My husband and I dated for three-and-a-half years before getting engaged and were only engaged for two months before we got married. We are now in our eighth year of marriage and I would describe about 91 percent of it as happy. We have gone through the typical stressors of changing jobs, buying and selling homes, and losing family members. We even survived the births of two children that legitimately almost killed me both times. But, sister, when I say nothing has brought us to our knees like parenting our son, I mean business.
We have a six-year-old son and a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. Our son began showing signs of behavior disorders around 18-months. He was officially diagnosed at four and has picked up several diagnoses in the last two years. To date, he has: ADHD-severe/combined, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and is Twice Exceptional (meaning his is academically gifted but emotionally deficient). So he functions on a mental level about three to four years above his real age, but he emotionally behaves like a two- to three-year-old.
We have gone through parenting classes, psychologist sessions, parent and family small groups, Bible studies for parents, and I have likely read every article there is on self help, homeopathic remedies to behavior disorders, and how to strengthen your relationship when your kids are hard. There just isn’t a coach’s playbook for this. This is real life, in the trenches, marital warfare and we need to be ready for it.
So here are the top eight tips for manning the battle stations of matrimony when parenting an extreme child:
Keep Your Communication On Point
There is no greater key to a happy relationship of any kind-marriage, work, friendship—it doesn’t discriminate. If you don’t know how someone is feeling, you cannot address a potentially hurtful situation. If you don’t know you’ve hurt someone, you can’t prevent it from happening again in the future.
So, men, talk to your women. We get it. You use fewer words than us. You need the TV off to really hear us. But we need to know you are there for us and you can fill that role of confidant. And ladies, don’t make your man guess. Sister, this isn’t high school. He doesn’t “just know”. I promise you will both be happier if you vocalize what you are upset about so he can have a chance to course correct. And, for the love of grade school romance, don’t text when you are mad! Your emotions can’t come across accurately in a text message. I don’t care what emojis you use or how much you abuse the caps lock. Please make a phone call or talk face-to-face.
Communication is especially crucial when it comes to parenting children with behavior disorders because they are master negotiators and will manipulate the fool out of parents who don’t talk to each other. Honey, you all are carrying a target on your back if there are cracks in your marriage. So hold tight to each other. Talk openly—especially in front of your kiddos. It is good for them to learn that grown ups who care about each other can disagree and resolve conflict in a calm way. Remember, you can’t model explosive behavior but expect them to react peaceably.
It’s Not About Winning
This may be the hardest step for me. Not only am I fully Type A and like things my way, but I am also a diehard competitor. It sounds ridiculous to the more passive types, but I will go completely feral on my husband during an argument. Ten minutes in, I have basically blacked out because all I can hear are the counter arguments and refutations I have prepared against what he has to say. This kind of arguing would be great if I was a paid attorney, but I am a wife. I promised to love my husband, not compete against him. There is no prize at the end of a disagreement. I have won no trophies for arguing (Although, if they existed, I would have qualified . . . ahhhhh! See what I mean!?).
When you disagree with your spouse, and you will, try to remind yourself of the actual problem. Stick to the basics and if it doesn’t directly deal with the current issue, zip it. It isn’t relevant. Yes, it makes me crazy that his clothes never quite make it to the hamper, but that has nothing to do with arguing over our son’s latest meltdown. This is not the time. So stick to the script, people.
Remember Where You Started
Rewind to the day you met your spouse. What caught your attention? Why did you agree to go on that first date? What were the first few months like when you still got butterflies when he called and you were nervous before he picked you up? In an exercise at a marriage retreat, the speaker had us write letters to our partners telling what originally attracted us to them and why we were still with them now. That letter stopped me completely in my tracks.
As we grow in our marriages, age, have kids, have grandkids, things change. How we feel changes. It seems hard to believe the man I love still has memories of the young, vibrant woman I was when we met 12 years ago because now, the wrinkled, smelly yoga pant-wearing mama staring back from my mirror seems weathered and haggard from motherhood, career, and marriage. But he does. Tell each other. Whether you have to write it or text it or put it in a song, let each other know you still see us for who we were and you love us as who we’ve become.
Remembering where you started can solidify where you are now.
Have Fun Together
This is so crucial. When times get tough in a marriage it is easy to slip into a pattern that mimics mere roommates or business partners over lovers and friends. Mix it up. Don’t follow the same old routine. Mix it up. Try new things together, go on dates again, and make sure you focus on conversation that doesn’t only surround your kids.
When you parent a child with special needs, this tends to soak up the majority of your head space as well as the topic of conversation. Don’t let it. Relax and have fun together. Even if you have to print topic starters or conversation questions from Pinterest, do it! Just as you are constantly changing and growing as an adult, so is your spouse. So get to know each other again! It is pretty fascinating what you can find out!
Take ‘You’ Time
I am the world’s worst at this. Just ask my husband. I carry so much guilt when I do anything for myself, by myself, or with my friends. I guess it is ingrained with motherhood, but I really struggle. However, when I do agree to take this kind of time to recharge, I always return to my family better for it.
The other side to this is taking time to refresh with friends. If I have learned anything in the 12 years I have been with my husband, it is that guys need bro time, and women need girl time. Even though I am a salt of the earth tomboy through and through, it is crazy how much better I feel after dinner, wine, and a pedicure with one of my close friends. My husband is the same. He is my best friend and confidant, but we argue sometimes about our kids or the bills. It is good for us to get around “our people” and vent so we can feel challenged, accountable, and encouraged by someone other than our spouse. Do it! You will thank me for it.
Give One-on-One Time
Our kids control our lives when they have special needs. Even if you have mastered dating your spouse and you have a steady babysitter you trust (I totally envy you, if so), you still need quality together time. This doesn’t require a fancy date or even leaving your house. If you are praying people, it might be setting aside time to read scripture or pray for each other. Maybe you prefer yoga or breathing exercises. Whatever fits you, do that thing together.
Don’t overdo it, especially in the wake of arguing or a tense time in your partnership. Start out with only five minutes and work your way up to remembering why this was important in the beginning. You want to feel wanted and needed and your partner likely does too.
Whether it means taking a new class, cooking a new recipe, or staring up a new hobby, it is crazy how learning together can bond a couple and strengthen a relationship! While experiencing something new together, you are creating lasting, happy memories. Remember there will be rough patches so these are crucial to fall back on during those tougher times.
For us, this includes learning with our kids and learning for our kids. What I mean is this: I am a nerd at heart. If someone would pay me to be a student, I’d be in college forever. So, I enjoy researching, reading, and taking notes on new discoveries. So I apply that eagerness to learn to our son’s diagnosis so I can constantly comb the stacks of articles and studies about what he is dealing with. This also allows me to find infographics and more condensed versions of new research for my husband who prefers to learn with his hands. We have watched videos and documentaries together, checked out short studies and they always spur great conversation to help us develop new strategies to try with our kiddos.
Let’s face it. If the old fashioned way of parenting and discipline worked for our son, we’d already be parenting geniuses. But they don’t. So we press on . . . together.
Keep A Bedtime Ritual
This may seem trivial, but having this one constant can keep you from holding grudges overnight. Parenting a child with behaviors means you have no idea which version of your kid you will get, not only that day, but sometimes that minute. So if one of us has lashed out in our own anger toward our son’s choices, it is so comforting to know that, by bedtime, we will have to have worked it out. It is our ritual, after all.
This doesn’t include candles and seances. No Ouija boards or weird lovey-dovey stuff. For us, it just means we will aways—no matter what—kiss goodnight and say “I love you”. Simple, right? Sometimes it isn’t. When I have gotten myself all worked up over something he did earlier that day and I have already crammed myself as far to the right side of the bed as my body will allow, in a silent protest against him, it takes all I have in me for that kiss and those three words. But, trust me, it is so worth it. Because it might be tomorrow that I am the one needing mercy and grace, forgiveness and a goodnight kiss when I am undeserving.
Parenting is messy and hard. Parenting children with behavior disorders is like navigating hurricane blasted sea waters in arm floaties. We need each other. So put your pride aside, model respectful conflict management for your kids, and love each other through some very difficult times. Your marriage will be so much stronger for it!