anonymous on September 12, 2011

Are couples with one disabled partner more likely to get divorced?

Are there any studies on divorce rates among couples in which one person has a disability? What's the main reason for divorce? Does sexual dysfunction play a role? Do people with more severe disabilities have more marital problems? How about people who were married before they became disabled?

answered by Annette Fuglsang Owens, MD, PhD on September 12, 2011

Thanks for asking these important questions that, unfortunately, expose a gap in research on divorce and disability.

Existing research about whether couples are more likely to get divorced as a result of disability is inconclusive. Some of the variation in the research may have to do with the fact that different disabilities may cause different kinds of stress in a marriage. For example, a spinal chord injury (SCI) could cause paralysis in part of the body, whereas a head injury can drastically change the personality of the victim.

Divorce may be more likely soon after a disability-causing injury. In the journalSpinal Cord, a study reviewed the existing literature on divorce rates in couples in which one partner had a SCI. That review found that divorce rates were anywhere between 8-48% of couples…but it’s hard to learn from findings with such a large spread.

However, the same research also indicates that divorce is more likely soon after injury occurs – the so-called “high risk” time period – but the divorce rate correlates to the rest of the (uninjured) population past this time period.

A different study published in The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy explored sexuality in 15 women with paraplegia...

Those results indicate that women with disabilities experience a higher rate of divorce and separation than do able-bodied women or disabled men.In most cases, the women’s partners had not been able to adjust to the permanent physical changes in their injured partners. That research also indicates that relationship stability before the injury makes a difference, and that relationships that were shaky at the time of injury were marked by an inability to talk about relationship issues and sex.

Other information we have on divorce and disability comes from relatively small surveys, mostly of people with SCI. They differ in their conclusions about the effects of disability on marriage and partnership, and don’t show a clear relationship between disability and divorce.

Again, I appreciate your smart questions about divorce and people with disabilities. Hopefully in future, the answers to your questions will be more clear, relevant and useful.

Related info:

Annette Fuglsang Owens, MD, PhD

Dr. Owens is an AASECT-certified sexuality counselor. Her areas of expertise include the medical aspects of human sexuality and sexual problems, as well as the impact of STDs ⎼ and other diseases, illnesses and disabilities ⎼ on sexuality. Dr. Owens was educated at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

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