Holding a Marriage Together During Crisis

I knew that this family member would be diagnosed with a developmental disorder. What I didn't anticipate was what nobody wanted to talk about: how it would affect my marriage.
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A little more than 10 years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night to find a family member -- a two-year-old child -- huddled in the corner of the living room, making whining noises like an injured cat.

I knew at that moment that something was terribly wrong. I had ventured from a place of sneaking suspicion to confirmation that this family member would be diagnosed with a developmental disorder. As both a parent and a professional, I thought I knew what to expect from the upcoming process. And on a procedural level, I did -- I was familiar with the litany of tests and interventions that we would be undergoing with this child. What I didn't anticipate was what nobody wanted to talk about: how it would affect my marriage.

You see, I didn't know 10 years ago that the entire family would miss out on so many of the typical experiences of childhood -- nor that I wouldn't be able to sleep at night, that I would gain over 40 pounds, and that the pressure of everything we were facing would almost bring my marriage to an end.

When someone tells you that a child you love faces the distinct possibility of being developmentally unlike the other members of your family, it's like heading into battle -- except there is no prep time, no boot camps or training programs, no time for second thoughts. Every minute that went by that I was not getting help for this child felt like a year of her life compromised as a result.

But our problems ranged beyond simply finding the right people to help. My husband, who had always been my greatest support system, was functioning in a state of denial. "Don't be ridiculous -- there's nothing wrong with her," he'd scoff. Meanwhile, the clinical opinions, each one supporting the initial diagnosis, came rolling in.

What we should have done was to acknowledge our emotional distress, but not allow that distress to ruin us. We should have focused on working together in the present tense without allowing each issue to become an argument about everything else that went or was going wrong. The key in a marriage, especially during a long-term crisis, is to be able to function in the moment. It's not an absence of feelings; it's feeling within reason and maintaining rationality -- not allowing those inflamed emotions to destroy you.

My husband and I learned this all too well during this difficult time: instead of adapting to our situation, it soon became clear that, while technically together, we were very much apart. Did I try to handle things better? Of course. All too often, however, I was so battle-weary that I would just give up.

Ten years later, looking back on our experiences, I see where things went awry. We fell into the trap that so many couples do: in the face of hardship: we closed ourselves off to the communication habits that, once we identified them, helped us to persevere. I know now that I could have accomplished much in a simple moment: not of action, but rather (uncharacteristically, given the frenetic pace of my life back then) of inaction. That pause would have enabled us to avoid becoming derailed by all of the real-time emotions that ignite conflict in even the most unflappable of couples.

Perhaps my most important realization, however, was that if our marriage wasn't healthy, it was the child in our care who would experience the ultimate disadvantage. She needed a support system that was wholly devoted to her, not distracted by the miscommunications that are the hallmarks of our daily lives. This child needed us -- a cohesive team. I'm thrilled to be able to say that now, 10 years later, she's both happy and healthy -- and so are we.

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