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Autism and Marriage

Autism's Effect on Marriage​

by ​Cari Ansbro

Sustaining a healthy marriage takes effort.  Lots of it.  Even the best marriages have stressors which can drive you apart.  Keeping one going when your child has autism adds another layer of stress whether you have a strong marriage, or a troubled one. 

Living with autism takes its toll on every member of the family, especially the parents.  An autism diagnosis in itself isn't catastrophic, but it can highlight the areas of your relationship which are vulnerable to the added stress.  Your needs and those of your mate often get lost in the chaos following an autism diagnosis.  At the same time that you're mourning the loss of the future you had planned, you're scrambling to organize an army of specialists, therapists, and counselors.  You're exhausted, strung out, and heart broken.  Without even realizing it, partners can take each other for granted and overlook how much work the other puts into the day-to-day "stuff" of life.   

Many different stressors come into play for parents of a child with autism.  The first wave in the wake of the diagnosis is the grieving period.  No two people grieve exactly the same way or at the same rate, and it's possible that the grieving process itself can start driving a wedge between you.  Maybe one of you needs to talk through your feelings while the other tries to escape theirs.  It can be difficult to remember to be there for your partner while you're struggling yourself.  Communication is vital at this point, and always.

However, it's likely that your relationship was impacted even before the diagnosis.  Behavioral issues often result in confrontations with family and friends who may not recognize the signs of autism and, therefore, assume your child's behavior is a result of what they  see  as your parenting mistakes.  This outside disapproval can strongly affect your relationship with your partner.  Differences in parenting styles and approaches to discipline are common and, fueled by outside pressure, may lead to more difficulty in your spousal relationship.

The lack of understanding from family and friends can also rob you of the emotional support you and your spouse so desperately need.  This often leads to social isolation, feelings of rejection, humiliation, anger and blame.  In a weak moment, you might end up blaming each other for not doing enough, or too much, or even for your child’s diagnosis.  Finding a way to reach common ground with your spouse can give each of you some much needed support. 

As the to-do list grows, most couples try to divide and conquer.  Frequently one person ends up handling the majority of the child's autism-related appointments, therapies, and other interventions while the other focuses on finding the financial resources to pay for it all. 

Unfortunately, since many of the therapies and interventions for autism are not covered by insurance, the bills for treating your child can start adding up and put even more strain on a couple.  This can lead to arguments over whether or not it's all worth it.  Of course, since it's your child and your family's future, you're willing to do just about anything that will make a positive impact.  Perhaps you even feel that you have to try everything. 

Let's recap the situation so far.  You're grieving for the future you nurtured for your child.  You may or may not be communicating openly with your spouse.  You're getting outside pressure from family and friends which is likely making your relationship that much more tense.  You're trying everything in your power to find the right formula that will help your child, and in the meantime the bills are piling up.  Maybe you're not talking much because every conversation seems to end in an argument.  Anyone would be stressed out. 

This is the point where many relationships really start falling apart.  Communication is vital.  If a couple can't talk to each other, they can't work out their problems.  As good feeling toward each other fades, a vicious cycle begins:  neglect, resentment, lack of communication, and distance leading back to neglect.

Perhaps you've heard the alarming statistic that over 80% of marriages involving an autistic child end in divorce.  In recent years, however, studies comparing divorce rates of autism families with the divorce rates of non-autism families have not only not supported that statistic, but there's a lack of evidence that the 80% is based on any real study.  In fact, recent studies indicate that the divorce rates between the two groups are pretty similar.  Until the children in question are over 8.  From age 14 up through adulthood is when the divorce rate of autism families starts climbing higher than the other group.  However, even the group with higher divorce rates doesn't come close to the 80% widely quoted. (University of Wisconsin study, Marsha R. Mailick, PhD and Jan S. Greenberg, PhD, 2000.

It's unclear which are the primary contributors in the rise in divorce rates of the group with older autistic children, but it may be burn out due to long term fatigue, financial hardship, or the long slow erosion of the relationship between the parents.

This isn't inevitable, though.  Your marriage isn't doomed just because you have an autistic child.  The statistics aren't the boss of you.  While your experience of autism and marriage may not be unique, you are.  There's no one in the world exactly like you.  So while the statistics can be alarming, they're reflective of one thing:  other people's experience (unless, of course, you took part in the study).  And whether or not you divorce has more to do with the flexibility and durability of each partner.

There are several things you can do to try to improve your relationship.  Here is a list of common suggestions from marital counselors for keeping your relationship healthy.

  1. Talk to each other.
  2. Be understanding, tolerant, and respectful.
  3. Nurture yourselves.
  4. Make time for each other.
  5. Make fun a priority.
  6. Adjust your expectations.
  7. Get counseling if you need it.

There's no magic formula that can guarantee a happy marriage.  You can do everything "right" but still end up with a relationship beyond repair.  And divorce doesn't make you a failure.  Some divorced couples feel that their relationship is better now that they're no longer struggling so hard to stay together.

Ultimately, most couples don't split up simply because they have a child with autism, although it can mean that you have to work even harder on your relationship.  It comes down to adaptability, understanding, communication, respect, ability to work together, and no small portion of endurance.  And it takes a continuing commitment from both partners to do the work necessary.