Are Divorce Rates Really Higher for Parents of Kids With Disabilities?


Perhaps your child has just been diagnosed with a life-threatening or life-changing diagnosis. You might be dealing with all the emotions, grief and stress that comes with this new normal. As you begin sharing this news with others, one of the first things you might be told is that the rate of divorce is much higher with families like yours.

This might be the last thing you want to hear. Your child has just been diagnosed with a major issue, with which you’re trying to come to terms with. This in and of itself is life-altering huge. Now, you have to add on top of that worrying about whether or not you’ll beat the odds on the new marriage category you have just been put in statistically? This feels like adding insult to injury.

A while ago I was working on a blog post on autism and I was going to mention this statistic, but I stopped and thought I should look this up and see what the current stats are. I found plenty of articles to back this opinion, like this one in the Huffington Post, or this one on Families.com. However, what drew me in was a research study published by the National Institute of Health. I wanted to look at this one because I knew it would have excellent sources and reliable information. What I found surprised me.

Previous studies have shown there was an increased risk of divorce, however, one of the problems with these studies is that it only looks at snapshots of time, only looking at school-aged kids or adult children. It doesn’t look at the lifetime of the marriage.

The Wisconsin Longitudinal Study which the NIH published, offers excellent insight into whether or not the divorce rate is higher for families with children with disabilities. The results of a 50-year study was published in 2015.

“…we found that divorce rates were not elevated, on average, in families with a child with developmental disabilities. However, in small families, there was a significantly higher risk of divorce relative to a normative comparison group. “

The results found that there was about a 2 percent higher risk, and when you are talking statistics, there is a 3 percent margin of error, making the difference negligible.

They did, however, find an interesting result about family size. Among families without kids with disabilities, the more children they had, the more likely they were to divorce. However, the opposite is true of families that have children with disabilities. If they had more children they were less likely to divorce. They hypothesized that perhaps it was due to the care of the child with disabilities being distributed amongst more people and easier to manage, also providing extra support as the parents age.

The study did have limitations which should be noted: there were not many minority populations represented within the study and the study was conducted with a cohort of people who tended to get married younger and have more children than today’s couples.

Future studies are warranted to see if the study can be replicated and if it continues to hold true for the later marriages and fewer children that are being found in today’s families. However, it has been found in other studies that marriage later in life generally makes for a more stable marriage, so I believe it is unlikely that would change the result. Due to this being a longitudinal study and the rigorous methods used to take into account known issues to factor into divorce, I feel this is a good snapshot of what things look like within many of our families.

The takeaway is that there is hope. You aren’t doomed to divorce your spouse. Your marriage will take work and care, like anyone else’s, but you have just as much of a chance to make it work as anyone else.

So ignore this statistic that gets thrown at you and go spend time with your spouse and child.

Previously published on Parent Co. January 25, 2018.

Getty image by Noel Hendrickson


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