The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

The Risk and Timing of Divorce in Parents of Children With a Developmental Disability

Sunday, January 19, 2014: 10:15 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 008A River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Eun Ha Namkung, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Jieun Song, PhD, Associate Researcher, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Jan Steven Greenberg, PhD, Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Marsha R. Mailick, PhD, Director and Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Frank Floyd, PhD, Professor, University of Hawai`i, Honolulu, HI

Parenting a son or daughter with a developmental disability (DD) poses lifelong challenges, including financial, emotional and social challenges, which may take a toll on the marriage. Several studies have examined divorce rates in families of children with developmental disabilities, but how the risk of divorce varies with family size has rarely been studied. This is important as parents of children with DD tend to have more children than the norm. Also, given that divorce may occur at any point along the life course, the timing of divorce also should be examined. This study investigated both the relative risk and timing of divorce among parents of children with DD compared to parents of children without a disability and how divorce risk varied with family size.


This study is based on the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS) which involves a random sample of 10,313 high school students in the 1957 graduating class and a randomly selected sibling, followed for the past 50 years. In 2004, through an extensive set of screening questions, WLS participants were identified who had a child with DD (e.g., Down syndrome, autism, mental retardation). In this analysis, we compared 203 parents of children with DD and 7,570 parents of children without disabilities. Cox hazard model analysis was used to consider the effects of group status (DD vs. comparison) on divorce.


At the bivariate level, divorce rates did not differ between DD and comparison group parents. However, the two groups differed with respect to the timing of the divorce. Parents of persons with DD were more likely to divorce when the child was an adolescent whereas divorce in the comparison group was more likely to occur either early in the marriage or after the children reached early adulthood.  The cox analysis did not reveal evidence of a direct effect of group status on divorce rates.  However, there was a significant interaction between group status and the number of children born during marriage. For parents of children with DD, the risk of divorce remained relatively stable with each additional child born during the marriage whereas the risk of divorce increased by 13% with each additional child in the comparison group.   Significant covariates in the cox analysis predicting divorce included the parents’ education (those with some college having the highest divorce rates), younger age of marriage, non-Catholic, shorter duration between date of marriage and birth of child, and those in a second marriage.


The fact that divorce rates among parents of children with DD did not increase with the birth of each additional child as it did among the comparison group, suggests that families of children with DD may develop strengths that help sustain larger family systems. Gaining a better understanding of the functioning of these family systems may provide new insights into the factors contributing to marital and family resiliency. Lessons learned from these families may provide new insights to social work programs to strengthen the lives of at risk-families in the general population.