An article in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology lists sources of stress for parents of chronically ill children, including “financial stress, role strains, separations, adjustment to the various components of the medical system, interruptions in daily routines and plans for the future, and the general uncertainty with regard to the child’s prognosis.” That’s a lot of stress! To deal with this stress, maybe you tell yourself that everything is okay. Maybe you become an advocate for your child’s illness. Perhaps you talk to anyone who can offer support or you pull away from people who you think could never understand what you’re going through. You might engage more fully with your ill child, or find yourself seeking activities that let you temporarily avoid stress.
No matter how you cope with your child’s chronic illness, it can add stress to an already heated situation if your partner copes in a different way. Many parents struggle to understand their partner’s response to life with an ill child. If that’s the case in your relationship, consider keeping the following strategies in mind:
1. Communication is Key
In any marriage, communication is essential. And when a child has a chronic illness, there can be more opportunity to miscommunicate. Even things that seem straightforward, like the realities and restrictions that come with your child’s diagnosis, can become points of contention. What are your child’s dietary restrictions? Should your child be allowed to try certain sports? Talking through these issues – big and small – can help ensure you are both coping with the same experience, understood in the same way.
2. Work Together on “Systems”
There are hundreds of conditions that are considered “chronic illness” and even more ways that families deal with them. But with a child’s diagnosis, daily life is likely to change. How you and your partner cope with your child’s chronic illness can affect what you think life should look like. Is your partner spending too much or too little energy with the ill child? Too much or too little money? Going too far or too short with accommodations, interventions and treatments? There is no right or wrong answer! The challenge is to agree. Agreeing on who will do what and when, and toward what goal can help ensure you and your partner are on the same page with the systems that can become essential in your lives.
3. Recognize and Forgive Stress
You and your partner may literally be making life and death decisions for your child. Some of these decisions may need to happen quickly. Even if the stakes are lower and time is less intense, recognize that stress exists and that different people react to it in different ways. When you partner copes differently than you, try to be compassionate. Your coping may not look like your partner’s but you’re in this pressure cooker together, and a little kindness will go a long way with your partner and consequently, your entire family.
The good news is that the experience of co-parenting a child with chronic illness doesn’t have to drive a wedge into your relationship. Many online sources report that the divorce rate of married couples with a chronically ill child are very high. But the research doesn’t back up these claims. Many articles (like this and this) show that couples with an ill child are just as likely as couples with well children to stay together.
Even if your coping styles are naturally very different, if you can see that your partner is struggling along with you and along with your child, working together to care for an ill child can bring you closer together.