Finding Your Way

How Having a Special Needs Child Strengthened Our Marriage

As Merle and I celebrate another Valentine’s Day together, we can’t help but reminisce on our decades long marriage, our love, and most importantly, our children. Christina is living her best life in New York City and Catherine is still our resident firecracker at the ripe old age of eighteen.

Our family life is pretty normal and mostly stress-free now, but that wasn’t always the case. Learning that Catherine had Down syndrome and then the subsequent treatment and surgeries for her heart defect was an unforeseen situation that added layers of stress to our marriage.

We discovered quickly that if we were to survive this, we had to do it together, as a team. We had to be on the same page and support each other or our marriage could crumble.

So, on this day dedicated to love, Merle and I look back on how the love we had for each other, the love we had for our children and the love of friends and family gave us the strength to overcome what some would consider an insurmountable challenge.


merle and lillian flakes weddingLillian and Merle credit several factors as their success for a strong marriage, the first being their faith.

Lillian: We had to figure out what the priority was and when we married, we always said God first, then each other, our children, and everything else fell in after that. And even having a child with special needs that’s medically fragile, you still need to maintain that order. When you understand that order, that is your anchor and we believe that you should be anchored in something. Our faith anchors us.

They also believe in the famous quote that “Laughter is the best medicine.” Laughter’s been a constant in their relationship ever since they started dating. Lillian says she and Merle didn’t like each other when they first met, but Merle is quick to interject that he liked Lillian, she just didn’t like him. But what they both agree on is that Merle’s jokes finally won her over and they became friends before they became a couple. That friendship became a crucial component in their marriage.

merle and lillian flakes at sur la table

Lillian: When we got married, we went through pre-marital counseling where they taught us that, “Friends don’t get divorced.” You have to remember that you’re friends. We have our strengths and weaknesses. It was a difficult season and when you know it’s a difficult season, you have to stand in your strength.

Merle: Lillian is a planner. She’s very methodical, she’s very detailed and that’s what we needed. We needed somebody who could manage all of the medical issues and manage being a full-time caregiver. And my job was to make sure that the house was taken care of: going to work, paying the bills, taking care of Christina, just keeping the day-to-day going.

Another important facet of their relationship was total honesty.

Merle: One thing we told each other is that home is a safe place to say whatever you feel, and you can say things you probably won’t say to other people, but you can say to each other. We were willing to be honest and totally vulnerable with each other. There was no judgment. I could say whatever I was feeling and she didn’t judge me and whatever she said or however she felt at any given moment, I tried not to judge her.

Lillian: And when he says “try not to”, you may not agree with what the person is saying or thinking, but you need to give them that space to know it’s safe for them to say it. It calls on you to be selfless. You’re being selfless with your child because they’re totally dependent on you. It was easy to ignore each other in an effort to make sure that Catherine and Christina got what they needed. But we still made ourselves a priority, and that wasn’t always easy.

Making their relationship a priority was difficult, but thankfully they had an amazing support system who were an integral part of their lives.

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Lillian: For five or six years, between both of our mothers, somebody was here almost all the time. And that helped take the edge off because we had the support for not only Catherine, but for us and Christina.

Merle: We made time for each other. And that’s one thing when our mothers were here and I remember both of them saying, “Look, you all need to get out of the hospital, get out of the house, go and do something with each other. Spend time with each other.” Because they realized the importance of that time. When you have extended support from extended family, it helps you not forget. There were some times it was really heavy. It could be really intense. And there were times you didn’t just need time with each other, you need time to yourself. You needed to go and do things just for yourself so you could come back and be in the family in a way that you needed to be.

Now that Catherine’s older and more self-sufficient, the constant stress and turmoil has passed, but raising a child with special needs, there’ll always be challenges. Finding suitable extracurricular activities, therapy programs, initiatives, etc. But what won’t be a challenge is how Lillian and Merle these issues. After 18 years, they’ve cultivated a strong, supportive partnership for themselves and Catherine that will survive any hardships that comes their way.

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Written by Tamara Devers

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