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

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With the work I do, I hear statements like: “Parents have a (insert any number over 80%) chance of becoming divorced after having a child with disabilities.” In fact, on one of the Facebook support groups I belong to, a well-known and highly experienced special needs parent quoted (and swore) by a 92% divorce rate. This is not only false, statements like this create a lot of fear…especially in newly diagnosed families. We were one of those families…and when I first heard this, it scared the hell out of me. Would it really be possible for Dan and I to divorce?! Talk about putting grief on top of grief. Sheesh!

Before I dive into this post, I want to be clear: Divorce happens whether you have a child with disabilities or not. I also believe that having a child like Hudsyn DOES increase stress, caregiving fatigue and monetary strain on a family. That being said, I don’t believe kids with disabilities are the SOLE reason for parents divorcing. In addition, how will your child feel one day when they hear (or read on social media) you quoting opinions like this? What kind of guilt does that then impose on their brains and (already stressed) bodies?

If you’d like to dive into the actual research that’s been done on this topic, please read this article from The Mighty by Calleen Petersen. You can also sift through the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study that the National Institue of Health published in 2015 after 50 years of data.

The Bottom Line

…we found that divorce rates were not elevated, on average, in families with a child with developmental disabilities.

There was only a 2% higher risk for divorce…and if you factor in the well-known margin of error when doing research (3%), that increase is extremely negligible. However, families who have more children (not any whom had disabilities) the divorce rate increased. Interestingly, if that same large family had a child with special needs, the divorce rate decreased. The researchers assumed this might be because the caregiving responsibility is distributed amongst other siblings.

No matter your takeaways from the factual data, let’s be honest…having a kiddo with special needs is challenging. Its especially challenging on a relationship. Even though Dan and I have always been incredibly close, we struggle (just like everyone else) when it comes to managing the marriage.

5 Tips on How We Manage Marital Stress

  1. Seek Professional Help: One of the best and MOST effective tactics Dan and I did in the beginning of Hudsyn’s journey was hire a professional therapist. We were fortunate that the Children’s Hospital where Hudsyn was treated offered this to us while she was still in the NICU. We saw our therapist weekly (sometimes more than once a week) that first year. To this day, we still make appointments when it feels like we’re drowning, overwhelmed or just experiencing some challenging things as a couple/family. This was so critical in our ability to learn how to process grief. Many of the other tools mentioned below came from these sessions.

  2. Find Other Parents or Caregivers Like You: Social media offers a wide variety of ways to connect with other parents (or caregivers) that have a child with a similar diganosis. You can also look into organizations that support your child’s different diagnoses (Epilepsy Foundation, Charlie Foundation, United Cerebral Palsy, National Down Syndrome Society, etc). Many of them have family support groups and events. When Hudsyn was first given the HIE diagnosis, and later a whole host of other things (Cerebral Palsy, Structural Focal Epilepsy, Cortical Vision Impairment, Lennox Gestaut Syndrome, etc), I found the easiest and most accessible support was talking with other moms online who also had babies with HIE. When the scary questions came up, I had my tribe of parents to ask. If Hudsyn exhibited a strange behavior, I could show a video to this group and get feedback before discussing with our team of doctors. One of these moms even helped us figure out how to access state benefits Hudsyn (and us) desperately needed at that time. NO state agency, hospital social worker or case manager ever gave us this level of support. Finding and nourishing your tribe is one of the best things you can do to stay mentally (and emotionally) healthy.

  3. Write 3 Daily Gratitudes: Research states that writing a minimum of three things you’re grateful for will change your life for the better. In fact, new research reports that coupling this activity with active, professional psychological counseling yields high results. I’ve written about gratitude many times. Those who follow me on Facebook know I’ve done daily gratitudes since March 2011 when I was in a very dark place after Hudsyn’s traumatic birth. Daily (not weekly) gratitudes not only saved my life, they literally allowed me to heal and become who I am today. I was so into this, Bonfire and I created a t-shirt for those who wanted to support Hudsyn’s journey so they, too, could promote the idea of gratitude as their attitude. This tactic was the foundation for both Dan and I to have the sheer ability to start See The Seitz and communicate with you regularly about how much we truly love our life.

  4. Make Date Night a Priority: This sounds like a no-brainer, but when you have a child with “extra” caregiving needs, it is sometimes challening to step away for an evening, let alone a few hours. But try it. Force yourselves to find support and time each week where you can talk without being interrupted; make out or simply sit quietly with each other, holding hands. Because Hudsyn requires increased care for her medical needs, we use a local organization called Helpers, Inc. to hire caregivers. Her Medicaid waiver pays for this, which is an extra financial savings for us. Care.com also has a program that allows you to hire trained caregivers for children with special needs that might be great for your family in your state. We have an awesome support system we’ve worked diligently at creating and maintaining for her. For Damek, we can generally find a friend’s house or family who will take him for an evening if the hired caregiver won’t do both (and agree to be paid separately for Damek). Dan and I had a very strong connection in the beginning of our relationship and it was important to us to not lose sight of each other’s wants, hopes and dreams.

  5. Give Each Other Breaks: At least once a week, Dan and I allow the other person to sleep in on the weekend. That means, the person who is resting is allowed to have no alarm for as long as they want. The person who had (potentially) less sleep is then allowed to have a nap after Snoozy Pants wakes up. Sleep is probably the number one need that both of us have and rarely get. That’s why this idea is so effective. When I’m tired, I can’t listen, function or feel my best. I’m snippy and inevitably arguments ensue over trivial topics. And many times, after prolonged sleep deprivation, I get royally sick (pneumonia, strep throat, bronchitis, flu, etc) and am down for a week. You can also trade off on basic responsibilities like the laundry, washing the dishes or mowing the lawn. Hell, hire a cleaning service once a week to do the really deep-dive cleaning none of us enjoys doing (baseboards, windows, toilets, showers, etc). Figure out how to give each other these simple breaks in life and you’ll become closer as a couple and healthier as individuals.

While I think divorce is a very real and very serious issue in our society, I don’t believe it’s caused solely by having a child with disabilities. Furthermore, the majority of the responsibility of a marriage is on the two people who committed to one another in the first place (for better or for worse). It takes incredible amounts of time, energy and work to keep a marriage together. That being said, some people SHOULD get divorced because it then becomes a better (and healthier) situation for everyone. But let’s stop passing around false statistics and instead decide to make marriage a priority just like we do our children.

My Tribe at Hilton Head, NC #APMB

My Tribe at Hilton Head, NC #APMB

 
 
Hopester, Alyssia Weinzetl, in 2015 with her Gratitude shirt at Disney!

Hopester, Alyssia Weinzetl, in 2015 with her Gratitude shirt at Disney!