Are Divorce Rates Really Higher for Families With Special Needs Kids?

by Calleen Petersen January 25, 2018

broken Bridegroom and Bride Sculpture

Your child has just been diagnosed with a life-threatening or life-changing diagnosis. You are dealing with all the emotions, grief, and stress that come with your new normal. As you begin sharing this news with others, one of the first things you're told is that the rate of divorce is much higher with families like yours. This is really 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. This in and of itself is life-altering. Now, you have to worry about whether you'll beat the odds of the marriage category you've just been placed in, statistically speaking? This feels like a slap in the face. Sometime ago, I decided to look this up and see what the current stats are. I found plenty of articles to back up this opinion, like this one in the Huffington Post and this one on What drew me in, however, was a research study published by the National Institute of Health.

And what I found surprised me. Previous studies have shown that there was an increased risk of divorce, but one of the problems with these studies is that they only look at snapshots of time – studying school-aged kids, for example, or adult children. They didn't consider 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 Special Needs children. The results of the 50-year study were 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 two percent higher risk. When you figure in a statistical margin of error of three percent, the difference is negligible. They did, however, find an interesting result about family size. Among families without special needs, the more children they had, the more likely they were to divorce. The opposite is true of families with Special Needs children. If they had more children, they were less likely to divorce. The study hypothesized that perhaps it was due to the care of the child with Special Needs being distributed amongst more people, making it easier to manage and also providing extra support as the parents age.

I should note a few limitations of the study: There were not many minority populations represented within the study, and it 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 findings can be replicated. It has been found in other studies that marriage later in life generally makes for a more stable marriage, so it is unlikely that that would change the result.

Due to the longitudinal nature of the study and the rigorous methods used, I feel this is a good snapshot of what things look like within many of our families. What we can take away from this study is that there is hope. You aren't doomed to divorce your spouse. Your marriage will take work and care, like any other person’s marriage, 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.

Calleen Petersen


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