Can being in a relationship work when you have a child with complex needs?

This is something I think about from time to time, but only obviously when I get a brief opportunity to think about regular things in life.

I first became a lone parent, when I divorced my husband (after 14 years together) and when my elder two daughters were just 6 and 8 years old. It was one of the hardest things I have had to do, to sit my children down and tell them that Mummy and Daddy were no longer going to be together. I remember the devastation and all I could do was scoop them up and try to reassure them that we were going to be okay.

It was a daunting time. How was I going to cope? How was I going to manage financially? How was I going to manage working, having students as well as lone parenting? I never expected to be doing it alone when I said ‘I do’. This wasn’t how I envisaged my life to be. However, I was strong and independent and I had to hold it together for the sake of my girls.

Sadly, it wasn’t long after we divorced that my youngest (at that time), had a frightening experience which ultimately led to her not wanting to see her Dad anymore. My eldest continued to see him but this had to be carefully planned and timed. You see, when you are an alcoholic, sadly not even your children are your top priority.

It was six years before my children started to see their Dad again and it was only as they became adults that their relationship improved with their father. As adults they were then able to make their own decisions, ie know what time of day was best to have contact or indeed when it definitely was not a good time to call if there was to be any hope of a coherent conversation.

New found love

From memory, I think it was about a year after my divorce that I ventured into the world of online dating. Having two small children meant I couldn’t go out and meet someone in the usual way. The online communication started to blossom and it was after a few months that we became an item.

I had no intention of having any more children, however as the relationship progressed, I truly thought that this was my second shot at happiness.  So after some discussion, I agreed to have a child together.

However, whilst it was initially my partners desire to have a child, once she was born, we sadly quickly drifted apart. He would be off doing his own thing, and whilst that would often be ‘doing up his flat’, which he had bought with the intention that we would both sell up and buy something together, this meant him being there and me left ‘holding the baby’ so to speak.

It also became apparent that he struggled with no longer being my centre of attention, babies needs come first right?

It was early one morning, when my youngest was 14 months old, she had been up most of the night and was still very unsettled, where he tried to soothe her by throwing her in the air and catching her. When this didn’t work, and with very little patience, he became cross with her and then cross with me when I asked for her to be handed back. Stating ‘well you just f***ing well deal with it on your own!’. It was at this point I thought ‘do you know what, I f***ing well will!’.

This was the point in our relationship that I decided it had come to an end. I was basically doing it on my own anyway.

He didn’t cope with the split at all well and his mental health rapidly deteriorated.

‘Contact’ soon came to an abrupt end

After approximately 3 months, (due to his previous mental health difficulties) he began having supervised contact with my daughter, which in time led to unsupervised contact. However, sadly this wasn’t to last. Contact would be cancelled at the last minute, there were times when he didn’t turn up at all, maintenance was sporadic and the times he had her when often spent in the pub.

The writing should have been on the wall really given the sporadic contact he had with his older child whilst we were together.

My child deserved better than to be continuously let down, left gazing out of the window desperately waiting for Daddy to arrive.

Enough was enough and I wrote to him explaining all the reasons that I was stopping contact and stating all the things that he needed to do for contact to be reinstated. To ‘be reliable’, to ‘be consistent’ to name just a couple. I truly didn’t think these were too much to ask. If he wanted to be a parent then he needed to STEP UP.

Apart from a few texts, there was no contact and it quickly became apparent that unless our relationship could be reconciled, he wasn’t interested in seeing his daughter.

She was just three years old when she saw her father for the last time. No birthday cards, no Christmas cards, nothing!

To this day, 8 years on, he has NO idea of the difficulties our daughter has. He has no idea that she was diagnosed with Autism and Pathological Demand Avoidance aged just 7 years old. He has no idea that she was further diagnosed, at 9 years old, with OCD, Multiple Anxiety Disorder, ODD, Depression and Mood Dysregulation. He has no idea that she was excluded from school multiple times before being permanently excluded, at 7 years old, which was rescinded by the Local Authority, before I pulled her out of mainstream. He has no idea that she has been in a Specialist Independent School for nearly four years. He also has no idea that due to the conditions she is diagnosed with, she is unable to control her anger, meaning that she can be violent and aggressive, resulting in me suffering hundreds, literally hundreds, of injuries over the past 6 years. He has NO IDEA at all.

This is tough on your own!

Is the grass any greener?

So having done this on my own, for what feels like forever, it got me thinking, is the grass any greener? Is it easier to share this journey with a husband, a partner?

A problem shared is a problem halved, right?

Having been a lone parent pretty much since my middle daughter was six, I have often fantasised about having someone to share the load. Someone that could do the bedtime routine for a change, or help with their homework, or comfort them when upset, or problem solve whatever problem we were facing at the time. Or someone even to do something as small and trivial as putting the bins out!

Since having my youngest and discovering that she has multiple complex needs, I have wondered what it must be like to have someone else to fight for what’s right, to challenge professionals and the system, to manage the school difficulties, to cope with what appears on the surface as irrational behaviour on a daily basis. To always be thinking one step ahead and predicting the unpredictable. To mend, repair or replace the countless things that have been damaged in the process. To be that ‘safe person’ and take the punches, bites, kicks and dodge the missiles. To be there to pick up the pieces following meltdown and reassure her life is indeed worth living!

But in reality…

I can only begin to imagine the actual reality to my hypothetical, rose tinted, vision and the difficulties that may come with being in a relationship and having a partner. Not least, the challenges that must come if there is conflict in the way you parent your child? The confusion if one is accepting of their child’s diagnosis and the other isn’t? The frustration if the other parent is mishandling any given situation?

I am sure that there must be families out there that work brilliantly together and are a true dream team. However, I am guessing that there are more families than not, that are struggling to raise their child with additional needs, as that team and without any conflict.

The strain on the relationship must be immense, and sadly many couples don’t make it. It’s tiring, it’s stressful, it’s exhausting, it’s mentally and physically draining. How do those couples that ‘make it’ have the time or energy to then put into their own relationship?  

To date or not to date?

One of the biggest challenges in meeting someone else when you have a child with additional or indeed complex needs, is you don’t go out ANYWHERE to meet anyone. Your world quickly becomes so isolated, with only a handful of contacts you can spend time with.

Even if you do meet someone, be it in the supermarket (I’m an old romantic at heart lol, but does this actually happen?) or online or anywhere else, the difficulty is then introducing that person to your child. Will your child like them? Will they like your child? How will they react when my child behaves in a bizarre manner or when my child is in meltdown? Will my child immediately become too much attached and start calling them Dad’?

There are a million different questions, challenges and potential obstacles!

Another big question is ‘am I prepared to give up the rare time I get to myself’? Do I have the energy or motivation to give to any other human being once my day comes to an end? The simple answer, sadly, is NO I do not!

In my experience, I do believe that the longer you are on your own the more selfish you become. Well ‘selfish’ may be the wrong word as it is more about ‘self-care’. If ‘self-care’ is ‘selfish’ then so be it.

Grabbing those ‘selfish’ precious moments where you can go the toilet on your own, have an uninterrupted shower or even just taking a minute to breathe, these are all ‘self-care’ moments!

When you have given every ounce of energy to your child and everything else that comes with living this special journey, there is nothing left to give, not even for yourself let alone anyone else.

Selfishly, I don’t want to have to think about cooking another meal or making conversation with someone when peace has finally prevailed.

So when did I lose the desire to meet that special someone?

I think I lost the motivation, or the time to even think about it, during the endless nights where I would be up until the early hours of the morning preparing paperwork for assessments, meetings and appointments.

Any consideration or thought about being in a relationship vanished the day when life got so exhausting I’d collapse into bed only to be grateful that we had got through another day.

I think if you are one of the elite families that are strong together, that is AMAZING! If you are lucky enough to be one of those, be grateful, be truly grateful!



  1. Ema
    April 22, 2020 / 8:26 pm

    This is a great read,
    I am a single mum with 2 boys eldest diagnosed with add and pda and my 5yd with suspected adhd and pda ,
    It is very challenging as you can imagine…
    I have been on my own for 3 years I had a relationship that lasted a year he was amazing but as you know they do better one 2 one and our bubble was working ..
    He was constantly trying to change things eventually I tried to and obviously it back fired!
    I’ve currently been dating for 4 months but I feel things are going down the same route and I’m feeling that like you said that bit of ‘time’ you get it taking up with someone else’s needs ,
    He’s amazing and accepts my boys amazing he also has 3 boys of his own one currently going through a add diagnosis so I could have found someone more in my page …
    I just can’t help but feel that I had more time and things was calmer before …
    But is that giving up ,
    Thanks for this blog it’s just what I needed!

    • April 25, 2020 / 1:47 pm

      Hi Ema

      Ahh thank you so much! Bless you, yes I can very much imagine how challenging things are for you. Relationships can be incredibly difficult but it sounds like you have met someone very much on the same page, however, this is naturally is going to impact on ‘me’ time and on the family dynamics. It’s such a difficult call and only you will know what’s right for your family. I’ve been on my own for far too long and it has made me selfish lol, but I still have hope that there are those fairy tale endings and really hope it works out for you xx

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