One of the biggest fears that many adult children of divorce have is that their marriages, too, will end in divorce.
Unfortunately, statistics give weight to this fear: marriages where one or both spouses come from divorced or separated families are more likely to break down, have more conflict, and are even less happy than when both spouses come from intact families. Further, children of divorce are more likely to postpone marriage and cohabitate instead; the leap of faith needed for a lifelong commitment can just seem too risky and daunting given what they’ve been through.
But statistics are not destiny and, as we wrote in an earlier piece, children of divorce are not fated to repeat their parents’ mistakes! So how can adult children of divorce break the cycle of relational brokenness and build happy, lasting marriages?
This question is not abstract to us — it’s very real. The year we got married, Dan’s parents completed their divorce proceedings, which had begun more than a decade earlier when they separated while he was in middle school. It felt ironic and deeply sad that we were beginning our life together as his parents were definitively ending theirs. And it caused some anxiety in us: Could we make it work? Would we last?
We knew we wanted to follow a different path, and we decided to inscribe into our wedding bands a reference to a short Bible verse that brought us both comfort and courage: “Perfect love casts out fear.” To us, that phrase is a rallying cry to trust that love can last, that we can marry with confidence.
But it’s one thing to want a strong and lasting marriage and another thing to succeed in that goal, especially when your own parents weren’t able to provide an example you want to follow. Here are some suggestions we’ve found helpful in our own lives, and also in our ministry to adult children of divorce, where the topic of relationships and marriage comes up a lot.
Work on your own personal healing
This is true for every couple. A marriage is stronger when both husband and wife are committed to personal growth and addressing whatever wounds they carry with them. It’s not selfish to focus attention on self-growth and personal healing. Instead, seeking wholeness can only strengthen the relationship and build a stronger bond as we take ownership for our “stuff” and seek healing in those places we need it. For adult children of divorce, a number of “habits of healing” — such as grieving the loss and working toward forgiveness — can be a good place to start.
Develop realistic expectations of marriage
Many children of divorce are either overly cynical or overly romantic about marriage. For those that tend toward cynicism, this might manifest as believing deep down that relationships just don’t last or are destined to be miserable. Or cynicism looks like always being on guard, waiting for the other shoe to drop. For example, we have a good friend (a child of divorce) who told us that every time she and her husband argued, she’d mentally make an exit strategy, thinking of what she’d bring, where to go, what to do with their kids, etc. It was a revelation when she finally realized this pattern, which had been happening almost automatically.
On the other hand, adult children of divorce can become overly romantic about marriage, believing, for example, that a “truly good” relationship should be conflict-free, or that marriage to the right person will fix all the wounds inflicted by their family background. Then when conflicts do happen (as they do in the best of relationships), and when wounds persist, they can feel disillusioned about marriage.
For us, St. Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body” gave us a renewed vision for what we wanted our marriage to look like. Here we learned (among many other things) that our sacrament of marriage can bring us many graces and even healing, but that it’s also a pathway for our growth — most often through the difficulties and conflicts that inevitably arise.
Be proactive in dealing with conflict
Speaking of conflict, that’s an area of marriage adult children of divorce can struggle with mightily. It makes sense: many either saw a lot of their parents’ conversations end with arguing, or worse; or they didn’t see conflict handled at all, until one day the marriage was over, seemingly out of nowhere. Conflict for children of divorce can be a tremendous trigger, bringing up memories of family chaos or feeling like completely uncharted territory.
But the truth is, working through conflict charitably can bring couples closer together and build intimacy. As difficult as it is sometimes, navigating disagreements can teach you a lot about the other person’s heart and needs, and gives tremendous practice at saying words that every marriage needs to thrive: “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.”
Handling conflict well is not a hereditary trait but rather a skill that any couple can learn; adult children of divorce may just need more guidelines, and some role models, too. Check out one of the many books on the market about handling conflict well, go to a marriage therapist for specific advice, or ask a friend whose marriage you admire how they work through things.
Seek out mentors
Indeed, one of the best things married children of divorce can do is proactively seek out friends and mentors to whom they can look for inspiration in their own marriage. We need to see holy, happy love up close and personally! We personally have benefited greatly from conversations with couples married far longer than we have. We’ve learned new perspectives and been encouraged by their lasting marriages. And we also have friends at our own “stage” of marriage that journey with us, so we can support each other.
Replace patterns of self-protection with self-giving
Finally, for many adult children of divorce, it’s easy or habitual to approach relationships from a stance of self-protection (picture arms crossed in a defensive posture) instead of from a stance of self-gift (picture arms wide open in an inviting and vulnerable posture).
There’s a very understandable reason for this: children of divorce have experienced a wound, a breach of trust, at the core of their family. Keeping others at arm’s length, or putting up emotional barriers, is a smart move when viewed from the perspective of survival in the midst of relational chaos. But self-protection can become unhelpful and unhealthy when trying to have happy, intimate relationships. It’s impossible to become truly intimate with someone who has barricades up at every turn.
Self-protection can look like always needing to be the “doer” in a relationship, to not be put in the more vulnerable role as a dependent receiver. Or it can look like holding back certain aspects of your life or past, even as the relationship progresses to a level of deeper sharing. We also know children of divorce who use humor as a way to always deflect more serious (more vulnerable) conversations. And self-protection can look like just not letting anyone get close, not moving relationships to the next level, or ending things when they get “too serious.”
It takes courage to examine ways in which we might have self-protective behavior that we want to change. It can take therapy, peer support, and good friends to learn to trust again after being hurt in the past. But the rewards of mutually self-giving relationships can’t be overstated and are worth all the effort. Healing and lasting love is possible!