It has been written 100s of times and repeated 100s of thousands of times:
“…about 70 percent of US couples with disabled children get divorced”
“…the divorce rate among parents of autistic children is 75 percent”
“…parents [of children with developmental disabilities] have an 80% chance of divorce”
“… estimates put the divorce rate among parents of children with severe disabilities as high as four out of five marriages.”
“…upwards of a 90% divorce rate if there’s a damaged baby in the house”
but there are two problems with these statements. First, THEY ARE NOT TRUE and, more importantly, THEY ARE DANGEROUS. As a researcher and as a parent of a child with severe disabilities, I looked for the studies that these claims were based on back in the 1990s and found that they didn’t exist. In fact, there were several studies that directly contradicted these claims.
Since that time, nothing has changed. A 2015 study, based on a random sample of more than 7000 parents reported:
“parents of children with developmental disabilities did not experience an increased risk of divorce relative to comparison group parents, after adjusting for individual, marital or family characteristics of the parent” and “counter to our hypothesis, the risk of divorce of the two groups of parents was not significantly different” (Namkung, Song, Greenberg, Mailick, & Floyd, 2015)
This has basically been the finding of several other studies. Some studies have reported small differences between families with children with severe disabilities and other families but not a single well-conducted study reports the catastrophic claims cited above. Furthermore, the small differences reported in those studies might be better explained by other variables than the child’s disability. For example, children with disabilities are more likely to born to families with pre-existing substance abuse and family violence problems which also are strong predictors of marriage breakdown. These correlations may add to any apparent connection between a child’s disability and divorce..
A recent Norwegian study (Tøssebro, & Wendelborg, 2017), found that parents of children with disabilities were more likely to continue to live together over the future years than parents of children without disabilities were. Of course, we should not blame children without disabilities for braking up their families, but it is just as illogical to blame children with disabilities for their parents marital difficulties.
From my perspective, however, the most important thing is not how wrong this myth is, but rather how dangerous it is. Families of children with severe and multiple disabilities have enough challenges to deal with, and being told that their child will destroy their marriage does not help. When families are already struggling, this myth can undermine any remaining hope, and may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Of course, every family is different. But it is important to know that, if both parents are committed to each other and their family, the marriage can survive and emerge stronger than before this challenge.
McConnell, D., Savage, A., Sobsey, D. & Uditsky, B. (2014). Benefit-finding or finding benefits? The positive impact of children with disabilities. Disability & Society. DOI:10.1080/09687599.2014.984803
Namkung, E.H., Song, J., Greenberg, J.S.., Mailick, M.R., & Floyd, F.J. (2015). The Relative Risk of Divorce in Parents of Children with Developmental Disabilities: Impacts of Lifelong Parenting. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities., 120(6), 514–526. doi: 10.1352/1944-7558-120.6.514
Scorgie, K., & Sobsey, D. (2000). Transformational outcomes associated with parenting children with disabilities. Mental Retardation, 38(3), 195-206.
Sobsey, D. (2004). Marital stability and marital satisfaction in families of children with disabilities: Chicken or egg? Developmental Disabilities Bulletin, 32(1), 62-83.
Tøssebro, J. & Wendelborg, C. (2017). Marriage, Separation and Beyond: A
Longitudinal Study of Families of Children with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in a Norwegian Context. JARID: Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 30, 121–132