in light of how much unexpected change and tumult often accompanies having a child with special needs and the strain it places on the family system.
Parents must fight for their relationships during critical times and create opportunities to access the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. This permits the marriage to act as a support during difficult moments of having a child with special needs and helps couples achieve long-term happiness. Indeed, it’s imperative to also process the sadness in nurturing and protecting the marital relationship.
A 2002 study about gender differences and coping strategies found that women tend to use social support and relationships to assist in processing their emotions whereas men are apt to turn to hobbies, like sports. The study revealed that the most significant difference was in a woman’s tendency to seek social and emotional support and focus on the problem whereas as a man tended to avoid it. This leaves a huge emotional vacuum in a marriage as women are seeking support and men are feeling that it is easier to cope by not directly addressing the issue directly.
As with any issue in a marriage, it is important not to judge one approach as right and one as wrong. Coping strategies exist for all of us because they have proved effective in getting our emotional needs met in the ways that we each need them to be. As such, to protect the marriage during a tremendously strained and vulnerable time, like raising a child with special needs, engage your partner.
Here are some helpful tips to consider along the way.
- Spend time together.
- Ask your partner how he or she feels instead of assuming you know or understand the other’s emotions.
- Be patient with your partner.
- Have tolerance for the way your partner may process pain and try not to judge it.
- Ask for help rather than trying to do everything alone.
- Include your partner in how you feel.
- Include your partner in what you know.
- Avoid blaming the other person.
- Consider the other person’s perspective.
- Seek counseling when necessary.