If your child has a chronic and/or life-threatening illness, you’ve been forced into an awkward and harsh world of weighing risk factors and treatment-outcome odds at a level unfamiliar to most parents. And when you have a chance to catch your breath another discouraging statistic may creep into your view: your marriage is at higher risk of dissatisfaction and dissolution. Parents of seriously or chronically ill children are at higher risk of divorce even if the child’s illness resolves. The odds are worse if the child dies from the illness. This may be a matter of intense or chronic stress accelerating and exacerbating challenges marriages commonly face.
As a family psychologist specializing in couples and parenting issues, I commonly recommend parents put the marriage first. Bolster the marriage to endure stress. Take care of the foundation of the family, the relationship that started it all. And I caution that we have set a new high-water mark in ambitious parenting and sensitivity to children’s development. While bringing important improvements in the treatment of children, this focus has done nothing for the marital union which continues to suffer when children come along. Children are a hazard to marital satisfaction, which plummets in the months after children arrive on the scene, not that we want to send any of the them back to the stork.
Average parents have plenty of room to make lifestyle changes to ease the family schedule, reduce the pressure, and introduce practices that strengthen marriage without putting the children at risk. If you’re parenting children with serious illness, however, you have challenges beyond that of the average parent and you probably have little to no room to back off your focus on your child’s well-being. But there are many ways that are not time-intensive to bolster the foundation of your family and ensure that marriage is a renewable resource of support.
Decompression Conversations –
Couples who take time to acknowledge their stress and decompress by voicing it to their partner have an edge on happiness. This is often done at the end of a work-day. The key is to keep it short and circumscribed from other aspects of your day. This practice “gets it out” and yet prevents it from spilling over and coloring other aspects of your daily life. Sharing the stress and having someone accept it is a bonding experience as well as a good coping technique.
Emotional Connection –
One of the best predictors of marital satisfaction and longevity is the emotional connection between partners. It is also one of the best buffers from stress. “But who has the time?” you may ask. Take just ten minutes a night to verbally connect, a time when you intentionally focus on your spouse and the relationship. In just ten minutes exchange what you specifically and genuinely appreciate about each other. Share any weighty thoughts and desires that have been on your mind but you haven’t taken the time to share during the day. This ritual alone, done every day for one week and then a few times a week thereafter, primes the feelings of fondness, tenderness, and partnership even in stressful circumstances.
Furthermore, explore what you two are already doing that sparks connection. Often doing more of what already works doesn’t take any additional time or energy because of savings from reduced negativity and tension. A touch as you pass each other in the kitchen, a small gift or favor, a word of gratitude are some examples. Learn your partner’s language of connection and speak it more often.
Make sex happen. The sexual relationship accounts for 15% of emotional connection for the average couple. Nurturing your sexuality is an excellent safe-guard from a potentially narrowing self-image as care-taker and parent. Stay multi-dimensional, have some cheap fun, appreciate your healthy body (and especially your spouse’s), cultivate the passion and erotic energy that can move you away from burdensome responsibility and toward connection with your partner.
My colleague Jon Carlson likes to make the distinction between a trip and a vacation. Going away with children is a trip. Going away without children is a vacation. Both are good, but there is a difference. Respite care for children with illness is precious but also is a delicate matter of judging capable caregivers and your child’s needs. If friends and relatives are willing to learn how to use medical devices and understand your child’s needs, Alleluia! Take the opportunity and take your spouse with you! If a weekend is unreasonable, take an evening or an hour. Shorter, more frequent getaways will have a bigger impact than the big and infrequent vacation, the effects of which tend to wear off in a couple of months.
Obviously, your stress is unique in kind and not just quantity. Mortality issues are often at the forefront of parents’ minds. Awareness of the fragility and limitations of life can cut both ways according to Dr. Suzanne Courtney, South Bend Pediatric Psychologist who specializes in children with serious or complicated medical illnesses. On the one hand, it can be clarifying and centering, helping parents live with awareness of their values, priorities, and with gratitude for each precious day. On the other hand, it can add to pressure and lead to despair. Returning to the marriage and nurturing it as the main source of support, coping, and meaning may make the difference and reduce the chances that divorce will compound your stress and grief.