The Effects of Chronically Ill Children on Marriage, Part 2

A number of studies have investigated the effects of a chronically ill child on marital satisfaction, with some indicating overwhelmingly negative reactions. In my previous article, I discussed some of the ways in which couples, together with their families, can cope with the stress, role assignments, perceptions, and depression related to the care of an ill child. In this article, I continue the discussion by looking at how caring for a chronically ill child affects mothers and fathers respectively.

Underlying Marital Problems

Unresolved, untreated, or unrecognized marital problems and/or depression that were present before the care of a chronically ill child became necessary often become intensified. Studies have found that more women express general dissatisfaction with their marriages than men do, both before and during their season of care for a chronically ill child. However, most studies did not include input from husbands, who, when they were included, expressed general marital satisfaction and a lack of depression.

The Toll on the Mother

A study by Berge et al. (2006) sampled urban, primarily white, middle-class couples who had a chronically ill child between the ages of 12 and 30. The results indicated that the severity of the symptoms directly influenced the mother’s depressive symptoms and marital satisfaction. The increased amount of stress, and the time required by the child, caused the mother to become physically worn out, leading to depressive symptoms. In both this study and others, mothers generally reported decreased marital satisfaction while they were caring for a chronically ill child (Berge et al., 2006). When the condition demanded a large proportion of the mother’s time, it detracted from the amount of time spent with her partner, as well as time spent as a family in recreational activities (Berge et al., 2006).

The Father and the Chronically Ill Child

By contrast, studies have found that 98% of the fathers of chronically ill children were employed 40 hours a week or more, and usually took less responsibility for the care of the child (Quittner et al., 1998). As a result, some fathers ended up feeling out of touch and isolated (Sallfors & Hallberg, 2003). Many instead took on the role of being vigilant for the whole family and spent extra time with the healthy siblings, in addition to being the financial provider (Sallfors & Hallberg, 2003). Most of the fathers did not interact with the health care providers and, if they had questions, they often waited until they were at home and could ask their wives (Sallfors & Hallberg, 2003). Fathers were less likely to be affected by increased depression or decreased marital satisfaction (Berge et al., 2006). Fathers also demonstrated more optimism regarding the outcomes for their chronically ill child (Sallfors & Hallberg, 2003). However, according to Quittner et al. (1998), fathers reported greater financial stress and difficulties regarding their emotional attachment to the child.

It therefore appears that there is no correlation for fathers between the severity of the illness and increased depressive symptoms or marital dissatisfaction (Berge et al., 2006). If the father was experiencing depressive symptoms at the time of the diagnosis of the chronically ill child, he may experience an increase of these symptoms over time (Berge et al., 2006). The question of whether the mother’s increase in marital dissatisfaction also caused an increase in the father was not tested in this study (Berge et al., 2006).

Christian Counseling when Caring for a Chronically Ill Child

As a Christian counselor, I have witnessed the impact that caring for a chronically ill child can have on parents, and the strains that this can have on a marriage. However much you love your child, this is a trying and challenging time and you need to be attentive to your own needs and those of the rest of your family. Christian counseling can provide a safe space in which to process all that is happening to you, and can give you the strength to face your challenges in a healthy way.

“Walking it Alone,” courtesy of Lance Shields, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “_DSC0248.jpg,) courtesy of FaborfromHungary,


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