Parents of children with congenital heart disease

How it affects relationships

Discovering that your unborn baby or child has a congenital heart defect can put great pressure on the relationship between parents. Some couples become closer, others can suffer a breakdown of their relationship. Here parents talk about the effect on their relationship and how they found ways to cope as a couple.

Some parents said their relationship had become stronger since they discovered their child had a heart condition. One father describes the admiration he had for how his wife handled things and how he had realised how important it was that they had each other to rely on. Another couple said that the time they had been able to spend together while looking after their son had made their relationship stronger.

When a child or baby is ill over a long period of time it can be difficult to find someone who is willing to look after him or her. This can result in parents spending less time together as couple. One couple who had no family close by, explained that it was when tension was eased after their child's operation that they noticed stress in their relationship. They were planning to go away together without the children for the first time in five years.

Another couple emphasised the importance of recognising each other's needs, which can be forgotten when parents' energies are focused on their ill child. One mother explains how she had made a conscious effort to spend time with her husband when their daughter was in hospital, going out for meals and trying to spend time with him rather than allowing herself to focus exclusively on their ill daughter and neglecting her husband.

In some cases, marriages or relationships had broken down. One mother commented that having a child with a heart condition had put an enormous strain on her marriage, which had led to their separation, but she also said that she now has a better relationship with her son's father and he has a good relationship with his children.

Another mother explains that she felt a major part of why her marriage ended was because she and her husband didn't talk about their feelings with each other. She comments that it is hard to make time for each other when you are preoccupied day and night with your ill child.

A few couples coped by not telling each other how they felt about their child's heart condition.

Many parents realised how much they relied on each other for support and said that having each other had been incredibly important in their ability to cope. For example, if one parent was having a down day and the other was coping well, they could support their partner.

Sometimes the balance within relationships changes and one partner finds she or he has to be the strong one. The strain and pressure on couples can be considerable when a child is in hospital, and a few parents said that they had had many more arguments than usual.

Parents may react in different ways and can find it difficult to accept these differences. However, several parents had been able to share roles, so that one or other could cope better with taking their child to the anaesthetist's room, talking to the doctors, or signing the consent form.

Last reviewed December 2014.

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