In my first decade involved in disability issues, I repeatedly heard people claim that marriages involving parents of children with disabilities had a divorce rate of more than 75 percent. So when I began my education leading to becoming a licensed professional counselor, I chose that particular topic as an area of research interest to see if this really was true. What I learned should surprise you.
After reviewing the literature, I found no credible evidence married couples raising children with disabilities experienced that high of a divorce rate. At best, the research suggested only a slight increase. In one study involving married couples raising children with Down syndrome, the research actually found a divorce rate lower than the national average.
In other words, so many people have been quoting this 75 percent or higher figure so long, nearly everyone has assumed it true. Yet not one website of an organization I have found mentioning the 75 percent or higher figure has cited credible research to buttress its claims, except to quote other organizations failing to cite credible research. I guess if you speak untruths long enough, people will believe it.
For example, a Tennessee study from 1990-2002 involving 370,000 children found married parents of children with Down syndrome having a divorce rate 4 percent lower than other married parents. Also in this study, married parents of children with “other birth defects” had a divorce rate 3.6 percent higher, which, though higher, wasn’t 75 percent.
Other studies I found showed similar divorce rates. For example, Risdal and Singer (2004) combined six studies of divorce rates among parents raising children with spina bifida, cognitive disabilities, cerebral palsy, autism, and phenylketonuria and found a divorce rate increase of 5.97 percent above average. Again, that’s not 75 percent. However, the research I found did suggest a divorce rate spike the first two years after birth before leveling out.
So what does all this mean? Many things. For one, even though marriages involving children with disabilities certainly undergo stress, I found no research to suggest this stress was any worse than that experienced by parents of non-disabled children. Their stress was just different. Also, in part, I found a body of research showing parents often have stronger marriages because of their experiences raising children with disabilities.