How to Maintain Your Marriage While Caring for a Child with Special Needs

One mom opens up about how she keeps her relationship with her husband healthy and stable while caring for an autistic child.


autistic child with family; young girl with special needsMarriage is hard. I don’t know of any husband or wife who hasn’t, at some point or another, experienced this lifetime commitment as tiresome, uninteresting, and relentless. Even when you love your husband and he loves you, and your relationship has already earned the depth of decades. And even without an autistic child thrown into the mix.

Raising an autistic child apparently increases divorce rates to 80 percent, although I have not been able to find a reliable source for this oft-quoted statistic. I’ve seen some of these marriage breakdowns first-hand, and I find them especially sad.

I am hardly cocky enough to claim that I know the secret to staying married, but since my husband and I both celebrated our birthdays recently, I have been thinking a lot about what keeps us together. And perhaps, more importantly, what fails to drive us apart.

When I look back on our lives (as birthdays will encourage you to do), I realize that almost nothing has turned out the way we planned. But surprisingly, our alternate realities seem no less rich or rewarding.

Before we had our son Brooks, we wrote musicals and tried to get them produced on Broadway. The odds were not on our side, as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of show business will tell you, but we loved letting our creative selves run wild while allowing each other not to worry about financial security. Although we haven’t made it to the Great White Way (just yet), we’ve shared the experience of listening to audiences respond enthusiastically during readings
and workshops where top-notch New York City talent performed our material. To this day, even having experienced the extraordinary joys that are Brooks-related, we still both treasure those moments as some of the best we’ve ever had.

Obviously, no one plans to have a child with autism. But as I’ve so often commented, we have been fortunate enough to get a huge amount of help from caring, smart, and compassionate therapists and teachers. Today, Brooks is a thriving, happy, high-functioning (highly quirky!) kindergartener. Our little boy has been our “mission” for the past six years, and as he gets nearer to “accomplished,” at least in terms of his autism, we find ourselves dipping our toes into the waters of what comes next in our lives.

There is no question that our marriage has been sidelined by our passions for writing and for Brooks, but in a strange way, it has also been saved by these passions. We have been steadfast and true partners in both of these high-stakes endeavors, and neither of us would have it any other way.

Before I go to sleep tonight, my husband will probably ask me an innocent question about schedules tomorrow, and I’ll probably yell at him for no reason other than I’m too tired and I have no patience. And when I wake up tomorrow morning, more rested and prepared to apologize, I’ll probably find his dental floss from last night on the coffee table, and I’ll resent having to throw it in the garbage because, well, why can’t he do that himself! And then I won’t apologize. As embarrassing as it is to admit, such is the occasional rhythm of our marriage.

But if we listen closely enough, there is a soft, syncopated counter-melody. We heard it recently when we treated ourselves to a rare night out to see Liz Callaway perform and instinctively reached for each other’s hand during James Taylor’s “Secret O’ Life.” And we heard it again as we caught each other’s eyes as Brooks cracked up a houseful of our close friends with his “knock-knock, who’s there? Underwear-pants-banana” joke.

Marriage is a lifetime of “It’s you again.” The challenge, I think, is how to express that not with boredom and exasperation, but with hope and gratitude: “It’s you again.” Thank goodness.


Marni Goltsman, web producer at the Paley Center and blogger at, is currently writing a full-length play based on her experiences with autism. The above essay originally appeared as a blog post on the InsideSCOOP section of, which is a project of Advocates for Children of New York.

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