The Impact of a Special Needs Child on a Marriage

with Laura Hendrickson | February 18, 2011

The demands of a special needs child often impact a marriage. Dr. Laura Hendrickson, mother to an autistic son, Eric, recalls her marriage before and after her son was born.

The demands of a special needs child often impact a marriage. Dr. Laura Hendrickson, mother to an autistic son, Eric, recalls her marriage before and after her son was born.

The Impact of a Special Needs Child on a Marriage

With Laura Hendrickson
|
February 18, 2011
| Download Transcript PDF

 

Bob:   It wasn’t long after Dr. Laura Hendrickson’s son, Eric, was born that he was diagnosed with severe autism.  Eric’s condition put a terrible strain on Laura’s marriage; but there was still more to come.

Laura:  Eric was eight when I was diagnosed with cancer.  By that time, Eric was doing better.  We were through the early-intervention years and he was speaking, but you can imagine my terror when they told me that I had a 40 percent chance of living five years.  I thought, “What is going to happen to my son?”

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, February 18th.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey; and I'm Bob Lepine.  We will hear from Dr. Laura Hendrickson today about seeing God’s hand clearly in the midst of very difficult circumstances.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today.  Thanks for joining us.  When parents face the challenge of a child with special needs—we have been talking this week about autism in particular—but whatever the special need is, the husband or wife often process that differently.  Sometimes that challenge, instead of bringing them together, can press them apart and create a great strain in the marriage relationship. 

Dennis:  Yes.  If you don’t have God’s plan for marriage—and we talk about this at the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways—how in the midst of suffering, it reveals the foundation that you have been building your marriage on.  If you don’t have that foundation in place when something like autism comes into your family, then let me tell you something:  There is going to be some challenging days for a husband and a wife to remain one. 

Bob:  We have heard a story this week.  We need to welcome our guest back. 

Dr. Laura Hendrickson joins us on FamilyLife Today.  Laura, welcome back.

Laura:  It is great to be back, Bob.

Bob:  We have heard you share this week about your son, Eric.  He was diagnosed with autism when he was two-and-a-half years old.  You shared how you faced those challenges and tried everything you could to try to help Eric.  In God’s kindness, he has made great progress on the autism spectrum to where he can function at a level that, frankly, is unusual for an autistic child who is now 21- 22-years old?

Laura:  Yes. 

Bob:  I am curious about the challenges that placed in your marriage relationship.  How long had you been married when Eric was born? 

Laura:  Eric was born about three years after our marriage.

Bob:  Okay.  If you were to describe your marriage in those first three years before you had a child, what kinds of words would you use to describe it?

Laura:  Rocky.  It was rocky right from the start.  When a baby came into the mix, that added another complicating factor to an already difficult marriage.

Dennis:  You married later in life.

Laura:  Yes.

Dennis:  How much of a spiritual foundation did you and your husband have as a couple?  Would you say you were healthy spiritually—growing as a couple, as individuals?

Laura:  We lived separate spiritual lives.  My faith was very important to me, but I didn’t see any evidence that my husband’s faith was important to him.  He went to church.  He participated in church events that I wanted to participate in; but if I had said on a given Sunday, “I don’t want to go to church,” he would have said, “Fine.  We’ll stay home.” 

Bob:  Was he excited when you were pregnant with Eric and when that pregnancy was being carried to term; because you miscarried prior to Eric being conceived, right? 

Laura:  Yes.  I miscarried three times.  He was eager to have another child.  He already had three adult children from a previous marriage.  He didn’t have the same desire that I had, but he was eager to have a child.

Dennis:  Did you have any apprehension about bringing children into your marriage?  Had the Honeymoon worn off to such a degree that you had some fears?

Laura:  I think I had a lot of denial.  I really believed that everything was going to be alright.  For me, having a child was the most important thing.  I think my desire blinded me to warning signs that I certainly would point out if I saw them in any of my counselees.  It is like everyone else was seeing Eric was different before I did.  When it is something that really matters to you, you can be pretty blind. 

Dennis:  On the day your son, Eric, was diagnosed in the doctor’s office, just a few weeks short of his third birthday, was your husband there with you in the doctor’s office that day?

Laura:  No.

Dennis:  How did you break the news to him?

Laura:  I told him what the doctor said.  He said, “We’ll deal with it.”

Dennis:  He didn’t bear your burdens with you?  He didn’t attempt to comfort your soul in the midst of that?

Laura:  I think I cried.  I think he held me; but really, it was my problem.  He lived for his work.  It was my problem. 

Dennis:  So you basically shouldered this load alone.

Laura:  I didn’t just shoulder it alone—the way he dealt with his feelings was by producing chaos in our lives.  He started tearing the house apart—“Remodeling,” he called it.  Only, things stayed torn apart a long time before they started getting put back together again.  That made it—not only was he not helping—he was making it harder. 

Dennis:  You actually were cooking with an electric skillet because you didn’t have a range or a stove.  You were doing the dishes, where?

Laura:  In the bathtub. 

Dennis:  All this occurring within days and weeks after the diagnosis?

Laura:  Yes. 

Bob:  There had also been some incidents of violence that had emerged in your marriage, right? 

Laura:  Yes.  The first time that happened—Eric was one—we didn’t know that he was autistic yet.  I was usually very careful with what I said because I could see he was easily upset. 

I said a terrible thing.  What I said was inexcusable.  It was bad, but he strangled me.  I remember thinking, “I am going to die.  There is nobody to save me.”  Then, he let me go.  It was time to go to work. 

I was working as a psychiatrist.  I picked up the baby and went out of the house.  I told a co-worker who was a social worker.  She told me I couldn’t go back.  In fact, she let me move into her home.  I took out a restraining order.  I did all of the right things you are supposed to do in a situation like this.  Then, when it was time to go to court about the restraining order, the women’s group that was helping me told me I didn’t need a lawyer unless my husband was going to bring one.  He said he wasn’t going to.  Then he showed up with one at the hearing. 

The judge really mistreated me from the bench.  Later on, my husband told me with a broad smile that the judge and his lawyer were good friends.  The judge told me that if I wanted to get divorced—I wasn’t at the place where I wanted to get divorced—but this kind of closed my sense that I had any options off.  He told me that if I filed for divorce, I would be bringing that to his court. 

That night, I went home and called my husband and invited him to come home.  After that, I thought, “I am going to have to find a way to make it work.”  After that, there was violence; but I never took out a restraining order again. 

Dennis:  There was more violence?

Laura:  Oh, yes. 

Bob:  It was a few years after that when you were diagnosed with cancer. 

Laura:  Eric was eight when I was diagnosed with cancer.  By that time, Eric was doing better.  We were through the early-intervention years and he was speaking, but you can imagine my terror when they told me that I had a 40 percent chance of living five years.  I thought, “What is going to happen to my son?” 

I clung to the fact that God is good and that if I went home to be with Him, it would be the best thing for everyone—not just for me, but for everyone.  It was really hard to trust.  I did another one of those things that people do when they are struggling with trust.  I begged God to show me how long I would live.  When I was persuaded that He showed me that I would live ten years, which would bring Eric up to age 18, then I was able to rest. 

I didn’t ultimately rest in God’s goodness and His working out everything right for everyone.  Instead, I rested in my sense that I would be there long enough.

Dennis:  I have listened to this story—Barbara and I have been married now for over 38 years.  We have been through our valleys; we have had our struggles.  I do understand for a couple—because we process suffering and difficulty through different grids—how we can tend to spin off in our own direction. 

I cannot imagine raising an autistic son during those formative years of the elementary years and then junior high and high school alone.  That is really what you did.  You had to shoulder that responsibility by yourself.

Laura:  Really, my husband was working against many of the things I was trying to do.  Although he never agreed that he didn’t have saving faith, everything he really believed beyond the creeds that we might recite at church was in opposition to real Christian life.

Dennis:  So what did you do? 

Laura:  Tried harder. 

Dennis:  But as a woman—I mean—you had to be from a human perspective—you got married for companionship.  Yes.  You laugh at that because it didn’t happen; did it?

Laura:  It is so funny because I was 35 years old before I got married.  I thought that being single was the worst thing that could happen to me.  I am so thankful that I have my son.  Please, don’t misunderstand me.  I am so thankful to have him, but being single was better than being married the way that I was married. 

Bob:  Did you have in the midst of that, any seasons of hope where you thought, “Maybe we are starting to see a turn?  Maybe this marriage can be what I hoped it would be when I said, ‘I do.’”

Laura:  Oh, yes.  I would regularly say, “Now he believes.  Now it is going to be different.  Now it is going to be better.”

Bob:  Based on what?  What kinds of things would cause you to hope that?

 

Laura:  He could be very kind.  He was always very charming.  He would give the shirt off his back to people outside of the family.  I didn’t want to dishonor him by talking about how things really were for many, many years.  I finally got the elders at my church involved and realized it was not just me because they were not able to persuade him to live a different way either.

Bob:  You said it wasn’t just you.  Looking back, you say that you can see things that if you were living it again, you would do differently—not necessarily that it would change the outcome—but just in terms of how you live before God in the situation, right?

Laura:  Oh, yes.  I turned into such a control freak between trying to keep Eric’s behavior under control—particularly the years that he had autism—and trying to persuade my husband not to go off on the things that he did. 

He didn’t do those things to hurt me.  I am persuaded that the reason why he focused on remodeling, or on his work, or on anything like that was that he probably felt terribly inadequate and maybe intimidated.  I don’t think he was trying to hurt me when he brought chaos into our lives; and yet, that was the result.

Dennis:  Laura, I have heard you say that for a mom who has had a child who is born with autism, that it almost betrays our rational mind to think this way; but she really needs to think of ways—not only to address the autism in her child—but also how she can engage her husband around the problem and develop his soul—help challenge him and his faith and his knowledge of God—to draw him closer to his child—his son—in that case.

Laura:  Absolutely.  So much of this was my failure.  I felt—both of us felt that parenting Eric was my job.  I wanted him to help me in the ways that I wanted to be helped, and I wanted him to come alongside in the ways that I wanted him to come alongside. 

I tell you, even though I was looking at Eric with great care, trying to understand what he needed, I wasn’t doing that for my husband.  It would have been such a good thing if I could have said to myself, “I need to find ways to help him feel like he is important in Eric’s life,” or maybe, “He is generating chaos because that gives him a problem that he feels like he can manage.”  I never thought that way. 

I think that is one of my big failures beyond the usual wifely things that I didn’t always respond lovingly—that I sinned with my speech—I didn’t honor his headship in all the ways I ought to have.  I did all of that stuff, too.

Bob:  You lived with the chaos in your marriage for a lot of years before you—as you said—you went to the elders of your church.  First of all, why didn’t you go sooner?  Secondly, it takes a lot of guts to even go in the first place.

Laura:  I didn’t want anybody to know how we were really living. 

Bob:  Nobody had a clue? 

Laura:  Not by that time.  Not by that time.  I had confided in girlfriends in the early years; but then, I became convinced that I was gossiping—that I could be making the problem bigger by bringing other people into it.  I prayed and tried to keep it completely private. 

We ended up going to a church that was affiliated with the counseling center where we were receiving some totally unhelpful marriage counseling at the time.  The counselor who had been counseling us, who was also an elder at the church then, knew what the problems were.  Bringing it to the elders wasn’t as difficult as it would have been if that door hadn’t already been opened.

Bob:  We have already heard from wives who have gone to elder boards looking for help and have been sent home and told to, “Endure.  Submit.  We can’t believe your husband is a problem.”

Laura:  I had been in three churches before that where exactly that happened. 

Bob:  Really? 

Laura:  Yes.  I didn’t go to elder boards.  I went to pastors, and that was what I was told—that I just needed to try harder. 

Bob:  But this elder board heard you and got involved.

Laura:  They worked with us very intensively.  We worked with them for five or six years before they finally told my husband that they didn’t believe he had saving faith and excommunicated him. 

Bob:  They disciplined him out of the church?

Laura:  First, there was discipline—escalating levels of discipline.  Then, ultimately, it was failure to respond to the discipline that caused them to say, “We don’t believe you have saving faith,” and they excommunicated him. 

Bob:  The dissolution of your marriage followed that?

 

Laura:  Yes. 

Dennis:  As I am listening to your story, Laura, I am just reminded of how isolation not only can kill a marriage, it can also rob a person of perspective, and hope, and help.  One of the greatest tragedies is for a woman to be abused, or to be neglected, or to be in a marriage like you are talking about and not having anyone to confide in—anyone to be a fellow burden-bearer to shoulder that load with her and to protect her, not only physically, but also spiritually, and also to protect the family as well. 

As imperfect as the church is and as the Christian community is—this is where we have got to engage them—even at the risk of what you experienced of them telling you and giving you bad counsel.  I don’t know what the hope of a woman like you would be here on the planet because it is clear God gave us the Christian community—the church—the body of Christ—to come alongside us in situations like this and to give us perspective, wise counsel, and help develop a plan.  To go through a trial of raising an autistic child by yourself—as you have shared—I have heard you talk about what you did wrong a lot.

Laura:  We all do many things wrong, don’t we?

Dennis:  I am sure you did do some things wrong there; but I think in the midst of that, it would have been so much better had someone been alongside you—maybe a couple of really good, wise, godly friends who offered you perspective from the Scripture—to have coached and encouraged you so that maybe at the points when you would beat yourself up—and you shouldn’t be doing that—you really do develop a healthy faith in God and also use the body of Christ to be able to address your situation. 

I personally really appreciate you and your work—your book—helping to address the needs of autistic children and their parents in raising them.  I appreciate you sharing your story here of what happened in your marriage and, of course, what ultimately led to a divorce, which I am really sorry about and I know you are, too.  There is a God who cares.  He does intercept life with us.  In these moments, we need to turn to Him.  I just appreciate you modeling that for us.  Thanks for being with us.

Laura:  I would like to just say that even when we are alone, God comes alongside us and ministers to us.  I believe I am the person I am—who doesn’t beat up on herself like that anymore—because the Lord showed me through the meltdown of my own life where I really need to be putting my hope and taught me to stop looking at myself and to look to Him in faith.  Even these terrible experiences have been a crucible in which God has developed my faith.  I give thanks to Him for all of it.

Bob:  The good news is that that journey of faith, even though it takes us down what can be a very rocky path at times, it is still a path of grace.  We still meet God there.  In fact, sometimes in ways that we would not meet Him in the higher elevations.  I think you have modeled that well. 

I think you have written about it well in the book that you have written, Finding Your Child’s Way on the Autism Spectrum, where you share some of your story.  You have shared a little bit more with us here this week, and we appreciate your being on FamilyLife Today. 

If our listeners are interested in a copy of your book, let me encourage them to go online at FamilyLifeToday.com.  In fact, let me encourage you, if you do know somebody who is raising an autistic son or daughter—get them a copy of this book as a gift.  You can find out more about it as you go to FamilyLifeToday.com. 

You will also find a copy of Emily Colson’s book called Dancing with Max, which is her reflection of a very similar story—raising her autistic son.  You and she have some very similar experiences along that path.  Again, find out more about Laura Hendrickson’s book and Emily Colson’s book—both of them on raising autistic children—when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com or when you call 1-800-FLTODAY (1-800-358-6329).  That is 1-800-“F” as in Family, “L” as in Life, and then the word TODAY. 

I know for many of our listeners—when we hear stories like this—the recurring question that we keep coming back to us, “How can God redeem a situation like this?  How can He have any divine purpose that is accomplished through the kinds of things we have talked about this week?”  I think you have modeled well that it can and does happen. 

There is still that fundamental question that crops up in people’s minds about the goodness of God and His purposes in the midst of suffering.  We have a booklet we would like to send you if that is a question that continues to challenge you.  We will send it to you at no cost.  It is written by our friend, Randy Alcorn, who has been a guest on FamilyLife Today

You may be new to FamilyLife Today and have not heard us have conversations on topics like this.  Contact us and get a free copy of this 64-page booklet called “If God Is Good, Why Do We Hurt?” by Randy Alcorn.  We are happy to send it out to you.  We ask that you limit it to one booklet per family or per household.  Only request one when you go online or when you call us. 

Our website is FamilyLifeToday.com.  Our toll-free number is 1-800-FLTODAY.  Again, ask for the booklet, “If God Is Good, Why Do We Hurt?”  We are happy to send it to you, and we appreciate your listening to FamilyLife Today.  We hope you find this booklet helpful. 

We hope you have a great weekend.  Hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend.  I hope you can join us back on Monday. 

Mary Kassian is going to be here.  She is an author and speaker.  We are going to confront some of the—well, what shall I say?—some of the muddle-headed thinking in the minds of some women of what will bring fulfillment, and joy, and happiness in life.  Mary has written a book called Girls Gone Wise.  We will talk about the way of wisdom as you pursue biblical womanhood.  I hope you can join us for that conversation. 

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We will see you back on Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas. 

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