Researchers from the Waisman Centre at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in US found that among couples with children
without any disabilities, the risk of divorce was lowest for couples with one child and increased with each successive child.
In contrast, the risk of divorce for parents of children with developmental disabilities remained unchanged with increasing family size.
Parenting a child with a developmental disability involves challenges and rewards that are unique to each family and prior research has shown that parents of a child with a developmental disability tend to experience greater marital stress compared to peers raising typically developing children.
As a result, there has been "a conception that, in general, parents of children with disabilities are more likely to experience divorce, and we wanted to test that assumption," said first author Eun Ha Namkung, a graduate student at the Waisman Centre's Lifespan Family Research Programme.
In the study, the researchers found that couples with typically-developing children who can pitch in to care for and support their siblings with developmental disabilities may experience less marital stress, which can help counterbalance the effects of family size on divorce rates found in the general population.
"Our results clearly show that the effects of having additional children are different for families of individuals with developmental disabilities compared to the effects on the general population and suggest that other children in the family may be a vital support system for parents coping with the care of a child with a developmental disability," said Namkung.
About 22 per cent of parents with a child with a developmental disability experienced divorce over the span of the study. Of parents in the comparison group, 20 per cent experienced divorce, which is not a significant difference.
The researchers used the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS) for their research, which has been following more than 10,000 men and women who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957 and some of their siblings for more than 50 years, yielding a rich and, more importantly, truly random sample.
Using the WLS allowed the researchers to follow 190 parents whose children had a broad range of developmental disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and unspecified intellectual disabilities.
The study was published in the American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
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