In addition, spiritual differences can be highlighted, as some parents can strengthen their religious faith in the face of such a challenge, while others will find themselves questioning their beliefs and/or angry about their situation.
Finally, stereotypical male/female differences can also come into play. Many fathers we know have acknowledged difficulty in expressing their feelings, preferring instead to problem-solve and “fix things.” They are left feeling helpless when they realize their current problems cannot be “fixed.” Many mothers have expressed their wish that their husbands would simply be there for them and listen to their struggles without feeling blamed or pressured to solve them.
Successfully communicating couples need not necessarily have the exact same style of coping. Yet they should be aware of their differences in approach, accept one another’s coping style, and periodically communicate about these issues. All feelings should be validated as legitimate, even if they differ from one’s own. The parent who has a harder time acknowledging his feelings should not be made to feel that his style is less healthy, and should be given the time and space to process feelings at his own pace. The parent who may need more open communication, processing and emotional support, should actively pursue other outlets in order to meet that need – such as counseling, peer mentoring and support groups.
Programs that address some of these differences head-on can be very beneficial for families. Mothers and Fathers groups can illuminate some of these differences and provide support in navigating them. The less communicative parent can be taught to validate feelings and agree to set aside a small amount of time to just listen, if not talk him/herself. Parents who are successful in working through these coping differences report “checking in” with one another periodically about how they are doing. “Are we OK? If we are not OK, what can we do differently?” This gives them a sense of working through things as a team, even if they are not always on the same page on every issue.
* Decisions regarding family size: This is certainly not limited to families who have children with disabilities, as all couples need to be on the same page regarding these issues. Families who have children with disabilities have additional issues to consider in growing their families: caregiving responsibilities of the parents; burnout level of the primary caregiver; anxiety of one or both parents regarding the health status of future children; the risk of any genetic issues, if they exist, to future children; concern for unduly burdening the typically developing children in the family; and more. If parents are not united in their wishes regarding family size, it can create enormous resentment and feelings of alienation in one or both of them. Enhanced communication can help each understand the concerns and feelings of the other and come to mutually agreed upon decisions [in consultation with their Rabbi, as deemed appropriate].
* Excessive Parental Involvement: A new phenomenon that in the current generation of families is the excessive involvement of grandparents. Adult parents of children with disabilities are typically in need of as much assistance as possible, and many grandparents provide it in the form of financial assistance, babysitting and help navigating the service system. The downside to such assistance is that at times the grandparents may overstep boundaries and inadvertently intrude upon the parents’ authority, space or cohesion as a couple. Successful couples accept help from their parents, while at the same time presenting a united front and maintaining parental authority and appropriate boundaries in the relationship.
Other protective factors that help strengthen couples:
* Tap into the humor. One couple jokingly says that they had better stay together because “no one else in the world would take us with this package!” Another couple, who find themselves depleted after a full day of caregiving their child with high behavioral needs, have a “secret signal” to let each other know if they need help, because “we are so wiped, we can’t even look at each other, let alone communicate, after a day like that!”
* Show appreciation. Expressing gratitude, even for the things that one’s spouse should be doing, goes a long way to reinforcing the connection between both partners.