Having A Good Marriage When You Have A Kid With Special Needs

I was talking with a financial planner the other day, and in the course of our conversation he mentioned that 80 percent of parents of kids with special needs divorce. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the stat thrown around. It is, however, incorrect.

A study released in May 2011 based on 78,000 children found that 64 percent of kids with autism had two or more biological or adoptive parents—compared to 65 percent of kids who didn’t have an autism spectrum disorder. Read, there’s no difference in the divorce rate.

In my circle of special needs friends, I know of only one couple who divorced—and they weren’t the right match to start with, as the woman herself said to me. It seems likely that when a marriage isn’t solid to start with, the odds are higher that a couple with special needs would split up. You need a super-strong relationship to withstand the challenges and pressures. You might recall the study that showed moms of kids with autism have stress similar to combat soldiers. Previous studies have showed higher rates of depression among parents of kids with autism.

Max has cerebral palsy due to a stroke at birth, and my marriage has weathered the stresses pretty well. As Max has gotten older and developed, my husband and I have developed, too—we’ve developed emotionally, we’ve developed coping mechanisms, and we’ve developed strategies that help make our life work. One of the key things we’ve done is play to our strengths as a couple and as individuals. I am the researcher and the organizer; Dave is great with doing activities with Max and hands-on care like helping to feed him and giving baths. He is also very good at tossing him around up high in the air so he laughs and laughs.

We also take time to nourish our relationship. We have date nights. When we go on vacation, we find childcare so we can have some R&R alone. At night, after the kids are in bed, we hang out over coffee and catch up.

What strategies do you and your husband have that helps with having a child who has special needs?


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  1. by Cale

    On February 7, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    Hi Ellen.

    I fully agree with your comment about needing a strong relationship to begin with. When something as monumental as a disability label is applied to your child, you (as a Parent) immediately go through such a spectrum of emotions, that it can make it difficult to realize that you’re not in this alone; you have a partner there beside you. You have to lean on that partner to help carry you through the tough times and celebrate the good times.

    When our son was diagnosed with Asperger’s recently, we saw it coming from 10 miles away but still got taken off our feet with grief with it all went down. My wife and have have been married for 12 years but have been friends for 22. That’s a lot of history and it’s that history that has helped pull us out of some dangerous spirals.

    We have a long way to go before thigns are “right again” for all of us, but the one thing we never lose site of is ensuring that we are there are strong for our kids.

  2. by Whitney

    On February 7, 2012 at 5:39 pm


    My daughter was diagnosed with multiple disabilities, and it resulted in about two years of rockiness in my marriage. In fact, we nearly split up… But, when things hit rock bottom, we both assessed what was going on and realized that we loved each other too much to split up. We regrouped and are now stronger than before, and I think much of our strength comes from our shared love and protectiveness of our daughter. The rest came from the 8 years of friendship we shared before we began dating, and the knowledge that we worked well together, despite recent history.

    In terms of childcare, we’re a little bit traditional. I’m a SAHM who works part-time from my home computer and attends grad school full time with online, evening, and Saturday courses. I handle the housework, the meals, and the childcare, while he sits in an office all day and slaves away to keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. Sometimes, it would be nice to have a little extra help with my daughter… But, then again, I’m not sure who I could trust to watch her, aside from my parents (2,000 miles away) when we go on vacation. It may seem unjust that I’m doing most of the child-rearing, but it just feels right and works well for us. In exchange for me going to all the school meetings and doctors’ offices and watching her sunup to sundown, he’s always there with a listening ear and a supportive embrace when I have a rough day or need to air out some of my frustrations.

    I think having a child with special needs has ultimately brought us closer together and made us stronger as a couple.

  3. by Debbie

    On February 7, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    Old older daughter has severe cerebral palsy. She also cannot speak. Our younger daughter is ablebodied and talks a lot. Because she has learning disabilities, she, like her older sister, is in Special Ed. My husband is an MIT trained techie. He got caught up in the dotcom crash not just once but twice. We have been through hell and back several times over.

    Several years ago something clicked with us that hadn’t before. It’s taken us a long time but we are communicating better than ever. We have learned to take a breath or two. Sometimes even mutual time outs. We still argue but it’s of lesser duration and not nearly as loud as before. We are better able to reassure our daughters that we will be OK. I think they are finally beginning to believe that. I think marriages generally evolve, but having special needs kids definitely increases the risks of marriages falling apart. We will be celebrating nineteen years in October, and I am pretty confident that our marriage will last for many years to come. I think it helps too that we laugh together. But when I learned to be direct in expressing my needs, that helped a lot, too.

  4. by Nicole@BoyOnARoll

    On February 7, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    Though we’d known each other for six years before marrying, my husband and I were 12 days short of being married a year when our son was born with spina bifida. I don’t know what I would have done without him there to lean on, and I hope he felt the same way about me, though I know I was a mess at the time.
    I think having a child with special needs has brought us closer together, though we have our hard times like everyone else. We’re good at dividing duties when it comes to the kids, and keeping their schedules routine helps us have time left over for ourselves at the end of the day.
    This June we’ll be married 5 years…here’s hoping for many more! :)

  5. by Autism Daddy

    On February 8, 2012 at 8:58 am

    I have a blog and FB page called Autism Daddy and I talk about this all the time. I even wrote a post called “12 Ways To Keep Your Marriage Strong And Sane When Autism Hits….”

    Check it out at

  6. by Laverne Bissky

    On February 8, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    When we learned that our daughter had a severe form of Cerebral Palsy we vowed that we would not let disability hold us back. We love to travel and we wanted to do more, even if our daughter has to use a wheelchair. We have now been to five continents and this summer we will travel to South America. That only leaves Antarctica. So I guess our way of coping is to make our dreams happen! We have our own website at http://www.NoOrdinaryJourney.com and you can read about our travels.