Even though I am an adult child of divorce (ACOD), this is hardly a term that I would throw down when describing myself at a cocktail party. That being said, the contours of my parent’s relationship have indelibly shaped the way that I view love, marriage, and long-term commitment.
During college, my dad asked my brother, John, and me to come to his house to watch some old home videos from our childhood. The first tape we chose could have been mistaken for an idyllic family scene: John and I were little, and before their divorce, our parents had taken us to the park to feed the ducks. All of our happy squeals were chorused by quacking as the ducks surrounded us.
At some point, the camera briefly panned to my mom breaking up pieces of bread nearby. Her eyes were downcast and her coloring was sallow. She seemed to be simultaneously exhausted and on the verge of tears.
As we were watching this on tape, my dad observed, “You guys really did like those ducks.”
John and I exchanged a look. Seriously?!
When Dad stood up to get a drink, my brother whispered to me: “Do you think Mom was that miserable for their whole marriage?”
My mom’s emotional state during my parent’s marriage wasn’t exactly a revelation. They eventually divorced when I was 7, a couple years after that video had been made. I remember enough of their marriage to know how unhappy my mom was.
The most striking thing about watching that video was the realization that even then, more than a dozen years after their divorce, my dad still seemed oblivious to her distress. In that moment, something crystallized in me: My hope — my prayer, really — became that I would one day find a life partner who would truly see me.
For those of us who grew up in divorced families, a vast amount of sociological research suggests that parental divorce has many long-range effects. ACODs are more likely to get divorced, themselves — and the rates of divorce are amplified if both spouses were children of divorce. (Research shows that in the 1970s, married people with divorced parents were about twice as likely to get a divorce as couples raised in “intact” families, but those numbers have steadily decreased throughout the decades.)
Beyond romantic prospects, divorce often leads to the diminished involvement of parents. The effects on girls without consistent father-figures can significantly lower confidence levels, which may negatively impact educational achievement.
During much of college and my early 20s, the thought of dating paralyzed me. As much as I desired to be in a relationship, my fear of “getting it wrong” usually kept romantic prospects at a distance. Eventually, I met someone and fell in love. I broke off our engagement, though, when it became painfully clear that he was deceiving me about the extent of his mental health concerns. It took several years of therapy to process that pain and realize how many of my insecurities around love and dating stemmed from wounds of my parent’s divorce.
I’ve learned a lot about how my parent’s deteriorating relationship has impacted my expectations. I am now a married mother of two. My husband, Richard, is a gentle soul and a very affirming life partner. Somewhat ironically, my professional time is spent accompanying people who are separated or divorced in San Diego. I also help prepare engaged couples for marriage, and during those workshops, I try to speak directly to adult children of divorce in the room — or anyone with particular challenges or traumas from their family of origin.
Here are my hopes and insights for anyone who wants to approach their serious relationships or marriage with hope and authenticity.
It is important to repeatedly state the obvious: Your choices are not your parents’ choices. Their mistakes are not on you or your current relationship. If anything, self-aware ACODs have certain advantages in approaching long-term relationships. Many ACODs act cautiously when initially selecting a life partner. Additionally, they know intuitively that love is a decision comprised of daily choices — one that requires ongoing effort and maintenance. They may also be more attuned to the nuances in their partner’s communication and behavior.
Seek therapy if you feel that there may be unresolved issues from your parent’s relationship or with your individual relationship with either of your parents. If you want a low-barrier place to start, I recommend contacting local universities with master’s programs in marriage and family therapy. Many of these programs will connect you with their students, who need training hours and can offer low-cost therapy under professional supervision. Greater personal insight is going to positively affect your own romantic relationship.
Learn and develop healthier relationship skills online. Drs. John and Julie Gottman are essentially the godparents of marriage and family therapy. The Gottman Institute offers webinars and multimedia presentations on various topics, such as healthy communication and conflict resolution. These programs are suitable for all couples regardless of personal history or how long they have been together.
Share your story with friends who also grew up in divorced families. I don’t know how many cathartic nights I have spent laughing through ridiculous family stories with a close friend from graduate school. Being able to joke and commiserate with others has done wonders to remind me that the healing process is a journey best shared with a like-minded community.