Tips for Supporting Your Spouse or Partner with LD
Sometimes a journey into the world of learning disabilities (LD) begins with a family member or partner.
Like me, you may have first noticed a sister struggling to grasp particular concepts in elementary school or a brother struggling to write his letters. I remember listening to my parents work with my sister on math skills and witnessing her frustration to keep up with class assignments. Your parents may have practiced writing letters and numbers with your brother and met more frequently with his teachers. As you were growing up, you may have been confused or unsure of why your brother or sister was struggling when you could grasp the concepts more easily.
Learning disabilities began its emergence as a formal category of diagnosis in the early ‘70s and funding to develop educational methods for students with LD didn’t begin until 1977 and only at the university level. If you, your siblings, or partner attended school during the ‘80s or earlier, it is likely that teaching methods designed to work with those with LD had not yet been widely introduced, and it’s also unlikely that there was much (if any) classroom discussion about learning disabilities – what they are and what they are not.
Your partner or spouse might also be your first introduction to LD. I remember when my husband and I first got together and how perplexed I would get when his normally laid-back personality would become strangely resistant. You might also witness a level of frustration that seems excessive for the situation at hand. Behaviors like these may be clues that your partner is struggling with challenges associated with his or her LD in a particular situation.
It took a few conversations, but I finally learned more about my husband’s unique challenges. Although he was tested and diagnosed with a learning disability through the school in the seventh grade (1983), the exact nature of his LD was never explained to him. His mother was unsure how to advocate for him and an IEP was never developed. He continued to struggle, eventually dropping out of high school and earning his GED. As an adult, he searched for answers and discovered that he matched most of the characteristics associated with dyslexia. That process of discovery led to him to realize his father likely has dyslexia as well.
Traits and Tips
With the insight of knowing about a partner’s learning disability, you can begin to work around these challenges. Here are some common traits that run among many with learning disabilities and some tips for how to be supportive:
- Routine is king. Having familiar patterns are often reassuring to people who have LD. When we moved to a new city, I learned to take consistent routes to various places and, if I took a different route, reviewed it on a map with my partner before or after taking it.
- Spontaneity can be unsettling. Sometimes personal styles can be conflicting. You might like to keep a schedule loose and try new things whereas your partner prefers predictability and familiarity. Learning to find a balance is key. One solution may be for you to suggest doing something out of the routine earlier in the day, giving your partner time to adjust to the thought.
- Prepare for confusing environments. Some environments can be overwhelming to individuals with LD whose minds may demand that they pay attention to all stimuli equally or who have difficulty filtering out noise to focus on one conversation. Finding quieter restaurants and activities can alleviate this challenge. When the activity will be loud or confusing, consider agreeing to stay a certain amount of time which gives you both the freedom to enjoy the event and the assurance of leaving before it becomes too overwhelming.
- Just a few tasks at a time.When there are too many things to think about, sometimes people with LD find it hard to focus on one. When asking your partner to help with tasks around the house, consider asking him or her to complete one to three things. Then, when finished, you can ask for some others. This same approach can be used for a quick visit to the grocery store, focusing on the top five to seven items needed most. Asking for help this way provides a reasonable set of responsibilities for your partner to accomplish.
- Organization is likely not a strength. Creating the mental hierarchy necessary for organization can be another challenge for those with specific learning disabilities. You may need to establish the filing system or determine what gets stored where in the garage or home to help your partner understand where to locate important documents and resources.
- There are many ways to share information. It is important to recognize the many communication styles individuals use. Instead of providing only written lists or instructions, consider telling your partner verbally and providing just a few key words to jog their memory. Another way to share important information is to have one partner read important information and share it verbally with the other one.
- Consider the children. With LD frequently running in families, it is important to keep an eye open if you and your partner have children. If you notice that one of your children is struggling in school, have a candid discussion about the possibility that your child may have inherited some form of LD. Together you can come up with a plan for how each of you can help your child. When parents work together on this, it will increase the chances that the child will experience a nurturing and supporting environment.
- Frustration can run both ways.Remember that how each person approaches and copes with life’s experiences is valid. Keep in mind that it may be equally frustrating for the person with LD to communicate with or accommodate a partner who does not see the world as he or she does. Open communication, understanding, compromise, and forgiveness are at the heart of any successful relationship.
Cathy Chlarson grew up in a large family in rural Arizona. After attending college, she moved to San Francisco where she lived for 15 years before returning to the Phoenix metro area to raise her own family.
 Learning Disabilities: Historical Perspectives; Daniel P. Hallahan, University of Virginia, & Cecil D. Mercer, University of Florida