According to a study published by Hartley et al, parents with autistic children have a higher divorce rate than parents without autistic children. Even so, in the study it was found that 64% of autistic children live with BOTH parents. There are no doubts that raising a child with autism, or any health problem or disability equates to more parental stress. Stress in marriage, from any source – whether financial or otherwise, is the number one factor in divorce. The truth is that all marital unions experience some sort of stress from the sheer force winds of life.
One of the things that may set autism, or other health problems apart from other forms of stress is that the diagnosis can cause sudden, and extreme changes within the entire family unit. An autism diagnosis is definitely life changing in more ways than one, and couples may find that their marital union may be tested in ways that they never knew imaginable. For many couples, the first problem to deal with is guilt and blame. Most parents dream of having healthy children, and the blow of any sort of health affliction can be a blast to the ego that causes some people to look for someone, or something to blame. If a couple seeks to blame one another, the marriage will likely definitely suffer irreparably damage.
In an independent study, around 50% of couples who divorce after an autism diagnosis admitted that the autism diagnosis added just enough stress to the marriage to push it over the breaking point. However, for most of these couples – they also admitted that the marriage was in trouble prior to the diagnosis, and didn’t finger point the autism as a main reason for dissolving the marriage. Studies like these seem to indicate that a marriage that is weak and dwindling already may not be able to survive a diagnosis of a child with autism. On the flip side, many couples have found strength and new purpose to work on the marriage, and the family unit after a child has been diagnosed with autism.
Leading research has shown that for many parents a diagnosis of autism can cause a syndrome in the adults that is very similar to post traumatic stress syndrome. Since the entire dimension of the family unit change so abruptly – the inability to accept or come to terms with the fact that something is wrong with their child causes couples to withdraw emotionally from one another. While one parent strives to help the child and forge a pathway of understanding and therapy, the other may be completely withdraw from the process.
The good news amid all of this is that as more and more programs are becoming available for families trying to deal with and manage children with autism, communities of families are being created that act as a gigantic support system for one another. These communities not only celebrate the children but also enable couples to find other people that are facing the same challenges as they are. This helps to strengthen the marriage – and can enable couples to journey toward positive, solution-based methods of handling their child’s health issues. In the end, this helps to reduce the marital stress felt by couples.
Whether a couple is dealing with autism, or a child diagnosed with cancer – the stressors caused are enormous on a marriage. Having a child diagnosed with autism is not an indicator in whether a couple will file for divorce or not. Perhaps the better indicator is how well the couple works together to find help and solutions for their problems. One study out of Harvard actually concluded that after a diagnosis, many couples are better off than they were before – simply because the parents are able to gain closure and find answers to the lurking concerns and questions they were often silently dealing with about their child prior to diagnosis.
Sadly, when Jenny McCarthy cited on Oprah that one of the main reasons for her divorce was the diagnosis of her son with autism, she may have done more harm than good to autistic parents everywhere. In response to her claims that further stressed and frightened many parents who had a child newly diagnosed with autism, the National Autism Association launched a national program to help combat divorce rates in the autistic community. In doing so, they were positively encouraged by the findings that many couples wrap their minds and relationships around helping their autistic child and find a stronger more cohesive marriage in the end. They also debunked the claims that as high as 80% of married couples with an autistic child end up filing for divorce because of the autism.
Perhaps it boils down to this. Your marriage is what you make it. Some couples deal with proactively with stressors and work to find solid solutions, while others cave at the disappointment. Rather than blaming autism – or any stressor for that matter for the divorce, maybe couples should cast their fingers toward personality flaws and lack of problem solving abilities.