When children suffer from cancer and other chronic illnesses, so do their parents’ marriages. It’s not a cosmic joke, but rather scientific phenomenon that makes sense once the stress associated with sickness is taken into account. Divorce is not inevitable in these situations, because stress (even this, the worst kind of stress) can also make a marriage stronger, if channeled positively. But it helps to know what to expect, and what sort of factors are more likely than others to put a marriage on shaky ground. Here’s what we know about divorce risk, as it relates to childhood disease:
Not All Childhood Health Problems Put You at Risk
Mothers of children who have congenital heart disease, cerebral palsy, are blind, or have low birth weights are significantly more likely to engage in marital conflict, according to a study of more than 7,000 children in Social Psychology. But the data also suggests that the mothers of children who had migraines, learning disabilities, respiratory allergies, missing or deformed digits or limbs, or asthma experiences somewhat lower divorce rates. It’s unclear why. But what is clear is that not every childhood disease or disability increases a parent’s risk of divorce.
Developmental Disorders Definitely Play a Role
Parents of children with autism are 10 percent more likely to get divorced than their peers, according to a study of nearly 400 parents. With young mothers the risk was higher, and when the child with autism was the youngest of many children, the risk increased even more so. Which means small families with older parents may have an easier road ahead, post-diagnosis.
Sick Kids Are Expensive
Parents lose more than 25 percent of their weekly income to medical bills when their children are diagnosed with cancer, at least one study suggests. While that particular study looked at a small sample and was conducted several decades ago, childhood cancers indisputably place a financial strain on most families. There’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that less money amounts to more problems in marriages, and that medical bills can put a strain on even strong relationships.
Despite All That, Divorce Is Never Inevitable
As stacked as the deck may seem against parents of sick children, one study from The American Academy of Pediatrics shows that the divorce rates among parents whose children have cancer are actually lower than the total divorce rates in both Kansas and Missouri. Even after the worst case scenario — the death of a child — many relationships survive. Despite data that indicates divorce rates among bereaved parents are up to eight times higher than average, more up-to-date sources suggest that only 16 percent of parents of parents who have lost a child end up divorcing, and that the majority of those who did divorce reported marital problems prior to the tragedy.
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