Developmental Disabilities Leadership Forum: Leadership Perspectives in Developmental Disability: An on-line Journal for Consumers, Professionals, Family and Friends
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Volume 3 , Issue 1 Date: Spring, 2003 Topic: Expectations Through Life's Passages

After the Wedding, There’s the Marriage

by Nancy Fliesler

My sister and her husband made the local newspaper when they married in 1993, but I like to think that marriage between developmentally disabled people is no longer considered exotic. So far, Marni and Kris seem to be experiencing ups and downs like any other couple.

They married in their 20s. Both were living with roommates in supportive apartments in New York City, and Kris proposed to Marni after a Halloween party, while they were throwing out the garbage. Marni, thinking it was a joke at first, immediately accepted.

“There were no obstacles to us getting married,” Marni says. “No one said, ‘you can’t do it because you’re disabled.’” Both sets of parents supported the marriage. Marni and Kris had dated for seven years and knew each others’ families. In fact, our mother knew about the engagement before Marni did: Kris’s mother tipped her off that Kris was buying Marni a ring. Kris adds, “Marni’s mom found a nicer place for the wedding than what I picked out.”

A year before the wedding, Marni and Kris went to see a marriage counselor on the advice of their social service organization. Marni remembers little about the sessions; Kris says they talked “all about how to have sex.”

During the wedding planning, Marni faced a moral dilemma: Should she invite our older sister Vicki, who has severe autism and sometimes behaves very oddly? “It would have just been too much,” Marni finally decided. “I was worried that Vicki might have gotten upset, and I wouldn’t have had time to really watch her.” Her real fear was that Vicki would have a tantrum and ruin her wedding. Our parents supported Marni’s choice, but Marni still feels some guilt.

After the wedding, and after a honeymoon cruise to Bermuda, came the marriage. They got an apartment together in Marni’s building. “Newlywedhood was really hard,” Marni says, “because you’re strangers and you don’t know each other, really.”

Early in the marriage, Marni was sexually assaulted at work, while cleaning the men’s room at McDonald’s. “I was having nightmares in my brain about that incident,” she says. “It put a strain on my marriage. I withdrew from everyone, especially Kris. I didn’t want to become close to him.” Eventually, she eventually sought therapy and things gradually got better.

Aside from my parents, who Kris phones at least once a day, a key support in their lives is their counselor Mavis, who is in the building every day and takes them grocery shopping every week. “Mavis is always there when you need her,” Marni says. “Whether you need a hug, or some advice, whether it’s financial or marital or cooking tips, Mavis does it all.”

Mavis is the one who will urge Marni, who never spends money on herself, to get her hair cut so she will look nice for her husband. “She says ‘Marni, don’t do this’ if she thinks it will get on Kris’s nerves,” Marni says. “Or she’ll say that to Kris about me.”

Marni works at a Goodwill sheltered workshop processing clothing donations. Kris works 2-3 days a week at Kids R Us, doing maintenance and stockroom work. They divide the household chores, and help each other with everything. Marni often translates for Kris, whose speech is hard to understand, and Kris has taken Marni to the emergency room during her asthma attacks.

They decided not to have children, and eventually took steps to prevent that from happening. Kris was the first to realize that they couldn’t take on the responsibility. Marni is saddened by the decision, but they compensate by spending as much time as possible with their niece and nephew.

For fun, Marni and Kris watch TV, videos, and DVDs together, go out for dinner, go to the zoo, go on vacations, and laugh together. “Most of the time on Sundays we’re together,” Marni says. “We go to breakfast, then we’re out and about, to Target or whatever. I love spending Sundays with Kris.”

“She’s someone who’s funny, someone I really care about,” says Kris. “She’s a warm-hearted person. It’s fun to have her around.”

Several years ago, Marni and Kris saw a counselor again. “We were fighting,” Marni says. “We still fight sometimes, but as long as we respect each other’s differences, things are okay.

“Some things aren’t important to Kris, but they’re important to me,” she adds. “He hates sports, but I like sports. Sometimes we fight when Kris doesn’t like something I like. I came from a family where certain things weren’t said. Like opinions. You don’t always have to express them.”

For her part, “I try not to do things that annoy Kris. But sometimes I can’t help it, like the dizziness problem which has been going on for a year.”

“Marni gets dizzy every night,” says Kris. “I want her to sit down, so she doesn’t fall down and hurt herself. But she doesn’t listen half the time. When she cleans, she gets dizzy. It’s not safe to be cleaning when you don’t have balance.”

About two years ago, Marni was actually on the verge of leaving Kris.

“It was pouring rain, and we were nitpicking with each other,” Kris remembers. They left their apartment to go to the movies, but “I got on the subway, and she missed it.” (Kris always walks about a block ahead of Marni, who walks slowly.) “I went home, and she said ‘I’m leaving you.’”

“I was really mad at Kris,” Marni says. “I was going to just get out of this marriage. I never quite figured out where I was going to go. Luckily, we got help just at the right time.”

My mother remembers Kris calling on the phone, crying. Kris’s mom got involved, also.

“My mother-in-law spoke to me, and we went out to dinner that night, just Kris and I,” Marni says. “We talked about our lives together, and how much we meant to each other, and most importantly how much we loved each other.”

Kris says that marriage for him has been about learning to compromise, and not taking it personally if Marni’s in a bad mood. A sense of humor has been essential to their marital happiness. “If you’ve got problems, talk them over,” Kris advises, “but not on the Jerry Springer show.” They celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary this year.
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Note: The author, Nancy Fliesler, made a 47-minute documentary about Marni and Kris called Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown, which has screened at film festivals and conferences around the country. For information, to purchase the film on VHS see www.nansonaproductions.com and click on 'Lifestyles,' or email nfliesler@nansonaproductions.com. For information on booking Marni and Kris for speaking engagements, see www.nansonaproductions.com/lifestyles/project.asp.

The author with Marni and KrisNancy Fliesler is a freelance producer, editor, and writer specializing in science, medicine, mental health, and environmental issues. Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown, drawing on her family’s experience, is her first film. She has worked for ABC News in the medical unit of Dr. Timothy Johnson, where she produced spots for Good Morning America; as a production manager and Avid editor for the Boston-Based Mental Illness Education Project; and as an associate producer of educational television programs about physics, geared to teachers, for the Harvard-Smithsonian Science Media Group. She recently managed production of the children’s fantasy film, Act Your Age!

Fliesler holds a B.A. from Oberlin College (Phi Beta Kappa) and an M.S. in science and medical journalism from Boston University.

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