Living with an Autistic Child = Heading for Divorce?

All challenging life events can serve as catalysts for change. Some partnerships crumble in the face of hardship while others get closer, some families disintegrate while others thrive. The same is true for a diagnosis of autism and what it can set in motion.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 47% of first marriages fail and 57% of all marriages end in divorce. And while the divorce rates among families of children with special needs are comparable, the general consensus among experts is that there appears to be more reported marital distress. In the UK – for whatever reason – there is more evidence that an above average percentage of parents of Autistic children end up as single parents. In a study by Bromley, one in three families were lone parents. The Autism Awareness Week report showed a lone parent rate of 17%, compared with a 10% national average for the UK.

From my personal experience, I can’t attest to a noticeably higher divorce rate, but I can certainly confirm a higher disconnect and frustration level in partnerships with ASD children. The simple fact that there is more daily issues to deal with, more worries and challenges combined with less sleep and more financial demands, can account for that already. But, personally I think, the main reason marital disconnect is trend that many mothers turn into Autism warriors, while their partners stand aside.

Many mothers throw themselves into therapies and treatments with the fury of a lioness. The husband, if not in denial from the beginning, often takes a more rational, cautious approach. And while the mother reads more and becomes entranced in the world of Autism research, the divide grows. A father often does not have the time or the initiative to read and hope and do all that, which to the mother seems a lifeline and the only way forward. And while he might be willing to listen and is happy that his wife enrolls the child in different therapies, there comes a time – sooner or later – where these treatments will cost money – a lot of money – when the therapies are not or barely covered by insurance or the ever growing pile of supplements cost a monthly fortune.

This is usually the turning point where the parental world views clash as incompatible and the rift that has slowly widened is revealed. While the mother argues for the treatment on the wings of the little evidence in her hand and the big hope in her heart, the partner often can not ignore the rational thought of wasting money and feel obliged to upkeep the financial responsibility he assumed. (Especially when the mother has given up her job to care for a child with autism, which made him the sole bread-winner).

So both start fighting with the conviction that they are doing what’s right – one for the child’s future, the other one for overall family’s future. And if they can’t come to terms, find a solution or a middle ground, it gets personal: one apparently doesn’t love the child enough and the other one wants to ruin the family for the sake of one. What starts as a fight over a financial issue, then often stirs up the whole swamp of stress, emotional imbalance and perceived neglect, around which you stepped carefully for quite a while – until just now.

One of the reasons that Autism is so poisonous for a relationship is the fact that the mother aligns herself with the weakest member of the family, as she instinctually does, and the rest feels neglected. An ASD diagnosis is only the beginning of a long journey: when researching, finding the cause and possible solutions to developmental problems, organizing therapies and subsequently fighting with insurance companies in addition to the everyday life, it seems obvious that something has to give. Most often, the mother’s personal development goes out the window first, reduced attention for the relationship follows. Powerful emotions like guilt, anger and social isolation due to Autism are often not resolved in order to simply survive the day. Communication problems arise due to lack of time and lack of energy disables family activities, let alone marital ones. The partner feels neglected, shortchanged and shut out. For a relationship that is fragile or unstable, it is the beginning of the end.

And yet, there are many marriages that survive the diagnosis and the years of treatments that follow, my own being one of them. It is, however, a lot of work – whether it is more or less than with a ‘normal’ marriage, I couldn’t say, I’ve only had this one.

Most importantly after a diagnosis and on the journey through therapies and school, you need to keep the lines of communication open. And you need – early on! – to come to an understanding about how far you can burden yourself financially. There were quite a number of treatments and therapies that I would have loved to try out, but at the time it wasn’t financially sensible. After waiting a while, some still seemed promising, so we tried them, others were a fad and I’m glad I didn’t waste our money. Another important rule for us was that we would only do a treatment, if there was enough scientific evidence for it or a test supported its need for our son. It was often frustrating to come all enthusiastic, armed with other parents’ raving testimonies to my husband, only to have the treatment picked apart by his scientific brain. My choice was then either to give up or get more scientific evidence and present my case again. It always resulted in a more informed choice that we BOTH supported.

Finally, one of the hardest things to overcome was the feeling that I had to defend my son against everybody, including my husband. When he voiced criticism or frustration with our child, MY child, I immediately would put my guard up and go into fighting position – the mother-son unit again the evil father. But that is not how it works, that only widens the gap. How else would he ever have the opportunity to express his feelings, if I always took them as attacks? I needed (and still need) to calm down in these situations and take the comments as they are meant – as being about my partner and his feelings and not per default against my son and his behavior. I am still working on that.

While I certainly don’t have the answer to a forever happy marriage, here is a link with some suggestions how to stabilize your marriage while raising a special needs child.

Finally, there is the special case that you are not only raising an ASD child, but that you are also married to a – diagnosed or undiagnosed – partner on the spectrum. I know several partnerships like that and it does not make things easier… just imagine more rigid routines, less ability to express emotions and less empathy for the child on top of everything else! There are a couple of interesting books out on the topic, e.g. by Gisela Slater and Katrin Bentley, for those of you knowing or suspecting this to be the case for a certain relationship.


1 Comment

  1. Joy said,

    March 4, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    Excellent article, Christiane!

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