The divorce rate in the United States has been steadily climbing and is anywhere between 45 and 50 percent. In addition, the divorce rate for second marriages is even higher at 60 percent.
The explanations for such high divorce rates range from economic stresses to fragmentation in the family, to the younger generation’s inability to commit to long-term relationships.
There is a concept, which is referred to in clinical circles as “resiliency,” that describes a group of individuals who despite overwhelming negative environmental factors manage to overcome and succeed in life.
I believe that parents who have children with disabilities present the best examples of families in crisis who despite all of the adversity manage their lives and ultimately find “peace” with themselves and their children.
Obviously, marriage is fraught with overwhelming obstacles and unforeseen difficulties. Part of the problem relates to each person’s expectations of what a “happy relationship” should be like.
Marriage takes a great deal of work, and couples are often unprepared for the realities of unanticipated disappointments and unfulfilled expectations.
Marriage takes time, patience and commitment. These are characteristics that many young adults learn to acquire from their children who are great teachers. Children are demanding, self-involved, prone to tantrums and impatient. No one is born to be a parent. Adults become parents.
Parenting is a selfless job, and perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned is that children are sometimes thankless and unappreciative. For parents of children with disabilities, the job is even harder and the statements of gratitude are fewer.
The sense of pride in children’s accomplishments is much different in families where there are children with disabilities. Getting an A on a test, graduating from elementary school, dating and competing in school sports do not represent the same stages of achievement in a child with autism spectrum disorders.
Very often parents of children with disabilities are excited about smaller changes in life, which are really greater accomplishments for the individual child such as learning to talk, toilet, dress, and read independently. Some of the things that we take for granted in typical children may represent unreasonable expectations in children with disabilities.
With this as a backdrop, it should not be surprising that couples who have children with disabilities are faced with greater challenges and are at a higher risk for divorce. Aside from the demands of work, home and siblings, the child with a disability becomes the focus within the family.
His needs are so great that resources, time and attention are shifted away from everyone else to him. Last on the list of things “to do” is being a married couple. Parents often complain that they have no time for themselves let alone for a marital relationship. They are sometimes so emotionally drained there is nothing left to share with a spouse.
Despite the overwhelming problems faced by these families, most parents find an inner strength to reach out to each other with support and love. The adversity serves to strengthen relationships with a greater appreciation for family and friends.
Ellenmorris Tiegerman, Ph.D. is the founder and executive director of the School for Language and Communication Development.