Child-rearing can have profound effects on marriages and relationships between parents. For parents raising children with disabilities, the effects may be heightened.
This is not to say that these relationships are doomed to failure. Many parents of children with disabilities report enduring, happy relationships, and some note that their parenting experiences strengthen their bonds with one another. However, it is important to recognize that caring for a child with a disability can introduce unique challenges into a romantic partnership. An improved understanding of these challenges may help parents maintain and improve their relationships.
Here, we discuss academic research on this topic, as well as expert advice.
Relationship quality varies widely
Reichman et al. (2008) note that living with or raising a child with a disability can have both positive and negative effects on family members. They write that, “On the positive side, it can broaden horizons, increase family members’ awareness of their inner strength, enhance family cohesion, and encourage connections to community groups…” However, as they go on to explain, “Surprisingly little is known about the ripple effects of child disability on the family. Population-based research, particularly demographic or economic outcomes, is scant. Existing studies indicate that having an infant with a serious health condition or health risk increases the likelihood that parents divorce or live apart…” (1).
Although Reichman et al. are correct in their assertion that our knowledge is still fairly limited, researchers have been investigating this topic since the 1950s. In 2011, Sigan L. Hartley and colleagues (2) synthesized these studies into a new paper, adding the results of their own research.
Like Reichman et al., Hartley et al. emphasize that the impacts of raising a child with a disability are often mixed. They quote one of their interviewees, the mother of a son with fragile X syndrome, who told them, “There have been times when it has been a real strain on the marriage. But overall I think it’s made me a better person. And it has made my husband and I a stronger couple.”
Hartley et al. explain that it is difficult to assess how a child’s disability can impact their parents’ marriage because these relationships are complex and multi-faceted, and different studies have used different methodologies (e.g. reported vs. observed measures or considering only certain aspects of relationships). Nevertheless, by combining previous studies with their own work, they were able to determine that the following factors can influence parents’ relationships.
The nature of a child’s diagnosis
Hartley et al. note that certain childhood disabilities may lead to more parental stress than others, and that these varying stress levels can impact their relationships. They cite prior research (3), which demonstrated that parents of children with physical conditions such as cerebral palsy (CP) or congenital heart disease had a higher rate of divorce than parents of children with intellectual disabilities. Additionally, there is evidence that parents of children with Down syndrome tend to have higher-quality marriages than parents of children with other types of developmental disabilities.
The child’s age
Most research on marital quality has focused on parents of young children with developmental disabilities. Less is known about how these relationships may change as the child ages, but research suggests that the type and extent of challenges these parents face can fluctuate over time. Certain transitions, such as the start of adulthood, can be especially stressful. For example, parents may begin to struggle more in their relationships as their child enters the teenage years.
Number of children
Because some developmental disabilities are genetic, parents may have multiple children with a disability. Research has shown that this can cause chronic stress and impact physiological health (2, 4). As Hartley et al. explain, “It is likely that the added parenting stress and reduced resources of parents caring for multiple children with a disability may place them at greater risk of negative spousal interactions.”
Type of coping strategies
Although the aforementioned variables may be out of parents’ control, this is an area in which parents may be able to make adjustments. Hartley et al. write that, “Parents who report having high levels of social support and who report using high levels of problem-focused coping (i.e., attempts to alter the stressor) or positive reappraisal coping (i.e., reframing event in a more positive light) report more positive psychological well-being than do parents who report using escape-avoidance and other maladaptive emotion-focused coping efforts…” (2).
Likewise, parents who employ escape-avoidance coping may experience greater marital strife. Making a conscious effort to alter their coping strategy may improve their relationships.
The role of research in shaping clinical practice
In counseling parents of children with disabilities, clinicians should reassure them that many marriages like theirs not only survive, but thrive. However, they should also explain relevant risk factors for relationship difficulties, and discuss healthy coping mechanisms.
Hartley et al. suggest that, “In order to be most effective, couples therapy should be tailored to the challenges faced by parents of sons and daughters with DD. For instance, parents should be guided in identifying strategies to enhance their marital relationship, such as learning how to communicate, provide support to each other, and carve our private couple time amidst their daily caregiving demands and stressors.”
The researchers also emphasize that resultant improvements in parents’ happiness could also translate to better parenting behaviors, thereby also improving the wellbeing of children with disabilities.
Tips for parents of children with disabilities
Dr. Laura Marshak, a professor at Indiana University and author of “Married with Special Needs Children: A Couples’ Guide to Keeping Connected,” provided some useful tips to Washington Post readers (5). Marshak recommends that parents work to embrace and respect their differences, be proactive in addressing resentments, carve out time for romance/dates whenever possible, and work to really appreciate each other’s efforts.
She also advises parents to spend 20-30 minutes a day connecting with each other, without talking about their children. She notes that this can help parents stay focused on what they love about each other, rather than focusing solely on their roles as caregiving partners.
To read more about Marshak’s advice, take a look at her insightful interview here.
About ABC Law Centers
ABC Law Centers was established to focus exclusively on birth injury cases. A “birth injury” is any type of harm to a baby that occurs just before, during, or after birth. This includes issues such as oxygen deprivation, infection, and trauma. While some children with birth injuries make a complete recovery, others develop disabilities such as cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
If a birth injury/subsequent disability could have been prevented with proper care, then it constitutes medical malpractice. Settlements from birth injury cases can cover the costs of lifelong treatment, care, and other crucial resources.
If you believe you may have a birth injury case for your child, please contact us today to learn more. We are happy to talk to you free of any obligation or charge. In fact, clients pay nothing throughout the entire legal process unless we win.
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- Reichman, N. E., Corman, H., & Noonan, K. (2008). Impact of child disability on the family. Maternal and child health journal, 12(6), 679-683.
- Hartley, S. L., Seltzer, M. M., Barker, E. T., & Greenberg, J. S. (2011). Marital quality and families of children with developmental disabilities. In International review of research in developmental disabilities (Vol. 41, pp. 1-29). Academic Press.
- Joesch, J. M., & Smith, K. R. (1997). Children’s health and their mothers’ risk of divorce or separation. Social Biology, 44(3-4), 159-169.
- Orsmond, G. I., Lin, L. Y., & Seltzer, M. M. (2007). Mothers of adolescents and adults with autism: Parenting multiple children with disabilities. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 45(4), 257-270.
- Williams, M.-J. (2014). How to take care of your marriage when you have a child with special needs. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2014/02/18/how-to-take-care-of-your-marriage-when-you-have-a-child-with-special-needs/