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Relationship problems with a disabled child
What is going on?


Every couple will face challenges in their relationship long before a baby comes onto the scene. Whether it’s trust issues, repetitive household arguments, in-law grievances, or one feeling unvalued by the other, all couples fall out about something from time to time. When a baby arrives, these relationship issues and challenges do not disappear. On the contrary, they sometimes become harder to deal with. 

Why might this be happening?


Whether you’re the mum or the dad, the transition to parenthood is a time of increased stress for many, if not most, parents [1] – this has been affirmed by decades of research. The stress of parenthood can be exacerbated and intensified if your child has a disability, or if their additional needs require more of your time, patience and attention. It's not easy to compartmentalise stress in one aspect of your life, and it's likely that this stress will spill over into other areas, including your relationship.

On a very practical note, a lack of sleep – a state almost guaranteed for a new parent – is enough to disrupt the equilibrium of life and increase stress all by itself.

“Despite some parents describing their ability to normalize constant sleep interruptions, the sleep deprivation experienced by parents of children with complex needs is both relentless and draining.” (McCann et al)
How can I improve things?


If you and your partner know and anticipate the kind of difficulties you will face, you are more likely to have realistic expectations and be able to deal with difficult situations when they come up [3]. For this reason it’s really important for parents-to-be to work on talking openly and positively about their fears and expectations of their child’s disability or additional needs – even if it feels like you’re weighing too much on the negatives [4]. If you know what your biggest worries are as a couple, you can work together to support one another.

While you are both adjusting to your new roles and circumstances, it’s also important to take care not to lose sight of your individuality. Perhaps it’s worth drawing on family and friends to help you take some time for yourselves to visit your hobbies or just listen to silence. It’s not selfish to do that, and it’s likely that your support networks will understand the importance of you having downtime. Equally, spending quality time with your partner is an important reminder that you are still a couple as well as parents.

References


[1] Shapiro, A. F. & Gottman, J. M. Effects on Marriage of a Psycho-Communicative-Educational Intervention With Couples Undergoing the Transition to Parenthood, Evaluation at 1-Year Post Intervention. J. Fam. Commun.5, 1–24 (2005).

[2] McCann, Damhnat, Rosalind Bull, and Tania Winzenberg. (2015) Sleep Deprivation in Parents Caring for Children With Complex Needs at Home A Mixed Methods Systematic Review. Journal of Family Nursing 21(1), 86–118.

[3] Pancer, S. M., Pratt, M., Hunsberger, B. & Gallant, M. Thinking ahead: Complexity of expectations and the transition to parenthood. J. Pers.68, 253–279 (2000).

[4] Stamp, G. H. The appropriation of the parental role through communication during the transition to parenthood. Commun. Monogr.61, 89–112 (1994).

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