by David Morstad
Family life is subject to strain. That conclusion is hardly a dazzling new discovery. Families are a series of relationships; and relationships, by their nature, are complex. Toss in a few contemporary issues like unemployment or other financial stress, and day-to-day family life becomes even more complicated. And then there are the children; specifically, children with disabilities. What’s true and what isn’t? What is the truth about the rate of divorce among families of children with disabilities?
For reasons not clearly identified, the numbers have been wildly exaggerated for years— sometimes by otherwise very credible organizations. Not surprisingly, these claims tend to be made in the absence of cited sources. We have all heard the numbers. “Approximately 90% of marriages affected by disability end in divorce,” claims one national faith-based organization as recently as 2019. “80 percent divorce rate for parents of a child with a disability,” claims another group. Those figures are absolutely shocking. They are also absolutely untrue.
In May of 2010, researchers from the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore first took on the notion of the 80 percent divorce rate in scientific study among families of children with autism.[ii] Their evidence suggested that a child’s autism had little effect on divorce rate. The research team found that 64% of children with an autism spectrum disorder belonged to a family with two married biological or adoptive parents, compared with 65% of children not on the spectrum. Dr. Sigan Hartley of the University of Wisconsin has published research in the Journal of Family Psychology and the American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities[iii] providing evidence of the same thing among other disability groups.
Studies like that tend to be less well known, of course, and so the legend of the 80 percent continues. Let’s face it, the exaggerated numbers are much more interesting. They generate a sense of urgency by grabbing both our attention and our heart. So, what’s the harm?
There is the primary matter, of course, that people of faith should be committed to telling the truth, but there is an even more compelling issue. Blaming victims is a phenomenon well known in disability history. The pattern of blame logic goes like this: Raising a child with a disability is demanding for parents. That demand causes stress, and stress leads to marital strife. Therefore, a child with a disability is the root cause of high rate of divorce (even though there isn’t one). Victim blaming.
Beyond the alarming false rhetoric of sky-high divorce rates is a compelling call for people of faith to recognize the strength and partnership found in families, regardless of their structure. It is time to speak the truth and embrace the strong partnership potential with families and valuing of the gifts people with disabilities bring to the community. As author Sarah Holmes states, “it is critical that churches are… deliberate in vocally affirming, valuing, and resourcing families in their midst.”[iv]
The future promises a changing landscape of family engagement by faith communities. Leftover perceptions of parents as wounded players in a large social pathology simply will not do. The simple truth is that parents are strong, tireless, lifelong advocates and partners. The world needs that kind of energy.
[ii] Sarris, M. April 11, 2017 Under a Looking Glass: What’s The Truth About Autism and Marriage? Kennedy Krieger Institute. https://www.kennedykrieger.org/stories/interactive-autism-network-ian/whats-truth-about-autism-and-marriage
[iii] Hartley SL, Barker ET, Seltzer MM, Greenberg JS, Floyd FJ. Marital satisfaction and parenting experiences of mothers and fathers of adolescents and adults with autism. American Journal On Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. 116: 81-95. PMID 21291312 DOI: 10.1352/1944-7558-116.1.81
[iv] Sarah E. Holmes (2021) Do contemporary Christian families need the church? Examining the benefits of faith communities from parent and child perspectives, Practical Theology, 14:6, 529-542, DOI: 10.1080/1756073X.2021.1930698