When our first child Nicole was born, extremely prematurely, my wife and I didn’t know whether she would live or die. The weeks in neo-natal intensive care (NICU) stretched into months, and crises came one after another. During our six-and-a-half-month sojourn in NICU, we saw several marriages fall apart. Bev and I came to realize that there was more at stake than our child's health and life including our marriage, our mental health, and our integrity.
Though we were delighted finally to take Nicole home from the hospital, she needed intense, nearly round the clock care. Thanks to the grace of God and a very supportive wife, I muddled my way through the final months of my seminary career taking exams, finishing papers, and passing the dreaded oral comprehensive examination. Stresses continued as Nicole missed one developmental milestone after another and the extent of her disabilities grew apparent.
We thank God for the people of Hope Christian Reformed Church in Grandville, MI, for the myriad ways that they supported our family in those early years after Nicole’s birth. Couples who have children with disabilities need help, whether those children were born to them or adopted by them. At this point, you may be thinking I’m going to cite a statistic that eighty percent of couples who have a child with a disability get divorced. But if I did, I would be lying; the divorce rate is actually considerably lower.
Couples who have a child with a disability do face additional stresses compared to those whose with nondisabled children, and their divorce rate as a whole is higher than the general population. But throwing out an alarmist and false statistic could make matters worse.
People who use this false statistic usually do so for good reasons. They want to highlight the importance of helping families walking through difficult months and years. Ironically, citing this false statistic could make matters worse. That dread-full statistic could lead some couples to throw in the towel prematurely, saying to themselves, “Why try? If 80 percent get divorced, there’s no hope for us anyway.” Or it may convince them to abort their unborn child if prenatal testing reveals a genetic anomaly.
The somewhat hopeful and not-quite-as-bad news is that the divorce rate is slightly higher for couples with children who have certain disabilities: from 3.6% to 5.97% higher. Couples who have a child with Down syndrome and stay together for the first two years after their child is born have a divorce rate lower than the general population.
Disability is hard on marriages, but let’s not convince couples to give up hope by citing a false statistic when they discover that their newborn or their two-year-old will be much different than they had dreamed of. Every child, every marriage is precious to God. Let’s foster the kinds of churches that come alongside families facing crises, not because we are alarmed by (false) statistics, but because we love God and love his people, and want to see his people flourish, whoever they might be.
By the way, my wife Bev and I have been married for 32 years, and thank God for each other! Nicole turned 27 this year. God has also given us three other biological children, a new daughter-in-law, and a young man who is like a son to us. We're grateful that many people came alongside us in the challenges we faced, and thank God for his commitment to our marriage and our family. We would have missed out on so much blessing if we had given up hope 27 years ago and gotten divorced. God is good.