Monday, my husband and I celebrated thirteen years of marriage. The statistics are discouraging for couples parenting a child with a disability. The stress, the emotions, the responsibility: they can all conspire to make what is already a challenge (a strong, happy marriage) feel impossible.
I've been on the front lines for a long time now and here are my three suggestions for working on a marriage -- any marriage, but especially one that faces the parenting of a child with a disability or disease.
1. Say It Out Loud. We've talked about it here before. You may think you are protecting your partner by not sharing your fears and struggles, but that's a straight up lie. Withholding puts both of you at risk by sabotaging vulnerability - part of the bricks and mortar of a strong marriage. If your partner doesn't know that you cry sometimes when you change your big kid's diaper, he may feel weak or crazy when he has that same urge to cry. If your partner doesn't know that you're terrified to think of an indefinite future of caring for your child, she can't let you know that you are not alone. If your partner doesn't know that you don't even know who you are anymore in light of this unrelenting situation, he or she can't care for you well. Which brings us to...
2. Learn Your Partner's Love Language. And Your Own. It would be tough to have a good relationship with someone who speaks another language. You might figure out some yeses and no's but the deep, meaningful parts would remain out of reach. I think love languages are the same way. Everyone has a certain way he or she best expresses and receives love. If your partner's main love language is quality time together and you are forever staring at the tv or Pinterest, that won't work. You are functionally telling your partner they don't matter. Likewise, if your partner's primary love language is affirming words but you are always doing thoughtful acts of service instead, while your actions might be appreciated, they won't hit the mark the same way a tender compliment would. Learn how your partner 'hears' love and then start learning to 'speak' that way.
Equally important as learning how to communicate love to your spouse is learning how you best receive love. I knew for sure what my main love languages were when my husband and I broached this topic. Except that I didn't. In fact, once I took a closer look I realized that my actual top language would have been in my bottom two if I had listed them out. And then - surprise! - once we ironed that out I started to feel much better cared for. Crazy how that works.
3. Ask One Question. This question can take whatever form best suits your particular marriage. "What can I do for you today?" "How can I care for you well today?" "What do you need from me today?" The bottom line is the same: I want to hear what you want or need and I want to give it to you. Sometimes just asking the question or having it asked of you dissolves tension or resentment before an answer is given or a need is met. So ask often.
The unacceptable answer? Read my mind. You may not say it out loud but still be expecting it. Because if someone really loves you they know what you want or need, right? Better than the average person, yes; as well as you, no. The spouse's job is to ask the question and your job is to figure out the answer. It may seem selfish and even a waste to spend time contemplating our own needs and wants. But ultimately it's my responsibility to figure out what I need, not my husband's. Some days, the best thing might be to let me get out of the house for half an hour. Some days, it might be to sit and talk with me. Either way, he really wants to know. That's why he asked.
It hasn't been easy for us. We've made huge mistakes. We've worked hard. But we've come through with a marriage that is solid and open, joyfilled and thriving. What better gift could we give our son?