08/02/2017 11:41 GMT | Updated 09/02/2018 05:12 GMT

Under Pressure: New Research Sheds Light On The Relationships Of UK Parents Who Have A Child With A Learning Disability

Relationships matter: good quality relationships with partners, families, and friends are central to our health and wellbeing. Hence the Office for National Statistics found, when surveying the country about what matters most to our wellbeing, that relationships came out top (together with health). And at Relate, we know this directly from our work supporting thousands of couples, families and individuals every year in the counselling room and online, as well as from the wealth of research which attests to the centrality of relationships to our wellbeing. And this is why we've conducted a landmark The Way We Are Now survey of the UK's relationships to provide an important window into how our relationships are going. But in reporting on the quality of (and pressures on) relationships across the UK, it's important that we don't forget about particular groups of people in society who may face particularly intense pressures on their relationships, which may get lost in the national averages.

All relationships undergo change and experience pressures on occasion, but for particular groups, these pressures may be more profound. Learning disability is often a little-understood entity, and scarce research has examined the experiences of parents who have a child with a learning disability in terms of their relationships and the pressures they face. This is why Relate and Relationships Scotland were delighted to partner with learning disability charity Mencap to produce this latest report published today - the latest in the series of reports from our The Way We Are Now research - on the couple, family and social relationships of people who have a child with a learning disability.

This latest report published today, Under pressure: The relationships of UK parents who have a child with a learning disability, looks at these parents' relationships with each other, with families, with friends, and wider social networks, and compares these parents' relationships with the wider population of parents who do not have a child with a learning disability.

The picture it presents, sadly, is often rather bleak. Our research shows that parents who have a child with a learning disability often experience unnecessary strains on their relationships. The finding which comes across loud and clear is that parenting a child with a learning disability can place additional pressures on parents' relationships over and above those pressures which any family faces - and this can have a knock-on detrimental effect on parents' wellbeing.

These parents, on average, experience lower couple relationship quality (over a third are in distressed relationships, compared to less than a quarter of other parents), they're more likely to feel the impact of finding childcare and the challenges of bringing up children on their relationship (18% identified this as a relationship strain, compared to 12% of other parents), they're less likely to be able to make dedicated time to spend together as a couple (for example on 'date nights' - nearly a quarter only find time for this once a year or less, compared to 17% of other parents). These parents are also more likely than other parents to have no close friends, with one in six (17%) saying they do not have a single close friend, and isolation is clearly a major issue: over a fifth of parents feel lonely often or all the time - 70% higher than the proportion of other parents.

Parents who have a child with a learning disability also report lower quality relationships with family members, friends, neighbours, work colleagues, and bosses. And the impact of these relationships under pressure on parents' wellbeing is clear: these parents are more likely to never or rarely feel good about themselves, and more likely to feel down, depressed or hopeless.

It is vital to recognise, however, that nothing about this bleak picture is inevitable. Myths abound around learning disability, which is often little-understood and encounters unduly negative attitudes in the press, in public discourse, and even - unfortunately - sometimes from medical professionals. But there's nothing inherent in having a child with a learning disability which inevitably and automatically condemns parents to a life of struggle. With the right support, parents who have a child with a learning disability are able to enjoy the same strong, good quality relationships as anyone else.

When we look at the pressures facing families, we see very clearly that the main sources of strain on relationships are near-universal; the difference is one more of quantity more than quality, and parents who have a child with a learning disability are at greater risk of experiencing what are in fact common strains. These parents tend to have to face additional financial costs, for instance (It's particularly telling in our data that these parents are considerably more likely to identify money worries as a pressure on their relationships); they may have difficulties accessing the more specialist childcare provision their children need; they may have less time to spend together; they may have to give up work or reduce hours - meaning less income; they may encounter difficulties dealing with professionals and accessing the support to which they are entitled; they may feel isolated as a result of dealing with the additional pressures they may face. These challenges can exacerbate any ordinary pressures which tend to emerge from time to time over the natural course of the relationship.

And this means that it's not parenting a child with a learning disability per se that gives rise to these relationship pressures: parents are often facing the same common stressors on relationships which most of us face at some point, but which are intensified by the lack of support in the face of the extra need for it. (The extent of support needs is also highlighted by our data, which indicate that half of parents who have a child with a learning disability are themselves limited by a disability or long-term health condition.) This research indicates that too many parents are being failed by the system of support and are therefore seeing the daily impacts on their relationships and wellbeing.

Unhappy relationships can have a terrible impact on couples and their children, but it needn't be this way. Relate and Relationships Scotland have joined forces with Mencap to call for a package of support for parents of children with a learning disability, to reduce the pressures on relationships they are facing as well as improve the way in which services respond, including better access to short breaks services, improved childcare support for parents of children with a learning disability and targeted relationship support.

This research highlights starkly the significant levels of unmet needs for support and the impact this has on parents' relationships for parents who have a child with a learning disability. It's vital that all families can enjoy the good quality relationships which are such important pillars of wellbeing. This latest research therefore demands attention from policy-makers - far more needs to be done to support parents who have a child with a learning disability.