August 10, 2010

Beating the odds

We all have a statistic or two we know by heart. Maybe you know the batting average of your favorite baseball player, or the average number of sunny days in your area. Some of us know numbers we wish we didn’t. Ask any parent of a child with autism about the divorce rate for families with special needs kids and they’ll tell you: 80%.

I was thinking about this while reading the book, The Stuff That Never Happened, by Maddie Dawson. In the book, the main character, Annabelle, has an affair when she is just recently married. She is able to reconcile with her husband, but 26 years later runs into her old flame, Jeremiah, who notes that he “turned out to be just a sad but ignorable footnote in the long and happy marriage of Grant and Annabelle McKay.” She tells him that she and her husband didn’t have it easy for a long time, to which Jeremiah responds “Oh, who ever has it easy in marriage? Nobody.”

In fact, recent studies question the alarming statistic. But even if incorrect, it seems to be widely believed, worn as a badge of courage, another reason that things are so difficult for us. I often wonder, and have written about on this blog, whether I blame too much of Moe’s behaviors on autism, when sometimes he just has “three year old.” Could it be the same with marriage? Why would it be so hard?

We disagree. All couples disagree, you say. Yes, that is true. But we (and I can only speak about my own marriage here, though I suspect others would have the same experience) argue about things that we cannot possibly know the answers to, like Moe’s rate of progress, or what a new behavior means. Everything is scary and unknown and there is very little to tell you that you are doing the right things, making it easy to move in different directions.

We blame and feel guilty. No one knows why our son has autism. They say it’s genetic? Well, clearly he takes after your side of the family. They say it’s environmental? Maybe I should have breastfed longer. Of course there is no sense playing that game, but we are only human and want answers. And when there is no answer, it is easy to either look at the other person responsible for that child’s existence.

We’re scared and stressed. Some families of special needs kids live in fear of losing their child to illness every day. We all have fears about the future. We are asked to make decisions about our child’s care, often without much to guide us. Do we try a certain diet/treatment/therapy/school? And when we do find the right diet/treatment/therapy/school, can we afford it? With all of this stress and fear, we might just take it out on each other more than we should.

Autism is all consuming. There are days when we don’t talk about much else, except maybe what is for dinner. We deal with it all day – and sometimes all night. You have to work at any marriage, and that requires energy we sometimes don’t have. 

So yes, I think it is hard. Is is harder for us than for someone else? Maybe. But does it matter? In the novel, Annabelle thinks “There are so many ways a marriage can implode…sexual infidelity is just one of them.” In the end, a marriage succeeds or it fails, and the heartbreak is no less if your child has special needs. Jeff and I are coming up on our fifth anniversary, and although this past year has been tough for us, I am pretty proud of the family we’ve become.

If you’re a parent of a special needs child, how is your marriage holding up? What are you tips for success, or lessons learned the hard way?

I received the book, The Things That Never Happened, free of charge from the publisher for the From Left To Write book club. For a great perspective on a marriage with not one, but two, special needs kids, read Rachel Coleman’s (of our beloved Signing Time) blog post Creating the Year 2010. Then plan to spend the next hour reading the rest of her blog.


  1. Jeremiah was a jerk in the book. It was hard to see why Annabelle found him so magnetic.

    Nice post!

  2. I got married at 22, and feel like I didn't learn until a 2nd marriage and after I had kids at 35, how really really tough marriage can be. I can see why she fell for him, and having been very young and married and having trouble, sure can see why running away seemed exciting.
    Great post.

  3. Good perspective. You're right, all relationships are fragile.

    My husband and I are nearing our five year anniversary, as well. This past year has been the hardest, maybe it's time or the fact that we're two working parents with a toddler.

    But, overall, I'm also proud of the family that we've become... and continue to become.

  4. Exactly... Marriage is a job in itself and we all have our very own twists to add. I think Annabelle gave up.

  5. There are so many things that put stress on a marriage. The challenge of having a child who requires extra attention must make it even more difficult to connect at the end of a busy day.

  6. For my mariage, it's hard to say what the effect of having a kid on the spectrum is - he's our only child, so we don't know parenting any other way. Honestly - any tips I'd offer would be those for parents of special or typical kids - carve out personal time, couple time, family time. That proportion will change weekly. Pick your battles, talk calmly and stive to solve problems. Never forget to laugh. We're going on 14 years married next week with 6 years living together prior. Keep chugging along, it does get easier as kids grow older (regardless of their developement I believe)

  7. When things are really tough, it's an easy escape to fantasized about what could have been... I didn't really care for Annabelle either or her views.

    I wish I had words of wisdom, but we're in the thick of it too. I just know it's hard to see yourself out of a situation when you're in it.

    The best we've done is be really open and honest about our life. I rant and vent, but I try to be clear that it's not a personal attack, just me working through a situation within the security, love, and privacy of my marriage. We should all deserve that much :-)

  8. Love this post! I can't wait to hear your thoughts on "Cowboy and WIlls' for next month!

  9. Staggering statistic. WHY is marriage so hard? It's work, that's for sure. This post is SO helpful, thanks for writing it.

  10. My marriage is in shambles. I can relate to alot of what you've listed. We talk about next to nothing else but autism. We disagree on the extent to which we should pursue biomedical intervention, which my husband is completely convinced of and didactic about. Finances are strapped due to the expensive therapies. I'm not sure how this statistic could be so high just because it seems so financially would be hard to set up separate households without having to cut back on therapies which would be unfair to my daughter. I'm a real ray of sunshine aren't I?

  11. Thank you all for relating so much of your own experiences to Annabelle's in the book. I feel humbled by your observations about what marriage is like having a special needs child. And yes, marriage IS difficult, but it must be so much more when you have this daily struggle to get through and so much is uncertain. The blame and the guilt have to be nearly overwhelming at times.
    Sky Princess, I think that Jeremiah was appealing to Annabelle because of his settledness. He was a grownup and he was interested in her at a time when her husband wasn't--and lacking self-confidence in her abilities and in her own attractiveness, she was ready to fall for anybody who paid attention to her.
    Nicole, I think you hit the nail on the head: she wanted excitement and he represented drama.
    Lisa, it's so true what you say. There are good years and bad years, and those years with toddlers can be the hardest.
    Pamela, great insight! I think she gave up, too. Also, she didn't know how to be married. She had a very limited understanding of her own parents' marriage, and she didn't know Grant at all. She jumped into it and then had no idea what she was getting into.
    Lynn, I wish you all the best. My heart goes out to you.

  12. Having a child with a disability adds stress to a marriage far beyond the usual daily annoyances in life. Congratulations on five years together! You are my hero.

  13. I agree with one of the previous comments, I think the only thing that makes me give up sometimes is "what would I do alone with my daughter? how will I look after her?" with two jobs managing her schedule is already very difficult. Carving out time, having personal time. Sometimes I feel all this is easier said than done. I dont have answers to your but I agree with you, having a special needs child makes the life so much more difficult. Sometimes I want a break from my family. I really do need a week long break from my daughter and husband (i feel very gulty in accepting it, but its true)

  14. Jennie, an extremely beautifully written and intelligent blog that deals with the challenges of having an autistic or special needs child -- and how it affects the entire family, including one's marriage. Written with sensitivity, compassion, and a full understanding of your subject -- since you, yourself, are the mother of a three year old son who has autism. I applaud you for writing so honestly and revealing your emotions so openly. I can very well see your blog being published into a book to give comfort and support to others who are also walking in your shoes. Bravo!

  15. I'm in school studying to be a special education teacher. I just love those special little children. My brother-in-law is mentally handicapped & he amazes me how smart he is (he's 50).

    Stopping by from #31DBBB


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