Divorce Rates Among Families of Children with Disabilities

By David Morstad

Why talk about divorce in the context of this blog? What does divorce have to do with disability? The answer is simply this: Many still believe that disability has a great deal to do with divorce. While the available data on divorce rates among families of children with disabilities remains somewhat limited, informal and anecdotal reports continue to cite numbers that appear wildly exaggerated — some as high as 75 – 80%. Two recent studies, both credible and informative, suggest a somewhat different picture.

Data related to the sad reality of divorce in America can be interpreted a number of ways, but let’s keep it simple.

According to the most recent US census (2009), most divorces happen early in marriage. If you take the fifth anniversary as a benchmark, a clear trend emerges. In the early 1960s, about 5% of married couples divorced before reaching five years of marriage. By the late 1990s, that number had risen to about 10%.

In 2010, researchers at the Waisman Center, a University Center of Excellence in Disability at the University of Wisconsin, looked at 391 parents of children with autism and 391 similar families with children who did not have a disability. They matched the two groups by age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and the age and gender of the children. Parents in both groups were part of two long-running studies that tracked families for decades. They found that parents of children with autism had a nearly 24% chance of divorce, compared to parents in the other group who divorced about 14% of the time. At the time the study was first published, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provided a nice synopsis.

Earlier, in a 2007 study at the Vanderbilt University Kennedy Center, researchers studied divorce in families of children with Down syndrome compared to families of children with other disabilities and families with no noted disabilities. Again, the findings provided a few surprises.

Divorce rates among families of children with Down syndrome were actually found to be lower than in the other two groups.

  • Down syndrome – 7.6%
  • No disability – 10.8%
  • Other disabilities – 11.2%

Factors such as age at the time of marriage, income, and education affect all three categories without statistical significance. And, just like the general population, mothers and fathers of children with Down syndrome were much more likely to divorce if they were younger, had not graduated from high school, or lived in a rural area.

One finding common to both studies was the issue of when in the marriage the divorce occurred.

As mentioned early, divorces in the general population tend to occur early in marriages. In fact, there is a prominent clustering in the first two years. Among families of children with disabilities, there is less of this early clustering, but the incidence of divorce tends to continue later into family life.

The studies do little to address the undeniable impact of divorce on family life, of course, but artificially inflated numbers do not speak the truth about the issue. Worse, they infer that children with disabilities are, at least to some extent, stress causing elements that family structures strain against. No child deserves the burden of that myth.

Learn more about this topic by reading Families and Disability.

7 Responses

  1. People most often divorce because they have not created ways to meet the 6 Basic Human Needs [Certainty, Variety, Significance, Love / Connection, Growth & Contribution] in ways that are positive and empowering for themselves and their partner. This is even more critical for parents of children with disabilities because of the added pressure added to their family unit.

  2. Interesting article. Now I would like to see some research on families that have TWO children w/ multiple disabilities like mine.

  3. I am in a second marriage and am the step-mom of a child with Down Syndrome- the strain is significant. Are there any studies on situations like mine?

  4. How is it a myth that children with disabilities are “at least to some extent, stress causing elements that family structures strain against.”
    Am I perhaps misunderstanding the sentence? I also have 2 children with disabilities and one typical, and it is indeed stressful.

    • Thanks for your comment, Cherie. Perhaps the closing could have been more clearly stated. It is certainly no myth that the responsibility of children with disabilities can be a part of the stress mix in any family. No question about it. My point was simply that the “artificially inflated numbers do not speak the truth about the issue”. The myth in question here is the not the presence of stress related to children with disabilities, but rather the wildly inflated divorce rate numbers among their parents. Thanks for catching that.

  5. Thank you for taking the time to gather this data and clarify the statistics. (Yes, I have often heard much more dismal statistics “quoted” in presentations without documentation.) I find your report encouraging.

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