You may have heard that divorce runs in families. What I’ve come to believe is that our childhood experiences, including our parents’ divorce, create scaffolding for how we experience love as adults. Since my parents split when I was seven years old, I didn’t grow up with a healthy template for how couples achieve intimacy and resolve conflict. Although I desperately want to build a positive intimate relationship, I don’t always know how to go about it.
Do you ever wonder if you’ll get out from under the shadow of your parents’ divorce? Today, more than 40 percent of all Americans will experience a parental divorce prior to age sixteen, according to researcher Paul Amato. Today’s adult children of divorce (ACODS) are the first generation of children to grow up witnessing mass divorce who are now young adults making their own decisions about love and commitment. It makes sense that people in their 20’s and 30’s might hedge their bets and see relationships as risky if they watched their parents’ marriage fail.
Anyone who grew up in a divorced home has probably questioned at some point whether or not they are likely to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Researchers have begun to isolate certain effects of parental divorce that can follow children into adulthood. For instance, my findings show that ACODS often approach commitment warily and feel pessimistic about the permanence of romantic relationships. After all, it’s human nature to want to avoid pain and to fear reenacting the past.
What are the chances that you’ll get a divorce if your parents’ split when you were a child? The generational aspect of divorce is one of the many topics examined in “The Longevity Project” conducted by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin. This study started in 1921 and tracked some 1,500 boys and girls throughout their lives, aiming to find the secret to a long life. Their findings support Paul Amato’s research , showing that being an ACOD approximately doubles your risk of getting a divorce, compared to counterparts from intact homes.
So how can ACODS break the cycle of destructive relationships and divorce? Self-awareness and a willingness to work on self-defeating relationship patterns is an important first step. According to Dr. Lisa Firestone, you can learn to recognize destructive dynamics that exist in intimate relationships and take simple steps to change. She writes, “Breaking patterns can be as simple as asking yourself who usually makes the decisions about where to go for dinner or what movie to see, then reversing the roles of active and passive decision-maker. Little changes like this can help add feelings of equality to your relationships.”
The good news is that you have the opportunity to learn from your parent’s mistakes (and your own) and to create a healthy, long-lasting relationship. In fact, there might be a silver lining to experiencing parental divorce. According to Elisabeth Joy LaMotte, a therapist and author of Overcoming the Legacy of Your Parents’ Divorce, children of divorce have the potential to be better off in marriage than their parents. She writes, “Children of divorce are more likely to enter young adulthood with their eyes wide open, and such awareness holds the potential for great relationship success.”
If you are an ACOD, it’s important to explore reasons why intimate relationships can present challenges so that you can overcome them. You might find yourself in relationship patterns that mirror your family of origin because that’s what you observed. Another factor may be what Freud referred to as repetition compulsion. This is a tendency that people have to repeat patterns from the past as a way to gain mastery over them. For instance, Jenna was mistrustful of her fiancé Trevor due to her father’s infidelity until she learned to heal her wounds from the past.
Jenna, in her late twenties, spent over a decade struggling with ghosts from the past and experiencing turmoil in romantic relationships. She tended to pick guys who were all wrong for her and to settle for less than she deserved in relationships. Because she lacked insight into her past, she found herself reenacting the painful memories of her parents’ divorce. Jenna’s parents split when she was fourteen – because her father attended a Valentine’s Day party with another woman – a close family friend.
During young adulthood, Jena was attracted to toxic relationships and struggled through a series of unhealthy, short-term ones, until she met Trevor, at age twenty-eight. Prior to meeting him, she admits to sabotaging relationships by being mistrustful and controlling. As Jenna describes her issue with trust, she says, “My first serious boyfriend in college cheated on me several times. He betrayed me just like my dad cheated on my mom. After college, I dated someone who was wonderful and treated me right. But since I wasn’t used to wonderful, I left him and picked guys who were the opposite of him.”
For nearly two decades, Jenna avoided making a commitment because she was mistrustful and fearful of ending up like her parents. Like many daughters of divorce, she needed special permission to grieve the loss of her original family. With support from a seasoned therapist, Jenna gained the insight to break the self-defeating pattern of mistrust.
When I asked Jenna what the most difficult parts of an intimate relationship are, she stopped and nodded: “Trust and intimacy are not my strong suits. I hope that my marriage is nothing like my parents. I hope that it will be based on commitment and communication, which Trevor and I have been working on.”
These tips will help you break the cycle of divorce:
- Gain awareness about past hurt. For instance, Jenna learned that her parents’ unhealthy patterns had impacted their choices in partners.
- Attempt to forgive yourself and others and move on from the past. Forgiving others doesn’t mean you condone their behavior – you simply give it less power over your life.
- Build trust in relationships. Pause and examine whether your mistrustful thoughts are a result of your past or present.
- Find ways to repair the damage by writing a new narrative – one that includes picking partners who are trustworthy and willing to work on a committed relationship.
- Examine your expectations about intimate relationships. If you are focused on your dream of how a relationship should be rather than reality – this can lead to disappointment.
- Develop positive intentions such as: I am going to focus on things I can control and let go of those things that are beyond my control.
In closing, with time and patience, you can begin to visualize the kind of life you deserve. Crafting a new story for your life means not allowing your parents’ divorce or unhappiness to define who you are as a person. Restoring your faith in love includes building relationships based on love, trust, and intimacy. Remember to be gentle with yourself and others on your journey.
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