Surviving marriage through a child’s special needs diagnosis

Eighty percent.

That’s the number that’s been whispered on playgrounds, texted from one worried parent to another, shouted between spouses. It’s the percentage of marriages believed to fail when a child with special needs is involved. 

But while that 80 percent statistic is an urban legend, it’s no doubt that couples struggle when special needs are in the picture.

A 2010 study found that parents of children on the autism spectrum had a higher rate of divorce than the comparison group: 24 percent versus 14 percent. The relatively high rate of divorce for the special needs group remained high until their child reached early adulthood, while it decreased with the other group when their child turned 8. 

Hospital visits, therapists to juggle and added expenses, along with all the surprises that special needs bring, can add stress to a marriage. 

“Parents of children who have increased needs often have little left in the tank emotionally, and sometimes physically, to give back to their partner,” says Crystal Rice, a therapeutic consultant at Insieme Consulting, a relationship therapy and counseling company based in Pennsylvania and Maryland. “All those healthy relationship tools we use when there’s little stress—things like bargaining, compromise, active listening—become casualties in a brain focused on ensuring that our children are safe and cared for.”

At the same time, regular parenting issues, like following a particular schedule or enforcing a consequence, become trickier. When a couple has a child with special needs, there is most likely going to be more rules and recommendations to follow, and the stakes probably feel higher.

“So disagreements regarding parenting differences might feel more intense,” says Emily Bhandari, a Chicago psychotherapist.

But relationships can survive and thrive when there’s a child with special needs involved.

Making it work

Brittany and Michael Reyes have been married for nine years, with two children who have special needs.

Their 7-year-old, Zander, has a sensory processing disorder. Feeding is an issue because of textures and smells, and when he comes home from school, he’s totally stir crazy. 

But it’s their 5-year-old daughter, Zoe, who has the major health problems. She was born with heterotaxy syndrome, an incredibly rare birth defect, where most of the organs are in irregular places inside the body.

Continue reading on page 19 of our digital edition.

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