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Married with Disabled Children

Can this marriage survive? It’s a question many of us ask as we try to juggle the care of a disabled child, the needs of our other children, and, oh yes, the relationship to that person I’m married to. The good news is that marriages with a disabled child are no more likely to end in divorce than others.

Many marriages have to meet a significant challenge: illness or injury, high stress jobs, unemployment, drug addiction, out of control credit, a teen in scary rebellion, or infidelity, among others. With a divorce rate approaching 50 percent in the U.S., we all know that many couples end up fighting with each other instead of working together to manage the problem. It’s important to hold on to the truth that more than 50 percent do make it. In fact, 20 to 50 percent of couples who have a disabled child report that the experience of working together for the good of their children strengthened their relationship and gave life new meaning. With work and love, your partnership can be in that group.

Researchers have found some common themes among couples who are able to stay together in spite of adversity. Long-married couples are committed to the vows they made (for better or worse). They look at problems as something to solve, not as a reason to bail. They educate themselves about whatever difficulty they’ve been handed and find out about the resources available to them. Usually at least one member of the couple is optimistic by nature. Most have friends or relatives who give them support and love. And, maybe most important, there is sufficient security and maturity to put the marriage on the back burner now and then in order to deal with pressing demands.

In the case of marriages with disabled children, there are some unique variables. A disabled child is a child with multiple needs. Parenting a disabled child usually involves learning about and dealing with multiple specialists, multiple systems, and multiple expenses that parents of typical children never have to even think about. Learning about the disability, providing daily care, choosing treatment options, managing a complex medical system, negotiating insurance, advocating for special needs schooling and responding to the legitimate needs of other family members adds another full-time job to the family mix.

Mothers and fathers often respond to those needs differently, with a tendency to drift into traditional gender roles that can become rigid and unsatisfying. This occurs partly because of personal choice, partly as a response to stress (people generally retreat to what is familiar when stressed), and partly as a result of socioeconomic factors (i.e., men still generally command higher wages than women). In the case of same-sex couples, both members of the couple may lead with the same strengths. As a result, there can be conflict and confusion about who should be doing what. Whatever the gender make up of the couple, the overarching issue is to be alert for when either person is feeling unfairly burdened and discuss it.

Married with Disabled Children

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Married with Disabled Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 9, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.