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When you’re a couple raising a child, your relationship can fall to the bottom of the priority list. That can be especially true when your child learns or thinks differently. You might feel the pressures of time, money, and decision-making. And you may find yourselves arguing over small things like who bought the bread. 

So how can a couple nurture their relationship? To find out, hosts Gretchen Vierstra and Rachel Bozek turn to Sarah Greenberg for advice. Sarah is an Understood expert with years of experience as a marriage and family therapist. 

Hear Sarah talk about how couples can manage the stressors they face. Tune in to learn simple ways couples can connect (spoiler alert: vacations aren’t usually the answer). And find out why self-compassion is essential in a relationship.

Related resources 

Episode transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs...

Rachel: ...the ups and downs...

Gretchen: ...of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor raising two kids with ADHD. Today, we're talking about how being in it can impact couples.

Gretchen: To help us unpack that, we are so glad to have with us Sarah Greenberg. Sarah wears many hats, including as a writer and executive coach — and as the newly minted executive director of behavior change and expertise here at Understood. But we're talking to her today because of her years of experience as a marriage and family therapist.

Rachel: A couple of things to note before we dive in. First of all, in this conversation, we focused primarily on couples who are together. But we are by no means saying that this is what all families look like. We know that there are plenty of single parents out there — divorced, separated co-parents, and other family configurations. Today, though, we are looking to offer insight and resources to romantic couples who are, you know, trying to hold it together.

Gretchen: And second, Rachel, you had a special guest on hand during this conversation, didn't you?

Rachel: Oh, you could tell? So we got a puppy right over the holidays. And since it is still early days, he's a couple months old. He was very insistent on being in the room with me when we recorded, which seemed like a good idea at the time. So if you hear some extra activity in the background, that's Preston.

Gretchen: Go Preston!

Rachel: The "In It" intern.

Gretchen: Yeah, exactly. OK. Well, now that we got that all out of the way, let's dive in. Hi, Sarah. Welcome to "In It."

Sarah: Thank you so much for having me.

Gretchen: We thought we'd start by acknowledging some of the stressors that can arise for couples raising kids who have learning and thinking differences. We know that these families may face extra financial pressures, time pressures, and just the stress of having to make so many decisions as they try to figure out the best way to support their kids. So are these the types of things that would show up in your work with couples?

Sarah: Yeah, without a doubt. I think that the stressors that, you know, financial, time, decision-making, are all very real ones. I also want to name that this is true for parents in general. It's not a child having a learning and thinking difference that causes this stress. It's more of an exacerbation. So parents in general who have a child, about two-thirds will say that, you know, marital satisfaction went down after having a baby.

I also want to just name off the bat that we're going to talk a lot about challenges that this journey can bring to the relationship itself. But by no means is it written. There are plenty of parents who thrive, who go through this journey supporting their child. And not only does the child emerge stronger, the couple emerges stronger, and the entire family unit emerges stronger.

Gretchen: That's a great call-out.

Rachel: Yeah, that is a good call-out. Sarah, can you talk about some of the not-ideal dynamics that may come into play for the couples we're talking about today — the couples who are in it?

Sarah: Yeah. So Dr. Sue Johnson, she's a well-known couples therapist. She talks about these dances that couples can get into. I'll name a few of the common ones that I see. One is overfunctional or underfunctional dynamic. That might be one parent is really carrying the load and really diving in to be that advocate, to be that support. And one parent is really backing out. And on the surface, it might seem like, oh wow, that parent isn't holding as much stress. But when you lean in and talk to these couples, really no one is happy in that dynamic. No one wants to feel disempowered in their parenting. So that's one really common dynamic.

Another one that we see is this almost Believer vs. Denier dynamic. That's where maybe one parent will, you know, notice signs and symptoms a lot earlier, be looking for resources a lot earlier. And another parent might really be saying, you know, I don't know if this really exists. I think you're worrying over nothing. Often that can be based in, you know, cultural beliefs or views. And again, when you lean into the couple, never it is the case that one parent cares and one parent doesn't, right? There's always complexity and nuance there.

Another one that we might see, right, is blame. It's often much easier to engender a sense of compassion for our child. But when it comes to the other parents? You know, you're with your partner and you feel relatively safe with them. So it doesn't feel as risky to blame them — right? — for some of the challenges.

And then a last one that I'll name that I just think is common to most couples navigating this, which is just that high mental load and stress load all around. Where, you know, the relationship really falls to the bottom of the list of priorities. This is common with parents who have a child with learning and thinking differences. And this is common for parents in general.

And I think that that was, you know, one of the reasons why I was so excited when you mentioned the topic for this podcast, which I don't think it's talked about enough. There's not a lot saying attending to your couple, attending to your relationship, nurturing your relationship is a very reasonable part of a treatment plan. It deserves attention, just like everything else. How are we going to continue to nurture the relationship on this journey and make sure, even if it's lost on the to-do list on a given day, it's not actually lost on the priority list?

Gretchen: Yeah, because I can imagine that families might think or couples might think, OK, we have to put all of our attention into our child and so we'll do whatever it takes. And if that means like scrapping our relationship in a way, like — not that they're scrapping it, but I could just see that you might focus so much on your kid that you forget to thank your partner for helping out with something or for bearing the load that day on something. And it can be tough to remember that.

Rachel: Because then you're exhausted too. Like just your your mental energy is focused on all of these other challenges.

Sarah: Yes, exactly. And I'm so glad you mentioned that exhaustion, because there's plenty of reason for hope for parents. There's plenty of resources out there for parents, but it's so important to name that yes, the exhaustion is very real.

Rachel: One thing that comes to mind for me that I think can be stressful for some people is how or to what extent you're comfortable talking just about the fact that your kid has whatever this diagnosis is. So I'll use ADHD as an example because that's the one that's in my life, right? With both kids. And sometimes one parent is a lot more open and comfortable with it than the other. And other times both parents are comfortable talking about it, but then you kind of find where one has maybe like a different boundary than the other.

And for me, my son was diagnosed seven years ago and my daughter was diagnosed at this point like almost three years ago. So it's been a while. But then over the summer, we're talking about, you know, the possibility of me co-hosting this podcast. And that's literally what the podcast is about. And still, we ended up having this really long conversation, meaning my husband and myself, about my line in the opening of the show where I say, "I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor raising two kids with ADHD."

And we talked about that for a really long time. And like, how comfortable are both of us with me saying that? And I was definitely more like, "I think that's fine" than he was. And it wasn't even an argument, but it was really like a realization that we weren't exactly in the same place about where we were on that and our comfort level with it. But I think that's a really big part of all of this is just how you're communicating it to other people.

Sarah: Yeah, yeah, that's such a real one, right? Like, how are we — we're a family unit, but how are we going to communicate our story to the community around us? And Rachel, in your case, to the world, right? And Rachel, I'm so curious what themes came up when you had that discussion with your husband. You know, I think sometimes, you know, the surface level just tells one part of the story. So I asked that question about themes because that is a perfect example of how for parents, when you just ask that deeper layer, right, what's coming up for you in not wanting to tell our friends about this? What's coming up? Right?

The answers can be really big, right? Really big things. So maybe shame, fear, anger, pride. Right? You also hear my kid is unique, right? My kid isn't like everyone else. Whatever those themes are, that's kind of the heart of the conversation for couples to have. But so often we get stuck in any relationship saying, you know, "Why would you do this to me?" Right? Without really talking about what's going on. And I think that's where, you know, there's a lot of richness and opportunity.

Rachel: It led to the potential for unpacking a lot of things, and we didn't fully unpack them. But we got far enough that we were able to, you know, come to a good place on how I should describe who I am at the beginning of the podcast. But it was like, oh yeah, we're going to be talking about this for a little while.

Sarah: It sounds like you saw each other and you aligned.

Rachel: So, Sarah, can you talk a little bit about financial strain and how that can factor into these conflicts?

Sarah: Yeah, without a doubt. So this is a really interesting theme because in couples there are certain, you know, hot, hot-button topics for any couple. Sex and money are often towards the top of the list. And I think there's a lot of ways that financial strain can show up for the couple. One is just overarching stress on a family, you know, different ways that this might show up is, you know, one parent wants to get extra support for a child and one parent says there's no way we could afford this. And you see this with all sizes of bank accounts, honestly. So often it's very real. And often it might be you know, one might say you're just perceiving that. You're not willing to invest. So that might show up.

And often with financial stress, it's this very consistent stress. Right? It's not like, Rachel, your example is so great, like it was there was an arc to it. There was I don't know how I'm going to address this. Let's talk about it. And then you came to a resolution. Whereas with financial stressors, there's often not really a clear end in sight. So it's much more of a chronic stress. And the weight of that, right, the weight of caring that quite consistently, of course, factors into everything.

Gretchen: So speaking of the weight of things, we've laid out a lot of ways that raising kids with learning and thinking differences can put added stress on couples, on families. So what tends to happen when these folks are facing these kinds of stresses? How does it impact our relationships?

Sarah: Yeah, I think that that's such a good question to stop and reflect for any couple. Parenting a child with learning and thinking differences to say, you know, how is this showing up in our relationship? And starting with the question. I think what we tend to see is we're not digested. It can show up in ways that look like fighting, fighting more frequently over things that have nothing to do with this as the core challenge. Right? Like, I can't believe you didn't buy the bread. Can't believe you didn't buy the eggs. Like, why does this all have to rest on my shoulders? Or, you know, blame? John Gottman talks about the the four horsemen, right? These common themes that you see in couples where they can take sort of a toxic direction.

Gretchen: What are they?

Sarah: The four horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. You know, four things that when you see these themes, you know, arise in couple interactions, they're not good signs, right? And so, you know, when they start to really shine, it's a sign to, you know, pause and maybe shift gears. But, you know, generally speaking, it comes out in ways that aren't necessarily obviously related to the the obstacles of raising a child with learning and thinking differences.

Rachel: Which could go back to the exhaustion, because part of it might just be that like we — and when I say we, I mean me — are not always our best selves. Like if we're dealing with certain things just 24/7, it can make it hard to then, you know, respond well to other things that have nothing to do with our kids' learning and thinking differences.

Sarah: Yeah, exactly.

Gretchen: Like when you just said, Sarah, it was such a good comment that couples should ask themselves that question, right? Like, how is this impacting our relationship? But if you're so tired, when the heck do you do that?

Sarah: Yeah. So this brings up I think a really important theme in navigating, nurturing the relationship while experiencing very significant challenges. Which is not only when do you find time to address the challenges and what's happening in the relationship, but when do you find the time to — equally importantly — not address the challenge?

Rachel: Mm hmm. To have fun?

Sarah: Exactly. To have fun, to feel connected. I think often, you know, we think about nurturing the couple or spending time to nurture the couple or address challenges. Our mind often goes to, gosh, you know, we need to take a vacation together. We need to have, you know, hours a week to check in. What I find, the nurturing, the relationship, often what's most effective isn't what's most time consuming. So if you're going from, you know, being in a, you know, a really difficult place in your relationship, navigating some very extreme challenges, exhausted all the time? Taking a vacation, it's very likely that vacation is going to just be terrible.

Gretchen: And all your hopes and dreams will be pinned on it. And then you'll be mad you wasted all your money on this expensive vacation.

Sarah: Exactly. Exactly. So some of the resources that I really like are, you know, thinking about the positive-to-negative ratio in interactions in general. So, for example, parents who are navigating raising a child with learning and thinking differences, often the connection points may be very transactional. They might be, you know, hey, let's just — we have to talk about this. We have to get it done. We have to — let's look at the weekly schedule. So maybe that's neutral. Maybe it's tense. Who knows? But it probably doesn't feel very positive. They might be high conflict.

So just kind of thinking about it, almost like doing an audit of the interactions and looking for ways to make those micro-interactions just up the ratio of positivity. So in those first three minutes, when you reconnect with your partner, just no matter what's on your mind, no matter how ready to kind of like vent you are, just saying, "Hey, how was your day?" Right? And so it's through little interactions like that. And then maybe kind of moving to the next layer of starting to ask questions that actually have nothing to do with the challenges at hand, but are really just for the sake of connection. And I completely get the time constraints. Those are very real. But these are things that can be done, you know, starting off, you know, 10 minutes a day.

Rachel: That's great.

Gretchen: What are some other things that they might be able to do, you know, when they're not going to take the fancy vacation to try to heal? Right? So what are some simple things?

Sarah: I'm all for vacation, but not the fancy vacation when you're having a terrible time. Take the vacation if you can. But not for that reason.

Gretchen: So are there any other small tips you have that couples could be doing to to work on their relationship?

Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. So this isn't so much a small tip as rather, I think, just a really good thing to keep in mind. Couples therapy, right? I think, you know, that doesn't always feel accessible. But there are ways for it to be more accessible. You can look up kind of affordable purchase therapy. Having a great couples therapist, I think, if you're kind of in that place of creating a team around supporting your child, supporting your family, it's just a resource to be aware of.

And I say that with some caution because again, the accessibility piece of it. But I can't not say it because it can be such a life-changing thing that couples do together to really get skills that, you know, let's say they're in couples therapy for three months, four months, six months. Right? It can really help the entire duration of their relationship.

But, you know, getting to kind of smaller things, like what can I do if I'm a parent, what can I do this week? Which I think really is what you're asking, Gretchen? Positive shared experiences? You know, maybe taking a moment and thinking through, oh, what's one positive interaction I can engender with with my partner today? Right? It might be actually sitting for five minutes and drinking our coffee together. Maybe it's like watching a TV show together at the end of the day. Right? So really, it's that level. And it's going to be different for everyone.

Gretchen: I know that in the pandemic, my husband and I liked to take just short 10-minute walks. That was what we did. Walk the neighborhood for 10 minutes.

Sarah: Yeah. I think the other piece aside from the couple is that individual work. So I don't know about you all, but I can just see for myself when, you know, my brain is kind of hijacked by stress or something I'm triggered on, I am a completely different person in a relationship. Right? So something that I might be, you know, kind of the best, most supportive partner on, I'm rather monster. Like, why would you say that, right? Someone's just trying to be helpful.

And so I think, you know, kind of doing our own work there and finding these little again, these sort of micro-moments to attend to our own stress levels, to say, "Hey, Sarah," — Rachel, you might say, "Hey, Rachel, this is really hard. How am I going to help myself through this?" You know, and this isn't just like a warm bubble bath and a glass of wine, right? We're talking self-compassion, right? Recognizing, hey, I'm not alone in this. I'm not the only one going through this. You know, I may be feeling bad. That doesn't mean I am bad, right?

So things like that — really practicing self-compassion and self-care. I think as the work continues, really the beauty of working on this is you can find yourself in a place where you start to actually much more naturally co-regulate. So we're social beings. We are wired to be social beings. And as much as we can trigger each other, we can also really calm each other. So if you think about how you might sit with a best friend who's really struggling, it's not your job to solve their problems. Right? Just that the power of being with someone.

Just like the title of this podcast, right? "In It." Like just being in it with someone, where you start to get to a place with your partner where you feel less stressed because they're in it with you. Right? It can get to this place where it almost feels automatic. And that's based on, you know, a lot of things. But one thing that that's based on is really the reality of emotional contagion. So if I'm feeling really anxious and stressed, that's going to feed over to my partner. It's going to feed over to my child. And it doesn't mean I'm responsible for their feelings. But if I can start to interact in a way where I'm actually there for them when they're stressed and not just taking it on, right? Or I can trust that they're there for me when I'm stressed, and they're not just taking it on. I'm not just kind of throwing my stress at them. That's a really beautiful place to be. And I think that's where we start to see that. This is a hard thing to navigate.

The struggles are very valid. The exhaustion is real. The financial pressures are real. All of that is very real. But you can also get to really a place where going through this does strengthen the relationship — and in turn strengthens each individual within the relationship.

Gretchen: Well, Sarah, thank you so much for being with us today on "In It." This was such a helpful conversation.

Rachel: Yes, it was really great to learn from you. And I think it will be really helpful for a lot of families.

Sarah: Thank you. Pleasure to speak with you all. Thank you so much for having me.

Rachel: If you'd like to hear more from Sarah, check out her column at Psychology Today. It's called Life's Work.

Gretchen: So, Rachel, that was such a good conversation. And it left me with so much to think about.

Rachel: Yes, I've been thinking about it. And, you know, one big takeaway for me — and I'm guessing for for at least some of our listeners — is the idea that, you know, a lot of us kind of overthink the idea of therapy and couples therapy in particular. And, you know, it doesn't necessarily have to be this big or bad struggle, you know, to kind of feel like you, quote, qualify. Right? Like, do you have to be in crisis to go to therapy? No, absolutely not. And I, I think that this conversation was a good reminder of that. You know, it sometimes can just be really helpful for couples or families.

Gretchen: Yeah. And another good reminder I got from this conversation, speaking of not overthinking things, that if you want to connect as a couple, it doesn't have to be an elaborate thing. You know, if you can't get a babysitter and go out on a date night, you don't need to do that. Her suggestion of sharing a cup of coffee in the morning as a couple, that feels really doable to me. And I just really loved the simplicity of that suggestion.

Rachel: Yeah. And even just like watching a TV show together.

Gretchen: Yep. So let's not waste any more time talking about what we should be doing, because I'd like to go grab a maybe afternoon cup of coffee with my husband and take those five minutes.

Rachel: That sounds good. But I don't want to actually share the coffee itself because I like hazelnut and my husband does not. And that's not a thing that we have to agree on.

Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Rachel: This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at init@understood.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we cover today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources, as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Rachel: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Briana Berry is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music.

Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. And Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being in it with us.

Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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