Maureen Wallace and family

Can a child's extra chromosome exponentially strengthen a marriage? Research points to a lower divorce rate compared with parents of children with other disabilities and even couples whose children have no special needs.

Extra chromosome, extra marital bliss?

Parents of a child with Down syndrome agree — something special exists in their marriage.

Our crazy, imperfect, awesome story

Four years ago, I didn’t know my husband existed. Today, we’ve been married more than three years and have two toddlers, a dog and two cats (despite the husband’s best efforts on the latter).

Ours is a fairy tale with a dash of unorthodox behavior by a good Catholic girl and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy I dread explaining to my daughter (hello, karma). Our story is pretty simple — boy emails girl, girl agrees to meet boy at Macaroni Grill on a Saturday afternoon, girl shops for new outfit for first “real” date.

As the camera cuts to our next pivotal scene — a mere two months later — boy is grinning wildly at girl’s positive pregnancy test and girl is certain she is experiencing hot flashes of menopause.

A quick jump to a month later, and boy proposes to girl in girl’s childhood bedroom. Add another month, and girl marries boy surrounded by loving family and as many bacon-wrapped hors d’oeuvres as girl’s father’s budget would allow (he’s very generous).

Maureen Wallace's wedding
Image credit:

What scene did I skip? The dinner we had together, three nights before we became husband and wife, when I shared that the genetic counselor had called to tell us our unborn son had Down syndrome.

If I’m filming an epic movie of our lives, I will zip past that, because it was but a blip. We went through so much together — from learning we were parents mere moments after exchanging the "L word" to learning our baby had a life-threatening condition called hydrops. Down syndrome was, at the time and in retrospect, the least of our worries.

We believe we are soul mates, and we have equally immeasurable love for our children (maybe not the cats, but that’s another article). But we also know studies show parents of children with special needs have a higher rate of divorce than parents of typically developing children.

Read more about divorce rates for parents of a child with autism >>

Does extra chromosome decrease divorce rate?

Here’s an extra dash of statistical positivity for our already committed married selves — we have a child with Down syndrome, and that fact might just change everything.

A study by the Vanderbilt University Kennedy Center looked at the rate of divorce in families of children with Down syndrome compared to families of children with other disabilities and families with no noted disabilities. Data came from the Tennessee Department of Health's birth, hospital discharge and divorce database records from 1990 to 2002.

Rates of divorce:
  • Down syndrome – 7.6 percent
  • No disability – 10.8 percent
  • Other disabilities – 11.2 percent

The results showed divorce rates among families of children with Down syndrome were lower than in the other two groups.

Study results showed spouses who had a child with Down syndrome were just like all married couples in several regards — they were much more likely to divorce if they were younger, had not graduated from high school or lived in a rural area.

'Down syndrome advantage'

So, what’s different about a couple who has a child with Down syndrome?

"Lower divorce rates in the Down syndrome group may be due in part to what the researchers call the 'Down syndrome advantage,' which refers to the personality and behavior of most children with the syndrome and the fact that parents of children with Down syndrome are often older, more educated and married before having children," reported Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Researcher Dr. Richard C. Urbano said, “When divorce did occur in the Down syndrome group, however, a higher proportion occurred within the first two years after the child's birth.”

Doing the math

Maureen Wallace and family
Image credit: Scott Hunter Photography

The husband and I are definitely older (40 and 37, respectively, when we welcomed our son). We each have a bachelor’s degree, and I’m leasing to own a master’s degree. We did, in fact, marry before we had Charlie. (“Had” meaning “met in person.”)

As for those first years of marriage? Absolute hell, thanks to my whopping case of post-partum depression and the typical strains of a new marriage, new home and two new jobs. But we made it through. What portion of stress came from Charlie's extra chromosome? Not one. Having a new baby is a life-changing experience — the extra chromosome just meant when we got enough sleep to have a conversation, occasionally a word related to medicine would slip out.

The effects of unconditional love

Tamara has a son with Down syndrome and says the study results “[make] sense to me... [my son] is the most pure and genuine person I know! His happiness for life is contagious and he demonstrates unconditional love daily! If we can use that as a model for our marriage, then what is left to fight about?”

But what about stress on a marriage?

More recently, in July 2011, the American Journal of Medical Genetics published results of a survey titled, Having a son or daughter with Down syndrome: Perspectives from mothers and fathers. Drs. Brian G. Skotko, Susan P. Levine and Richard Goldstein led the research.

Of survey respondents, 11 percent agreed with the statement, "Right now, my son or daughter with DS is putting a strain on my marriage/partnership."

Interestingly, a statistically insignificant but slightly greater number of respondents agreed with the statement, "Right now, my children without DS are putting a strain on my marriage/partnership."

Researchers shared, "The overwhelming majority of parents who have children with [Down syndrome] report that their outlook on life is more positive because of their son or daughter with [Down syndrome]."

What we have here is... more communication?

"We tell each other the good, the bad and yes, even the ugly."

Some parents queried by SheKnows pointed to the increased — and perhaps improved — communication shared between spouses.

"From day one we agreed to speak openly and honestly about [our son], the diagnosis and all things in and around Down syndrome," Beth shares. "We tell each other the good, the bad and yes, even the ugly. Having each other to talk to and listen to has made us a stronger couple! The theme of open honesty has spread to all aspects of our relationship."

Perspective and faith

Perhaps the impact on spirituality weaves a tighter marriage bond? Joanna has a son with Down syndrome, but he fought much more serious medical conditions during her pregnancy and his infancy. She points out, "It’s amazing when you have a newborn that was so close to being taken from you how quickly you find yourself on your knees begging God."

Required: Senses of humor

My parents have been married 42 years, and my mom’s favorite line regarding marriage goes like this: "Divorce? Never!" she exclaims, as if it's an insult to even consider. "Now, murder… well, that’s another story," she closes with a knowing look.

The husband’s parents have been married for 56 years, and his dad’s favorite quip is, "I could have killed someone and gotten less time."

It seems that the secret to a long and laughter-filled marriage is, in fact, a regular mention of death. One mom’s response was too entertaining for this writer to disregard, but she didn’t want to be quoted, so we’ll call her Lucy.

"Who knows why our marriages last… but I'm glad it's that way."

When asked her thoughts on why parents of children with Down syndrome have a lower rate of divorce, Lucy replied: "because we can't afford divorce... we're broke with all the medical bills and therapies," she jokes. "Seriously though, [our daughter with Down syndrome] has made me more tolerant of imperfections. Who knows why our marriages last… but I'm glad it's that way."

How much weight should we give these studies? Larina has a daughter with Down syndrome and a daughter who does not have Down syndrome. Her evaluation of the studies may say it all: "Divorce is one thing... strain on a marriage is not measured!"

Images courtesy of Maureen Wallace

More about marriage and special needs

Autism: Breaking up is hard to do
Need less stress, more soul mate? 6 Tips to compensate!
Chasing Charlie: The day I found my family


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Comments on "Divorce: Does "Down syndrome advantage" exist?"

Leticia Velasquez June 04, 2013 | 3:07 PM

"the fact that parents of children with Down syndrome are often older, more educated and married before having children," reported Vanderbilt University Medical Center." Nonsense, the fact is that more babies with Down syndrome are born to younger mothers, simply because they have more babies than older moms. Look for another reason, doc. As the mom of an 11 year old daddy's girl, whenever I get angry with my hubby, I look at my daughter who is curled up in his lap, gazing at him with love. And it melts my heart. Once in the middle of an argument, Chrissy took our hands and put them inside one another. . .

Jane brooks June 04, 2013 | 7:14 AM

This is a beautifully written article thank you so much for sharing so many positive blessing about being parents to unomas 21. our son also demonstrates profound unconditional love. I asked him if a very severely medically needy person who makes all sorts of noises , bothers him . He smiles so beautifully and says , No, I love .........".

Maureen Wallace May 26, 2013 | 7:29 PM

Tracey, what a remarkable story! Oohhh, I have goose bumps! Our Charlie, who has an extra chromosome, was born prematurely also but would have looked like a linebacker next to your pumpkin! NICU docs and nurses truly are miracle workers. Congratulations on your own little miracle! Love your story... thank you for sharing.

Tracey Kellas May 25, 2013 | 3:32 PM

I was thirty years old when our angel Brooke came along with ds she was also extremely premiered weighed 716 grams she is our miracle our marriage is stronger than when we started Brooke is now 18 but still relies on us for everything it is such a joy there is a lot of adjustment in our lives but would not change a thing

Alice May 25, 2013 | 3:28 PM

Kathy, I'm not conservative, and I have no specific faith. It never in a million years would occur to me to kill my unborn child, regardless of pressure from the medical community or society's pitiable standards of morality. I do believe education is a key component. My strongest belief is that parents who are willing to venture into an unknown, and at times scary lifelong commitment of love, fear, and fighting for what is right for their child, despite a society that says their child should not have been born and is 'suffering', certainly have the dedication it requires to work through some of marriages little speed bumps. I am sorry for the run-on sentence.

Maureen Wallace May 25, 2013 | 9:27 AM

Melissa, I hear you... (and thanks for the sweet description of the article! Made me smile so wide!)... Kathy's comment bothered me, too, but it's also very brief when perhaps her line of thinking went a little deeper (maybe that's why my comments are way too long?). I'm always open to others' ideas and find correlations between politics and family interesting where they're researched and shown (not quite in this case). I think we both recoiled from Kathy's comment because of its black-and-white assessment. We all know parenthood is ALL GRAY! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and pushing back!

Maureen Wallace May 25, 2013 | 8:37 AM

Bridget, oh my goodness, how sick of judgmental people are you?! I know I am!! The decision to have prenatal tests is so personal and between a couple and their physicians. Thank you for sharing your story and dedication to your son. You are all a lucky family! (PS - we're not particularly religious, either, and as committed as they come, I believe.)

Melissa May 25, 2013 | 6:55 AM

Kathy,your comment is incredibly offensive giving way too much credit to conservatives and none to liberals. You act as though liberals are all atheist, abortion loving individuals. Plenty of liberal couples have and choose to have children with Ds. I can't believe that this beautiful article about the gift of having a child with Ds gives to a marriage somehow prompted an overgeneralizing abortion comment.

Maureen Wallace May 25, 2013 | 6:34 AM

Brianne, thank you for sharing your story. Relationships can be so hard, and having a child is a jolt -- period, regardless of any challenges that child brings along (at birth, during the toddler years, as a teenager... yeesh, kids are tough!). I'm so sorry it sounds like your ex no longer has a relationship with your son. Every child deserves the love and support of his or her parents. Certainly, you guys had a lot stacked against you (e.g., youth), but it sounds like you are a tough, devoted mom. Your son is a lucky boy! Thank you for adding a perspective to this discussion - and thank you for being a tough, devoted mom!

Brianne May 25, 2013 | 3:52 AM

I am not sure that my opinion on this topic will have any merit because I am not, nor have I been, married. But I do have a son with DS. And his father and I were engaged at the time that we had him. We were also 17 years old. We had been going strong for 3 years when Brendon was born. After Brendon we made it exactly one year from his birth date and that was the end of it. We did not know before hand that there were any defects, disabilities or complications but it only took the Dr 5 minutes to come up with the preliminary diagnosis of DS. Almost 4 years later, it is just Brendon and I. His "sperm donor" currently resides in Kentucky with his wife and 2 "normal" children. I know that my story may have many factors as to "Why" we didn't make it... But, it pertains to the discussion. Thank you for the great find! You are a lucky woman and I am sure he is an even luckier man.

Maureen Wallace May 24, 2013 | 5:58 PM

Kathy, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think you've noted rather sweeping generalities, neither of which applies to my husband and me. (For example, I believe in a woman's right to choose.) Also, you imply most parents of a child with Ds have chosen to have that child, when in fact most babies born with Ds are born to mothers who did *not* receive a prenatal diagnosis. Thus, the concept seemingly born out in the research we do have indicates an X factor -- something unidentified that leads couples who have a child with Ds to divorce less. Maybe the X factor is an extra chromosome; maybe we're all just too darn tired! At any rate, so far, no research has explained it. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

Kathy May 24, 2013 | 1:22 PM

Could it be that the parents who choose to have a child with DS are more conservative and put more trust in God for their future? Those more liberal would tend to abort a baby diagnosed with DS. The former would tend to have a stronger commitment to their spouses.

Maureen Wallace May 24, 2013 | 9:16 AM

Anna, I LOVE YOUR FAMILY ALREADY!! That quote made me chuckle. I wonder if someone will ever do a study showing a direct correlation between threats of death and duration of marriage? I swear killing The Husband off in my imagination now and then does wonders for my mental status! (That sounds worse than I meant... hmmm.) I so relate to your thoughts on Dr. Skotko's research and this whole "Ds advantage" concept. We've been through so much, so is our relationship stronger because we endured the rollercoaster or because the rollercoaster happened to have an extra chromosome onboard? Hard to say. But I'm so grateful for what we have. Thank you for your kind words and for sharing your story!

Anna_T May 24, 2013 | 7:14 AM

Maureen, as usually, a great article! I remember reading Dr. Skotko's study. It made me think about all of those scared parents out there who get their genetic test results as the common fear is "what will this do to our marriage?" I think that his study could be very reassuring to those families. We have been married 5 years and I do think that Ellie has made our marriage stronger. Is it because she has Ds? I do not know. I do know that she has change me in ways that I cannot explain and perhaps has changed my husband. Is this because she has Ds or is it because we have a child now? Again, I do not know. On a side note, I am chuckling at your mother who said "divorce never, but murder. . . ". There is a saying in my husband's household "___ is cheaper than a divorce!"

Maureen Wallace May 23, 2013 | 6:48 PM

What a kind note, Sandy!! Thank you!! I know this may be a tough one for couples who, for whatever reason, have divorced and happen to have a child with Down syndrome. Life and MARRIAGE are so full of challenges, and so is ALL parenting. I think it's fun to put a little weight on a happy statistic. Makes the rollercoaster make more sense! Thanks again for your sweet comment!

Sandy May 23, 2013 | 4:58 PM

What a fabulous article about love, faithfulness and Charlie! Kudos for finding your soul mate and living, learning, loving and sharing!

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