"Our Son Is Disabled and It's Tearing Us Apart"

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The Counselor's Turn

"Few couples, even in the strongest marriages, are prepared to deal with the practical and psychological fallout of having a disabled child," the counselor said. "Overwhelmed and depleted by the relentless expense and responsibility of caring for their son, Kim and Brad couldn't work together to resolve even routine issues. They were unable to take any pleasure in their lives, let alone rekindle the spark that had brought them together in the first place.

"Initially after Luke's birth, Kim and Brad had turned to each other for solace and support, but by the time they came to me, their closeness had been shredded by bitter arguments and simmering resentment. During our sessions, we talked at length about the psychological toll of having a child with multiple disabilities. That process helped Kim realize that giving birth to Luke had made her feel damaged -- 'like there's something wrong with me,' she said. To make herself whole again, she piled on challenges, running herself ragged to prove she was capable and dull her pain. Even her choice to have more children was, I believed, a way to validate her mothering abilities. Understanding all this helped Kim see that she needed to cut back on her commitments.

"Brad also felt like a failure. For the first time, this hard-charging, can-do guy faced a problem he could not fix. He coped by pulling inward, working harder, fading out of the family, and eventually numbing himself through drink. Although he insisted he didn't have a problem, the fact that he was unable to make it through an evening without several beers put him on the road to alcoholism. 'Nothing will change until you stop drinking,' I told him. I suggested he attend an AA meeting, but Brad summoned his considerable willpower and simply quit cold turkey. He hasn't touched alcohol in nine months.

"Kim and Brad were both angry but expressed it differently. Kim yelled, cursed, and tried to humiliate her husband. Brad's passive-aggressive style -- promising to do something, then not delivering -- was equally hurtful. 'Occasional disagreements in front of the kids are okay,' I said, 'but habitual fighting is not. You must become aware of how your behavior triggers your partner's anger -- and change that behavior.' In time, Kim learned to count to 10 and ask, 'Will this matter tomorrow?' If the answer is no, she keeps quiet. (The extra time allows her to calm down.) As she became less sarcastic and argumentative, Brad became more willing to per form household chores without being asked."

Continued on page 5:  The Counselor's Turn, Continued


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