What I didn’t realize until recently is that our childhood experiences, including our parents’ divorce, create scaffolding for how we experience love as adults. In my case, my parents’ split when I was young and I long to recapture the love they lost, even though it’s a fantasy.
But since I didn’t grow up with a healthy template for how couples achieve intimacy and resolve conflicts, I’m more prone to reenact unhealthy relationship patterns. Although I desperately want to build a healthy long-lasting relationship, I don’t always know how to go about it.
You may have heard that divorce runs in families. This is certainly true for me. Two of my three sisters have been divorced and two out of four nephews have experienced their own divorce. My mother raised us with a mindset that romantic relationships were disposable. It was a pessimistic outlook that left me believing that it was okay to bail out when things got tough with my partner.
After only dating for a year, I leaped headlong into my first marriage without considering that our backgrounds, values, personalities, and interests were drastically different. In hindsight, I’ve come to understand the importance of picking a life partner who you are compatible with. As a young woman, I was pretty clueless about the challenges of marriage and picked a partner who was all wrong for me. Consequently, I followed in my parents’ footsteps and divorced after sixteen years of marriage.
However, one of my sisters and I have adopted a more favorable view of marriage over time. Consequently, we were both willing to take a chance on love the second time around. Fortunately, we both enjoy happy long-term second marriages. As a parent, I have attempted to convey optimism about marriage to my children and encourage them to overcome the legacy of divorce in my family.
By now, you’ve probably gathered that many adult children of divorce (ACODs) have a distinctive take on marriage– one that predisposes them to think about divorce as a viable solution to unhappiness with their wedded state. Research by E. Mavis Hetherington, author of For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered sheds light on the generational aspect of divorce. After studying over 1,400 people over 30 years, she found that adult children of divorce are much more likely to see divorce as an option to problems in their marriage than counterparts raised in intact homes.
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 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.
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” a large study that concurs with 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 you break the cycle of destructive relationships and divorce? Self-awareness and a willingness to work on changing yourself is an important first step. According to Dr. Lisa Firestone, “You have 100 percent of the power necessary to change your relationship, but you can only do so by taking a closer look at yourself, making your own personal development a priority, and taking specific actions to change your part in dynamics you do not like.”
If you are an adult child of divorce, 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, Caroline was mistrustful of her fiancé Brian due to her father’s infidelity until she learned to heal her wounds from the past. When he was ten or fifteen minutes late, her mind would go into overdrive – as if she was wired to recreate the past when triggers activated old memories. But Caroline has learned to slow down when she feels mistrustful, take a deep breath, and seek to understand Brian before jumping to conclusions and accusing him of being inconsiderate or betraying her. Counseling has helped her come to terms with how trust issues from the past impacted her reactions to Brian.
Tips to help you break the cycle of divorce:
- Gain awareness about past hurt. For instance, examine how your parents’ unhealthy patterns impact your choices in partners.
- Pick partners who share similar interests and values. Pinpoint destructive traits in some of the partners you are attracted to. Finding a good match may require that you choose a new “type” in the future, according to experts.
- Build trust in relationships. Pause and examine whether your mistrustful thoughts are a result of your past or present. Extend trust to partners that demonstrate consistency between their words and actions.
- Don’t rush into intimate relationships and attempt to know a partner at least two years before you make a permanent commitment.
- 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.
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.”
In closing, 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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