If you grew up as a child of divorce, you might find yourself asking: Why am I afraid of conflict? Why am I waiting for the other shoe to drop, even during times of success? Or, why am I afraid of commitment? With breakups running rampant in my family, I’ve often been plagued with pessimism and anxiety about whether or not love can last. However, I’ve come to realize that going into a romantic relationship as a clear-eyed realist can enhance my chances of achieving a successful, long-term partnership.
While it’s natural to approach romantic relationships warily if you’re an adult child of divorce (ACOD), it can be counterproductive to compare your own relationship to your parents’. Author Sue Nador advises ACODS to be cautiously optimistic and deliberate in their approach to dating and commitment. She writes, “Most importantly, I dispensed with any romantic notions that marriage was always happily ever after and till death do us part. I believe this knowledge set me up for later success.”
Today, more than 40 percent of all Americans between the ages of eighteen and forty are children of divorce. In fact, young adults today are the first generation of children to grow up witnessing mass divorce. It makes sense that people in their 20s and 30s might hedge their bets and see relationships as risky if they watched their parents’ marriage fail or even relatives and friends parents’ marriage collapse.
According to researcher Paul Amato, ACODS have double the risk of divorce, compared to counterparts raised in intact homes. However many experts such as Elisabeth Joy Lamotte, author of Overcoming The Legacy of Your Parents’ Divorce believe that ACODS 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.”
The good news is that only a relatively small number of ACODS suffer from serious effects such as anxiety and depression. The results from E. Mavis Hetherington’s landmark study of 1,400 divorced families found that the short term effects of divorce – anxiety, anger, shock, and disbelief are overcome by the end of the second year. She also discovered that 75% of adults raised in divorced families made out fairly well and didn’t suffer serious problems into adulthood.
My findings support Hetherington’s view that ACODS possess many strengths such as being self-reliant, hard-working, and self-directed. However, it’s important to acknowledge that most ACODS didn’t grow up with healthy relationship templates to follow so they might have issues with love, trust, and intimacy in intimate relationships. They also tend to be more cynical about commitment and marriage because they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. My results concur with Hetherington showing that daughters of divorce often have more trust issues than sons in adult relationships.
In a recent movie A.C.O.D., actor Adam Scott plays Carter, a content and successful man who decides to revisit a former counselor to make sense of his brother’s wedding and his parents’ extremely messy divorce. When he decides to confront his family about their dysfunctional communication, we witness Carter’s anguish and his fear of commitment coming to a head with his girlfriend Lauren, played by Mary Elisabeth Winstead. While comedy may exaggerate real-life, this film does an amazing job of highlighting how a high-conflict divorce can result in an ACOD becoming cynical about love and commitment.
If you are an ACOD, it’s no longer up to others to help you bounce back from your parents’ divorce. But in order to heal and adjust, you must move out of the place of being a victim and take responsibility for your recovery. It can no longer be about your parents’ attitude or behavior. It’s time for you to create change in your life and move forward. You will discover you can change self-defeating patterns in your relationships and build ones based on love, trust, and intimacy. With greater awareness, you can learn to recognize the forces that shape you and build healthier relationships for yourself.
In fact, experiencing divorce as a child can make you more careful about whom you choose for a partner as an adult. This can emerge as your signature strength. You understand the fragility of love, yet maintain a respect for its sacred place in your life. Once you are aware of the root of your issues, you can and will change your outlook about love and intimacy – letting go of fear of rejection and past hurt. You can learn to adopt a mindset that it is good to be open about your innermost thoughts, feelings, and wishes.
Instead of being paralyzed by fear and shame, you can risk being vulnerable and open with your partner. In doing so, you may find that it allows you to build trust with him or her, and increases your sense of worthiness and authenticity. In the long run, vulnerability is the glue that holds a relationship together and will allow you to give and receive love fully.
The following personal steps will help you begin your healing journey:
- Let go of the past and positive things will start to happen. When you see yourself as a victim, your actions will confirm a negative view of yourself.
- Focus on your strengths – the things that helped you to cope with the losses of growing up in a divided home such as self-reliance. But also begin dealing with any leftover issues from the past.
- Face your fear of commitment and embrace the notion that a lifetime commitment has to be made when there is some degree of uncertainty. If you wait to make a commitment when you are free of doubts, it will never happen.
- Remember that life can be more rewarding when you take risks and make a commitment to a partner who seems to be a good match for you.
- Take your time dating someone and make sure you’ve known them for at least two years before making a lifelong commitment to reduce your risk of divorce.
- Make sure that you have common values with individuals who you date. If you marry someone with drastically different values, you will face complex issues that could put you more at risk for divorce.
- Stop comparing your own romantic relationships to your parents’. Attempt to see yourself as capable of learning from the past, rather than repeating it.
- Use positive intentions such as “I am capable of creating loving, trusting relationships.” Recognize that you are responsible for your own happiness.
It’s never too late to restore you faith in love, even though the odds may be stacked against you. Your parents’ divorce doesn’t have to define who you are as a person. Your divorce experience can make you stronger, more realistic, and better prepared for the requirements of love. Whether you choose to marry or not, you have it within your reach to create satisfying relationships and to achieve personal happiness.
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