Special Needs and Your Relationship

For a relationship that’s fragile or unstable, a child with a disability can be the last straw. If you and your partner are parenting a child with special needs, here are some suggestions to help your relationship survive the challenges.

Extra-special parents

Becoming a parent for the first time throws you into a balancing act between caring for the needs of your kids and putting time and effort into your relationship. Having a child with a disability or chronic illness can challenge things even further and place a strain on your partnership – while divorce rates aren’t much higher among parents with special-needs children, they do report more marital distress. If you and your partner are parenting a child with special needs, here are some suggestions to help your relationship…

Understand each other’s needs

Family life can be a test of love and resilience, so taking good notes and working to understand each other’s needs and wants are vital to the success and survival of an intimate relationship. Life has veered sharply from what you had expected it to be – but try not to blame each other for the situation and accept that it can take time to sort this stuff out.

Spend alone time together

While the issues in any particular relationship are complex, it can be a good start to plan time together alone, even if it’s only an hour or two. In study after study, people who report their marriages to be satisfying describe their spouses as their best friends, and people who are best friends have activities they enjoy together. Most people get married, in large part, because they enjoy each other and make each other feel good.  Who would have married their spouse if the last time they relaxed and/or had fun together was months ago? A close bond between partners can help parents through the rough spots.

It’s wise to acknowledge the needs of yourself and your marriage over time as well as your child’s needs. Your special family is worth it!



Take care of your individual selves

If your child has a condition that requires a lot of care and supervision, your own needs as individuals and as couples can get lost. But it never helps to lose focus on your relationship. As hard as it may sound at first, start to think about taking care of yourself and adding some fun and enjoyment into your life even though you might feel guilty about doing it.

Reach out

When possible, share the responsibilities at home by working together on chores, childcare, and education. It’s helpful when couples both work to learn about their child’s disability, prepare for and attend care meetings and so on. Get involved in the special needs community if you can – there’s so much to manage every day that reaching out to your partner, relatives or friends can help lessen the burden.


When a person is in pain he or she may withdraw, or become frustrated and angry – after all, it can be hard to talk about something we have no power to change or fix.  At times the reactions of couples can become polarised or opposite… for example, one may notice problems in the child and tend to worry and feel negative while the other holds hope and optimism that in time everything will be fine. Try to consider all of your feelings toward your child - both positive and negative – and discuss issues in ways that will help both of you feel understood and find solutions to problems. In general, the way out requires working through the painful feelings with your partner and arriving at some form of joint acceptance and effective co-parenting strategies.

Seek assistance

Sometimes a mental health professional (a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist) can help you understand the needs of your children, yourself and your marriage. Some people are reluctant to take this step, but when it becomes hard to function from day to day this kind of help may be in order. Just as you’d consult more than one specialist for your child if necessary, do the same for yourself. If your partner isn’t interested, then start by yourself. Sometimes a change in one partner changes the chemistry of the situation for the better.

Related links

Your very special child: Having a child with a disability or chronic illness has a huge impact on family life – particularly if you have other children who may feel left out because their brother or sister takes up more of your time.

Behaviour and Discipline issues for children with Autism: Children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome have unique behaviour issues. The National Autistic Society has some simple and effective strategies for dealing with behaviour at home and in public. 

ADHD and behaviour - tips on how to discipline your child: If your child has ADHD, coping with his behaviour can wear you out. But even though they act up, they still need the security of limits. So how do you discipline them without losing your mind?

Parents' Guide to Autism: You’re familiar with the term, but how does autism actually affect a child? How can you tell if your child may be autistic? And what should you do if you see the signs…?

Understanding Autism - one mum's story: Wonder mum Dawn Prowse is mother to eight children, two of whom are on the autistic spectrum. She describes the process of diagnosis,a treatment and support for her boys.

Autism - a parent's perspective: It took six frustrating years to get a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome for Claire’s eldest son Jack. Claire describes how her son’s autism affects the whole family, and offers her personal tips and resources for other parents.

Find out more

  • Special Children, Challenged Parents, by Robert A Naseef, Ph.D. Dr Naseef experience as a psychologist and father of a special-needs child gives him particular insight into the sorrows and joys of raising a special-needs child. Includes practical strategies for coping and staying together as a family.
  • The Autism Acceptance Book, by Ellen Sabin. This wonderful book is invaluable for helping siblings better understand an autistic brother or sister, using words and activities to encourage compassion and appreciation for people different from themselves and to demonstrate the challenges kids and adults with autism might face.

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