How Can Two Special Needs People Marry?

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October 8, 2012 // Blog

I was sitting in a downtown Portland, McMenamins, chatting with a friend about my daughter’s recent meltdown and her upcoming wedding. Between sips of iced tea, my friend–a woman who had never met Lindsey–asked, “How can two special needs people marry?” Concern and curiosity tinged her tone. My immediate, defensive response: “They’ll walk down the aisle and say I do.”

But I knew that wasn’t what she meant. She meant, should they marry? Do they have the capabilities to care for one another? Can they manage (emotionally) the responsibilities and difficulties of married life?

All these questions and concerns are valid. Many people are curious about my thirty-two year old daughter and her thirty-four year old fiancé. They worry that these two special adults may lack common sense–not necessarily for average day-to-day scenarios–but for high-stress events or emergencies. And for people with special needs, those events could happen daily. Or they may never occur. So do we forbid our young adults from living as normal a life as possible–just in case the unexpected happens? Or do we try and teach them how to better handle these situations?

I’ve met parents who don’t feel that their special needs child should date, marry, or live apart from them–ever. They prefer to care for their child, never let them out of their sight. And this may be the right decision for that family. But I’ve wondered, do these parents worry who will care for their adult children when they are no longer able? 

Years ago, Lindsey wanted to live in her own apartment and we decided to give independent life a try. The cynic could certainly say, “Yeah, and look what happened.” My daughter willingly ran away with a man twenty-two years older. For four years, he isolated her from family and friends. She went along with the isolation. It was an ugly time. And painful for us. We couldn’t control her actions; we couldn’t force her to come home.

The problem is, whether or not your child is mentally challenged or mentally healthy, if you give him/her the gift of independence, you won’t always agree with the decisions they make. When Lindsey returned home, we were there to help pick up the pieces. We were there to guide her, to help her make better choices–so hopefully, there would never, ever be a next time.

Now my daughter wants to marry. Later this month, Lindsey and Nick will commit their love to one another. Lindsey works a part-time job. Nick drives a car. Lindsey doesn’t manage money well; Nick is learning to write checks. Lindsey can’t cook elaborate meals, but she brags, “I sure got the cleaning gene.” Nick hates to clean, but according to Lindsey, “He cooks pot roast like a TV chef.” Lindsey has two cats: Cuddles and Sally. Nick has a bird.  They both have parents and extended family who will remain supportive and offer advice. We all want to believe this union will work.

As parents, we hope Lindsey and Nick will keep each other company (which may reduce the four to eight phone calls I receive every day.) Together, we hope they gain confidence, make wiser (and more independent) “couple” decisions. Maybe Nick will teach Lindsey to cook. Maybe Lindsey will instill her “clean gene” in Nick. They may have to compromise on spending money. But they will start depending on someone other than us.  And when all this parental support is gone, they will still have each other. We hope they grow old together.

My cousin, Eric, and his wife, Lori, inspire me. Although both have mental and/or physical challenges, they married and have made decades of memories. They ride the city bus, are members of a church; they like to go on cruises. I’ve watched their relationship grow. Lori cared for Eric when he recovered from surgery. Eric helped Lori host a housewarming party when they moved into a new place. Do they experience bad days? Sure. Even the best marriages have them. But Eric and Lori have loved and supported each other for over thirty years. I want that for my daughter too.

So how can two special needs people marry? My answer is still the same. They will walk down the aisle and say I do. I’m sure there are individuals with mental disabilities and challenges who shouldn’t make such a commitment. But no individual or couple should be lumped into one specific group. The decision to form a marriage, a partnership, should be left up to the “special” couple and the people who support them.

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Flower ImageDo you know any successful mentally challenged married couples/or ones in committed relationships? If so, please share what makes their relationship work. I’d like to pass that advice onto my daughter. And if your special needs adult wanted to marry, but you’ve decided not to encourage, support, or allow it, I’d love to hear why? There are no right or wrong answers–just different ones.

 

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Goodwill helps people earn a living, improve their lives, and strengthen their families and their communities. I chose to recognize Goodwill this month because Lindsey worked there for two years and it boosted her confidence and customer service skills. Goodwill depends upon donations. If you need to clean out your closets and find some goods to give, consider this organization. It helps millions of people every single year. But remember to make your donation before December 31, 2012–it’s tax deductible!

  • Debi Friesen

    Love this post as well as all your other ones! God is using you and your experiences and writing ability to touch the hearts of so many people. You are helping us all understand the everyday life and challenges of special needs individuals and their families. Yesterday our pastor was talking about how we are ALL God’s masterpieces! His beautiful creation around us is wonderful but people are His masterpiece. Lindsey and her fiance’ and everyone else are His masterpieces!

    • http://www.outoneear.com Linda Atwell

      Debi-thanks so much for the comment. Sometimes, when Lindsey is being a real pill, I forget this. Thanks for your kind and reassuring words.

  • Wendy Stec

    Personally, I found it difficult to understand why someone would question the legitimacy of two special needs adults making a decision to commit to one another by living together as husband and wife, but to join in on the conversation, I thought I would try to understand why they might question it. Naturally, I wanted to look up the definition and see if there were any desriptions that would support this line of thought. I think the definitions below are relevent for any couple that wishes to pledge their love, commitment, and support to one another. As you stated in your blog, any married couple will face challenges, hurdles, and times of doubt, and in the end, the few that go the distance will most likely have made it because of the support of their friends and family. Without a doubt, Lindsey and Nick will have days that will challenge their senses and push them to the limits of self control, but with the support network of their family, friends, and community, I’m sure they’ll beat the odds. Love can exist without marriage, but when two people love each other and want to care for one another on a daily basis, the option of marriage should be available to all. This quote from Moulin Rouge dosen’t necessarily apply to marriage…but it’s my favorite and I think it applies here. “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.”
    Thank you Linda for sharing your insights and experience.

    mar·riage [mar-ij] Show IPA noun
    1. a. the social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc. Antonyms: separation. b. a similar institution involving partners of the same gender: gay marriage. Antonyms: separation.

    2. the state, condition, or relationship of being married; wedlock: a happy marriage. Synonyms: matrimony. Antonyms: single life, bachelorhood, spinsterhood, singleness; separation.

    3. the legal or religious ceremony that formalizes the decision of two people to live as a married couple, including the accompanying social festivities: to officiate at a marriage. Synonyms: nuptials, marriage ceremony, wedding. Antonyms: divorce, annulment.

    4. a relationship in which two people have pledged themselves to each other in the manner of a husband and wife, without legal sanction: trial marriage.

    5. any close or intimate association or union: the marriage of words and music in a hit song. Synonyms: blend, merger, unity, oneness; alliance, confederation. Antonyms: separation, division, disunion, schism.

    • http://www.outoneear.com Linda Atwell

      I loved reading your thoughts Wendy and am so glad you are my friend. Keep your comments coming!

  • http://AskFireheart Jo ann Hongslo

    Great answer Linda! Love you and wish Lindsey and Nick all the best on their wedding this week!
    JoAnn

    • http://www.outoneear.com Linda Atwell

      :-) I’ll let them know of your good wishes Jo Ann!

  • Hallette Hanson

    Linda, I personally do not know any special needs children or adults, so I speak from my heart.

    If Lindsey has the support you describe, I think she and her fiance will be way ahead in the adventure of marriage. Marriage is challenging no matter what your mental capabilities. What is important is that the two people coming together love one another and in this case, have a strong family community to rely on as they grow together. It’s so important as you continue in life to have the one person you can always rely on and who is truly committed to you.

    So I wish Lindsey the best in all things. Challenges will come as they have in the past, but the strength of her relationship with her new husband and her family and friends will get her through these challenges.

    • http://www.outoneear.com Linda Atwell

      I agree Hallette. Thanks for your insights and comments. And you should know. You just celebrated forty-some years of marriage. Congrats to you and your husband.

  • http://www.girlwiththecane.com GirlWithTheCane

    The thing about the belief that people with intellectual disabilities can’t handle the stresses of relationships of married life, or independent living (alone or in a couple), or whatever life experience anyone is currently trying to argue that they shouldn’t have…is that we all know people without any sort of disability that has trouble handling those things, but no one would argue that they shouldn’t have the right to do them. Plenty of people out there lack common sense and would have trouble knowing what to do in an emergency. Plenty of people don’t have what it takes to make a marriage or relationship work. I don’t have the “clean gene” and I have a devil of a time balancing my checkbook! But no suggests on the basis of those things that I should live with family for the rest of my life.

    I can understand the temptation for parents to protect their children with special needs, even into adulthood as much as possible. But, after a point, who is it really serving? When it prevents the person with the disability from participating opportunities to learn new skills, develop new relationships, and have new experiences, then life for them is likely going to significantly *more* difficult once the parents are gone. And that’s why we need to keep insisting on service provision and funding to assist families with skill-building and personal development for their children, by the way…but that’s another soap-box. :)

    What’s most important is that Lindsay and Nick love each other. Congratulations to them both. :)

    • http://www.outoneear.com Linda Atwell

      Thanks Sarah for reading and commenting. I like how you think! I’ll tell Lindsey of your good wishes.

  • Nanda

    Linda, I love your openness and courage! I think you are so right, because you are not only thinking about what is good for Lindsey now, but also for her future. Being free to take risks is the only way we can grow and learn. I wish all the happiness for this new sweet couple and I wish I was there with you to celebrate!
    Congratulations!!!
    Nanda

    • http://www.outoneear.com Linda Atwell

      Thank you Nanda. And I will pass your good wishes onto the happy couple!

  • http://www.thebatesmotel3.blogspot.com Becca

    Wow, I love this post. Just found you through the link-up on Love That Max…
    I also wish for a life of independence and love for my daughter (although she’s only 6 now), and can totally understand all the fears surrounding it. I hope I’m giving her the tools now for a life on her own, but also hope she’ll want to live next door…LOL Thank you for this.

  • http://Coopsnpeps.blogspot.com Bron

    Lovely to discover your blog. What an amazing post, congratulations to your daughter on her up coming marriage x sounds like they will have a wonderful partnership xx
    My child is only seven but I hope more than anything that he will find a partner who loves and supports him xxx

  • http://fromautismwithlove.blogspot.com Jamie

    Congrats to Lindsey! :) She is gettting out there and living life. Don’t we all make mistakes? That is how we learn. ( And congrats to mom for not locking her in a closet. j/k)

    My DD is just stepping into the teenage years. Since she is about 2 years behind emotionally and socially I am thinking dating and boys will probably come in her later teenager into adult-college years. I have always imagined her living in a “tiny house” in the backyard. If prince charming comes along he can move in. :)

    I think the number one most important thing we can do for our kids is role model healthy relationships. If they see a healthy marriage then they will more likely have a healthy marriage themselves. If parents have divorced then being honest with the child and themselves is a good way to role model.

    The more life skills that your child can acquire the better off that they will be with whichever path they take in life. Learning conflict resoultion and problem solving skills not only help in the work place but also in marriage.

    I think also it depends on how a person defines marriages and the roles of each party. Some people look at people with disabilities and can’t see that they have anything to give to a marriage. Of course, we know that they are totally wrong.

    I am glad I hopped over the Love That Max link up this weekend. I look forward to reading and following the rest of your blog.

    ~Jamie

  • Patricia

    Nick’s mom here…how wonderful Linda! I’m glad I found your blog. Even though I’m sort of “in” on some of their story, it’s great reading.

    Every time I see Nick he tells me how much he loves Lindsey and how he misses her when she’s not there. “The house is just too empty without her, Mom.” Just what we want them both to have: love, companionship and a life-long partner.

    Happy travels!

    • http://www.outoneear.com Linda Atwell

      Everytime I see them I find them to be quite happy, which warms my heart. Glad you found my blog Pat.

  • LynnK

    I know it’s been about two years but I’m really excited to read these posts. I don’t think that your reaction was defensive in any way. For the most part all the disabled folks that are married or in a committed partnership that I know outlast the the average folk’s marriage usually by decades.

    • http://outoneear.com/ Linda Atwell

      Thanks. I certainly hope this proves true in Lindsey and Nick’s case. You are kind to leave a comment.

  • Rebecca Horne

    The concern seems to stem from a misguided idea about what marriage is. I’m guessing people who suggest they shouldn’t marry are envisioning marriage as the point where you break away from your birth family and start your own–bootstrapping yourselves up without outside support, relying only on each other.

    “How can they marry?” means “how can they live on their own, without outside support, supervision and guidance?”

    But who says marriage needs to be that? Even if two people really did need to live with one of their families, or separately–each with their own support network– or in whatever configuration works best for them, there’s no reason that arrangement can’t include marriage.

    There are no rules about what relationships have to look like! You’re allowed to build relationships that fur your own life!