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Do marriages really crumble because of special needs?

This is written and posted in 2011 by community member Emily’s brother, W. Justin Dyer, Ph.D., School of Family Life,  Brigham Young University. Dr. Dyer was very interested in our discussions of the reported percentage of marriages that fail due to a child with disability. I’ve discussed this statistic with Rob Rummel-Hudson.

He wrote about the “Eighty-Five” percent here.

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It is humbling to write something about fathers of children with disabilities for this site. Almost all of my writing is for academics, using sterile language that conveys a lot of information but no emotion. But this topic often overwhelms the sterile “information” side of us leaving us almost all emotions, though these feeling are often difficult to define.

It is important to say that I do not have a child with a disability. I do have three children who, through no special effort of mine, are (as near as can be expected) perfectly healthy. My closest personal experience is with a niece of mine who was diagnosed very early with a very rare disease. Before age one she had already undergone chemotherapy. For a while it was very touch and go with her. The whole family felt like they were part of a terrible (but in many ways beautiful) process of willing a child to live another day.

And she did.

She is now very healthy and happy, though the experiences of those uncertain days are still with us. Even after much time has passed since the very worrisome time, my four year older daughter still, in each and every prayer, asks God to bless her cousin.

It is often asked how these kinds of crises with our children affect the family. We see families shattered and families strengthened through these experiences. But what is the difference between these families?

In my classes on family processes we talk about the “accentuation principle.” This principle says that family processes are often accentuated when crisis occurs. Although some families do experience a radical shift in their thinking, many families hunker down and do what is most familiar to them in a crisis. And this can be both helpful and harmful.

For example, a family that has a forgiving attitude will accentuate that in the face of a crisis. Because, by definition, the family in crisis is out of their comfort zone, family members often make mistakes. The territory they have entered is unfamiliar and they are likely to err in one way or another (often making multiple errors). The forgiving family will then have that many more opportunities to forgive each other and thus strengthen their relationships.

In contrast, some families are more apt to find fault with each other and see attacks from other family members in each word said and in each look given. When in crisis these families will find that many more opportunities to become angry, defensive, and withdraw. They are also likely to accentuate their toxic behaviors in situations not related to the crisis.

It is therefore not surprising that, on average, parents of a child with a disability are more likely to separate. But it is not necessarily because of the child. More likely it is simply that poor coping strategies that predate the child are accentuated. It’s likely that any crisis situation would have brought about similar results. In no way it is the fault of the child.

But exactly how much more common is separation among parents of children with disabilities than other parents? There are often numbers thrown around this, but no one seems to know whether these numbers have some basis in good research or not. In a recent set of analyses I conducted with colleagues at the University of Illinois, we investigated this question. How likely is it that parents of children with disabilities will separate?

In conducting a vast search of research on the topic we came up with very little on this topic. At first we thought that effects of having a child with a disability would be well documented. But in fact the little research we did find was often decades old and/or often failed to meet even basic standards of well-conducted research.

In the face of this we looked at a nationally representative survey of children born in 2001 (11,000+ children) and examined whether having a child with a disability was related to the parents separating. And, not surprisingly, it was. We examined families of children whose child was or was not diagnosed with a disability in the first four years of life. For those whose child was not diagnosed with a disability, 20% of parents separated in the first for years. For those whose child was diagnosed with a disability, 27% had separated by that fourth year. Although a 7% difference is cause for concern, it is a far less dramatic number than many have put forward.

Another question, especially given Father’s Day just passed, concerns the role fathers play in these families. How do they interact with their children with disabilities? This is a particularly important question given that mom’s stress in these families is quite high and that children benefit greatly from their fathers’ involvement in their lives. On the whole are fathers backing off from their children with disabilities, putting the mother more at risk for stress and their children at risk for greater problems? Or are fathers engaging more with these children and relieving pressure from mothers and helping out children who probably need it the most?

A partial answer to this is of course in the statistics about the likelihood of separation. Some fathers may abandon their role as a father with their separation from the mother (the child being much more likely to reside with the mother than the father after separation). While separation from the mother does not automatically imply “abandonment” of the child, research finds that although the father may initially maintain close relationships with the child after separation, often that relationship drops off substantially over a year or even a few months.

So fathers are likely much less involved if the relationship with the mother goes south.

But what about the parents who stay together?

In research we conducted with the 11,000 children mentioned above, we found that (compared to fathers of a child without a disability) fathers of children with a disability were more involved with the child in activities such as singing them a song, telling them stories, and reading to them. Importantly, these are activities likely not directly related to caring for the child’s disability. That is, fathers seem to be electing to do more “bonding” types of activities with their children with disabilities.

Further, regarding how involved the father is in taking care of the child’s needs (bathing, feeding, changing diapers), fathers of a child with a disability spent just as many hours as did fathers of a child without a disability. This meansthat, at least, fathers aren’t dropping off being engaged in these types of activities with their children with disabilities.

Thanks to recent shifts in cultural expectations of fathers, this amount of involvement isn’t trivial. Resident fathers are now spending 3-4 times as many hours a week with their children compared to just a few decades ago.

This all leaves us with a picture that is not surprising but still profound. That is, we can have a great deal of hope for those families of children with disabilities who have, even before the child came along, developed positive ways of engaging with each other. These families are more likely to stick together and the child will therefore benefit greatly from a father who is highly engaged with his child. However, those families whose patterns have much to be desired may not weather the crisis that befalls them and the child may be deprived on multiple levels.

What, then, is the suggestion for families? As is good practice at any time, when a child with special needs comes along one of the first things to do is to closely examine the family for destructive processes. Poor habits of interacting that may have been ignored up to the crisis point may become serious problems during the troubled times. Families need to accentuate the enabling family processes of open and supportive communication, commitment, and forgiveness. Accentuating these processes will create the environment needed for the couple and the parent-child relationships to thrive.

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Please visit site sponsor Build-A-Bear Workshop’s blog, where site co-founder is sharing her daughter’s journey with special needs as well as assisting on the Around the World Adventures of Champ! 

Note: To support the site we make money on some products, product categories and services that we talk about on this website through affiliate relationships with the merchants in question. We get a small commission on sales of those products.That in no way affects our opinions of those products and services.

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  1. Marisa Howard-Karp
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