When my husband and I were dating, we were a disgusting couple. We progressively got worse over time, until we got married (two years after we met). Then we were totally insufferable.
We did a pretty good job (I think) of hiding how nauseating we were while in public. We toned down the PDA. But in private it was all ‘I love you more’ ‘no I love you more’. We went for romantic walks every evening, sampled most of the nice restaurants in the area (a weekend counts as a special occasion?) and thought it was completely unreasonable of our respective employers to expect us to actually go to work, separately, at unconscionable times like 9am. We would miss each other so much after eight+ hours of being apart (for work) that the rest of the evening we spent within about 5m of each other.
I don’t think we’d ever had a fight, or spent more than one day apart. Our favourite activity was curling up on the couch together and not watching a movie. You could not film an interesting drama about us. We were SO BORING!
So many times over the last couple of years, people have asked me whether Michael’s autism diagnosis put pressure on us as a couple. There is a widespread perception that divorce rates are higher among people that have a child with any kind of special needs. There is a very scary figure of an 80% divorce rate being thrown around that is completely mythical. The short answer is ‘yes sometimes but a lot less than you’d think’.
I have had many people (mostly Russian people, admittedly) tell me how lucky I am that my husband didn’t leave me and marry someone else, leaving me to raise Michael. Admittedly Russians do take a particularly dim view of human nature and their life experiences have largely backed it up. But I refuse to worship my husband for not leaving.
Now I will be the first to admit that my husband is a wonderful human being. That is why I married him. Actually I married him because he was one of the few men I knew that read books. But the ability to stay with your family through hard times is not some massive achievement. I am sick of reading articles about men abusing their families and their special needs children being blamed for it. In fact most men do stay, and do deal with it. And the ones that leave would have done so anyway. Autism is just an excuse. Small children are hard, and marriage is hard, and sometimes we don’t make it through. But it’s not the autism that does it.
Divorce Rates for Autism Parents vs Normal Parents
The divorce rates are in fact very similar for parents of kids with or without autism. An autistic child will remain with both parents 64% of the time, compared with 65% for a neurotypical child. Researchers have even considered the severity of a child’s condition and found that this also didn’t affect the divorce rate. So that’s nice. Our relationships are not doomed. And if they are doomed, it’s not by the autism. They just weren’t meant to be. Happy thought for the day!
Does an autism diagnosis put pressure on a marriage? It does add stress. But so does the presence of any young child. And in fact marriage in general takes work.
Marriage is always hard
A couples’ satisfaction in marriage tends to decline in the first years. This decline is twice as fast for couples with small children compared to couples without children, probably because of the added stress and declined quality of life. This effect is even greater if the pregnancy is unplanned. Young children do not bring couples closer together, but they can add stress to an already stressed relationship.
Of course only someone that had never had children could possibly think that having them will bring you closer together. Having a young child makes you like ships in the night, doomed to meet only for short periods of time. You divide and conquer. In many ways your relationship becomes like a business, with some particularly demanding customers. Most of your interactions involve discussions of the colour and consistency of poo and other bodily fluids. You cannot go on romantic walks and dinners with the same frequency (ever). I know I have started more closely resembling a homeless yoga teacher rather than the ambitious young lawyer my husband married. In many ways he is living with a completely different person to the one he married. And of course you just don’t have the energy for interesting conversations any more. Or anything else. My bedtime is roughly 9:00.
Parenting is All Joy and No Fun
One of my favourite books on parenting is called ‘All Joy And No Fun’. I think the title speaks for itself. My most joyful moments are with Michael, and when all three of us are out together having fun there is no other place I would rather be. But most parenting is boring, repetitive, exhausting, and involves listening to endless whining. It is not fun at all. It’s mostly laundry, grocery shopping and cooking. And repeat.
There are definitely some parenting approaches that are more conducive to a good relationship, than others. One writer I particularly like has written about the need for parents to do less. She stopped taking off her kids’ jackets, and stopped being obsessed with enriching activities. She writes that parents should be able to sit back and have a proper adult conversation while their kids amuse themselves. Allowing your kids to get bored and find their own entertainment is a valuable skill. Let them figure things out for themselves. It’s great advice.
Autism parenting is particularly intense
Unfortunately for an autism parent a lot of these approaches are simply out of the question. While there are certainly many arguments in favour, we cannot use most of these techniques. We don’t have a choice about being helicopter parents, not if we want our kids to live past age three. If I don’t take my son’s jacket off, he will keep it on and get very overheated at home. He will not figure out how to take it off for himself. If I do not keep him entertained, he will spend his free time banging two objects together in front of his face, or running backwards and forwards. Or watching cartoons. And that’s not counting the countless hours spent either doing therapy, or waiting in the next room in case you’re needed while someone else does the therapy.
Simple things that other parents take for granted, we cannot do with Michael.
Basically we have to be within arm’s reach at all times, like the parents of a very young toddler just learning to walk. So we can’t really relax and chat with each other or with other parents. We spend our time dashing from one end of the playground to the other. We are doomed to be helicopter parents, obsessed with therapy and safety, for many years to come. Possibly for the rest of our lives.
Our techniques for relationship maintenance
But my husband and I have discovered some ways that help us maintain our relationship.
- We take turns sleeping, if Michael is having a ‘disturbed sleep’ period. And we use white noise, to make sure that one of us is definitely asleep at all times.
- We ask for help a lot. If a therapist is with Michael and we are both home, we try to get out of the house for an hour and have a nice lunch. If there is no therapist, I will put Michael in front of an iPad for a short time while we just talk. It is so important to spend time as a couple, even if it’s only for ten minutes.
- We celebrate everything. Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, birthdays. We ask for help (see above) and go for a nice meal somewhere with a view. Usually it’s during the day, as we fall asleep pretty early at night.
- We try to spend time on the weekend together as a family. Yes, sometimes you need to divide and conquer (so one of us gets a rest) but as much as possible we do things that are fun for everyone. Michael is a lot of fun to be around, and it’s nice to see him laugh.
- We give each other a break. Literally and metaphorically. We are very good at spotting signs of tiredness in the other person and if we do, we march them off to bed. And anything said while tired, or within the first twelve months of an autism diagnosis, can’t be held against us.
- We look for and make a special effort to appreciate the little things that the other person has done. My husband does a lot of the housework and looking after Michael when he is at home. This means he knows how much effort it actually is to wash up after dinner and how long it takes to change the quilt cover. And I know how much effort it can be after a long day to then also look after a three year old. A kiss, a hug and a ‘thank you’ are nice to get.
- We always pitch in with whatever needs doing and we tell each other when we just need a break. It took me a long time to learn to do that, but my husband trained me. And I trained him to see when things need doing and get them done (without being asked).
- We get each other small presents and surprises. Small things like going to the store and buying ice cream at the right time can make the other person feel very special.
- We cue into each other. If my husband wants to show me something interesting or seems to be in a bad mood, I will do something about it. Maybe listen to a story or make him laugh. And he will do the same for me. Even if the last thing he cares about at that moment is how exactly I would change the tax system. He does a pretty good job of pretending it’s interesting.
- We make fun of ourselves and each other constantly. You cannot take life seriously when you have small children. Especially when they poo in the bath. You just have to laugh through the pain.
If you need extra help, counselling is always available. And sometimes it may be time to let go.
These are all techniques that help. But it is important to note that these are only simple techniques. Couples counseling and going to a professional is always a great option. And if it doesn’t work then let it go. I truly think it is better to get out of a bad relationship and acknowledge that it may be no one’s fault. I worked at a family law firm for a while and I have seen couples going through divorce. They do get through it eventually and are better for it, as long as their lawyers keep it from getting too acrimonious. Then they move on with life. There is no shame if your relationship does not work.