Keeping a Marriage Together While Raising a Child with Special Needs

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused


For many of us, building and maintaining a strong marriage has become one of life’s major challenges. Only about half of us succeed – divorce rates have hovered around 50 percent for several decades. 

Couples that have a child with special needs often have even more stressors that may impact their relationships, and divorce rate for these couples are similarly high. And yet, many of them have managed to keep their marriages healthy and strong even as they attend to the seemingly never-ending needs of their children with special needs.

How do they do it?                                                                                           

According to Nancy Gajee, Ph.D.,* parents of children with special needs who have successful marriages have a number of things in common. These include accepting each other’s strengths and weakness, seeking outside support, and making time for each other.

“Parenting a child with an autism spectrum disorder or other developmental disability, or a severe behavioral or psychiatric disorder, is not intuitive,” says Dr. Gajee. “For most of us, the special skills that are required are not skills we learned from our family of origin.”

Oftentimes, parents of children with special needs need to learn new skills. This can lead to conflict in a marriage because rarely are both parents on the same page at the same time.

“One parent may be further along in the learning process,” Dr. Gajee explains. “This can create resentment. The parent who’s able to adopt new strategies earlier may become impatient and critical, and the other parent may feel left out or ineffective. Both members of the couple should try to accept the other for where they are in their process, and what they can do right now.”

It is not uncommon for some parents of children with special needs to feel angry or guilty or regretful.

“Assigning blame is not going to change the situation,” says Dr. Gajee. “Of course it’s hard to come to terms with a difficult diagnosis, and hard to deal with challenging behaviors. But if parents get stuck for long periods with feelings of anger or guilt or regret, it causes them to lose valuable time that could be focused on helping their child and strengthening their own relationship.” 

Another issue that gets in the way of keeping a marriage strong and intact, according to Dr. Gajee, is a perceived lack of support from extended family, friends, and the community in general. Sometimes parents raising a child with special needs feel that they are criticized, shunned, or avoided by their own parents or siblings, friends, and neighbors. This can lead to a sense of isolation. 

“When parents start to feel isolated, it’s important that they stick by each other and think about expanding their definition of ‘family,’” she says. “It’s a good idea to seek out other adults who will become allies – individuals who will work with you and learn how to help you meet your child’s needs.”

Families that do best have a support team to help them, and that team is well integrated into an expanded family structure. This team can include family members and friends as well as professionals.

“Invite team members to join you for family activities and let them share the responsibilities involved with caring for and ensuring the safety of your child,” Dr. Gajee suggests. “This will help you and your child form a bond with these individuals and enrich your family life in ways you might not expect.”

With assistance provided by a trusted member of the relief team, couples may even be able to plan an occasional “date night” when they can get away and enjoy one another’s company.

“Another way to carve out time for each other is to make use of the time you may have in the evening after the kids go to bed,” Dr. Gajee says. “Resist the urge to always catch up on household chores or zone out and watch TV. Spend time together instead. It’s important to spend at least a half hour of time dedicated to each other every day.”

Keeping any marriage healthy takes a lot of work. Keeping a marriage strong in the face of the challenges brought on by raising a child with special needs takes even more effort. Overcoming obstacles together can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience that can strengthen your marriage, if you give it the time and attention it needs to thrive.

*Nancy K. Gajee, Ph.D., the former Director of Clinical Training at May Institute, currently serves as the Director of Outpatient Clinical Services at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston.

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, including our newest school in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit