Special Needs Parents Marriages – Why Some Succeed

Special Needs Parents Marriages – Why Some Succeed

Last summer we actually had a hot summer in Minnesota (at least by our state’s standards); some of our flowers died almost immediately, some fought a little longer before they succumb, and some thrived.  The ironic part though is that every pot contained the same soil, the same seeds, and received the same amount of sunlight and water. No plant faced any more challenges than the other and no plant had support that the others didn’t.

Although the studies vary, it is commonly believed that the divorce rate among parents of special needs children is statistically higher than the rate for other couples. I’m not entirely sure I believe the statistics though for a few reasons. First as a researcher I find it odd that the study results aren’t widely replicated and that every study seems to yield a different result.  Second though I wonder if we are relying on post hoc reasoning. Post hoc reasoning is the fallacy where we believe that because one event follows another, the first event must have caused the second event.  Of course, in some cases this may be true, but in other instances other factors may be responsible.

Flowers Like Are Like Marriages

Some of my flowers died pretty quickly after being planted last summer. I could conclude that they died because of the heat but at the same time some of the other plants lasted longer or even all summer so I can’t be certain that it was the heat rather than a few bad seeds that wouldn’t have survived regardless of the temperatures. Same thing could be said about some marriages; was it having a special needs child that caused the divorce or were they already missing communication, understanding, mutual support, friendship, and compassion?  Was the birth or diagnosis of a special needs child really the reason or was the marriage already destined to fail as soon as the couple hit a rough patch or the newness wore off?

Some of my flowers put up a good fight after we planted them. Sometimes I wonder if they would have had just a bit more water, a bit more shade, or even more fertilizer if they would have been able to hang on until the fall. So again I ask was it really the birth or diagnosis of a special needs child that caused the divorce or was it the burden of the financial costs or the relentless onslaught of decisions that need to be made or maybe even one too many nights without sleep. These are all potentially related to having a special needs child; the parents held on as long as they could but eventually the waters were just too rough to navigate.  Was the birth or diagnosis of a special needs child really the reason or would the marriage have been doomed at any significant challenge the couple encountered?

Some of my flowers lasted right up until the fall freeze; they weren’t always pretty and honestly sometimes I was ready to pitch them during moments that I was convinced that they weren’t going to make it another day. Ultimately I would dump some more water on them, go to bed, and then the next morning it would be obvious that they were trying to hang on.  Some days the flowers were gorgeous and some days I just had wilted plants without a flower in sight. But there was something about those plants; they were destined to grow and thrive that summer.

When I look at my own marriage I think my husband and I are rather like those flowers.  Some days the toil ofhaving two special needs children is overwhelming and the nitpicking and arbitrary bickering reaches levels that I wonder how we’ll see another day together. Tears are even shed over the thought of being apart or alone in the world. Then one of us realizes what we are doing and backs down with a gentle reminder to the other that we are on the same team and that at the end of the day we love each other and our family as much as we did when we woke up that morning. We find a few minutes in between sick kids and meltdowns to snuggle in our favorite green chair and take comfort in the presence of the other.

The Bright Rings of Special Needs Parent's Marriages

Not every day is pretty; we have financial struggles, the disagreements over treatment options, the frustrations over how each is handling a given special needs situation, sleepless nights, lack of alone time, and different ways of processing information to make decisions.

Make no mistake—my husband and I are opposites in every aspect of the word. But the thing is on the absolute darkest ugliest days, we are still committed to yesterday, today, and always. I’m not going to claim that being special needs parents has strengthened our marriage but it certainly hasn’t weakened it either.

Some relationships are just meant to be.


(Ist Photo: ReemaAM via Flickr)

This post is part of an exclusive Special Happens Series, Special Needs Parents in Marriage… more to come!

About the Author:

Jennifer Butler

Jennifer is the mother of 2 children and more 4 legged furry babies than she (or her husband) cares to count. Both of her children have primary immune deficiencies and her son is also on the autism spectrum. Jennifer is a full time Organizational Communication professor whose research focuses on work family balancing. Jennifer spends her spare time rescuing animals and advocating for her special needs children. She does this by focusing much of her energy on service dogs for children and being a school board member at her children’s school. You may contact her on Facebook, on Twitter, or at her blog, Caden’s Tale.


  1. Julie Sparks March 18, 2013 at 8:38 am - Reply

    A wonderful testimony. I wish more people truly thought of marriage as “for better or for worse” instead of “until it gets too hard” and yet obviously there are exceptions where a marriage should not continue. Your analogy of the plants was good. They may not always be pretty, but some have perseverance. Hugs and good luck.

  2. Jenn
    Jenn March 18, 2013 at 2:06 pm - Reply

    Thank you for your thoughts and for reading my post!

  3. Special Happens March 18, 2013 at 3:04 pm - Reply

    Thanks so much for this post Jenn. I absolutely love the analogy and I think it’s a great way of looking at marriages and the nurturing that can go in an make it successful, as well as the plain unsuccessfulness of marriages just because.

  4. Carl Young (@whynotfathers) March 18, 2013 at 3:28 pm - Reply

    Awesome post. I linked to this article on a recent post at my blog.

    One of the hardest months of our marriage was the month we made the decision to seek a residential placement for one of our children. My wife was against it. Then I took our oldest children on a vacation as a graduation present. My wife spent the whole week with our youngest child, no breaks. By the end of the second day, she was in agreement.

    We still aren’t happy with our decision, but we are happy that our family is more settled. Our youngest is happy where he is, and the rest of the kids are more relaxed. There is less stress on my wife and I.

    It comes with the understanding that a residential placement isn’t the end of that child’s role in the family.

    My mom was married 7 times. My dad was married twice. My bride and I have been together almost 19 years. It can work. It is work. It is love and understanding.

  5. Jenn
    Jenn March 18, 2013 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    I really appreciate everyone’s feedback. I just remember thinking oh no now we are going to get divorced after my son’s diagnosis. Then I realized our marriage wasn’t weaker or stronger because of a dx, it could and would be stronger or weaker because of us and the choices we made.

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