Breaking the Legacy of Divorce

Believe it or not, divorce runs in families. It’s hard to get out from under the shadow of divorce when you seemed destined to recreate the past. So how can you break the legacy of divorce in your life?

By Terry Gaspard (MSW, LICSW) and Tracy Clifford
Updated: April 17, 2017
Breaking the Legacy of Divorce

If you’ve been divorced, you surely don’t want to endure another. And if you grew up in a divorced home, you surely don’t want the same fate for your child. Studies show that adult children of divorce have double the risk of divorce compared to counterparts from intact homes. The truth is that it’s hard to get out from under the shadow of divorce when at times we feel wired to recreate the past.

Judith Wallerstein, a psychologist and researcher who created a 25-year study on the effects of divorce on children, wrote, “Ultimately, your goal is to close the door on your parents’ divorce, to separate the now from the then. By giving up wanting what you didn’t have, you can set yourself free.” Although Wallerstein devoted much of her prolific career to preventing divorce, she also believed that a divorce undertaken thoughtfully and realistically could teach children how to confront serious life problems with compassion.

We know divorce has been our greatest teacher. It has taught us about what’s really important in life, and it’s made us more careful when it comes to making a commitment in our relationships and in all other aspects of our lives. When you grow up in a divorced home, you view love through a different lens as an adult. When you have a marriage of your own, you may desperately fear it ending. But as a daughter of divorce, with courage and persistence, you can learn to develop a relationship based on love, trust, and unfaltering commitment.

The breakup of a family may signify the loss of childhood for girls. These same girls may grow into womanhood and become particularly vulnerable to fears and anxieties about the future – just as they are forming their own romantic relationships. When they fall in love, it reopens the wounds that were created in childhood. As we’ve seen, many daughters of divorce have trouble with trust and intimacy and fear that no matter what they do, they’ll be left. Consequently, they tend to pick partners who are all wrong for them and lack confidence in their ability to make love last.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Catherine’s story provides an example of how the legacy of divorce can be changed in families, against all odds.

After a few years of counseling, Catherine came to terms with the qualities she needed to find in a partner in order for her to feel secure and rebuild trust in relationships. After dating several unsuitable partners, she met her husband, Ethan, in her late twenties. They took three years to get to know each other before deciding to get married. Last year, Catherine gave birth to their second child, a baby girl, and she is determined to work on her marriage. She says, “My marriage is the exact opposite of my parents’. My husband is a stable person, hardworking, loving, responsible, and dependable.”

Catherine refuses to let her parents’ divorce and her father’s abandonment define her. Instead, these events have given her strength and insight. They have proven to be motivating factors to make her relationship with her husband work. Her divorce experience as a child made her understand what it is that she really needs – someone who will be there for her, no matter what. Catherine could have chosen to blame her father, to let his alcoholism, infidelity, and the resulting financial hardships impact the rest of her life. There’s no doubt these things brought her pain – but the difference is that she made a deliberate decision to accept the bad things that happened, and not let them hold her back from the best life has to offer.

Breaking the Cycle of Divorce

So how can a child of divorce 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. You can learn to recognize destructive dynamics that exist in intimate relationships and take steps to change them. Breaking patterns can be as basic as reversing roles with your partner and making a decision not to get stuck in the same old disagreements.

For instance, Catherine and Ethan decided he would be the one to prepare dinner since he gets home first, and she would clean up so they would both have time to relax with their two children in the evening. Since Catherine is self-reliant to a fault, she never asked Ethan to cook previously and would feel resentful because she took on too much responsibility and didn’t have time for herself or her family. Small changes can go a long way to add to feelings of happiness and equality in a relationship. The good news is that you have the opportunity to learn from your parents’ mistakes (and your own) and to create a healthy, long-lasting relationship.

In fact, there may be a silver lining to experiencing parental divorce. In Overcoming Your Parents’ Divorce (New Horizon Press, 2008), Elisabeth Joy LaMotte 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.” How you use that awareness and whether you let it help you move forward will make the difference in your ability to create great relationships.

If you are a child of divorce, it is important to explore why intimate relationships can present challenges so that you can overcome them. Kayla is a college student and single mom in her late twenties who was raised by her mother and grandmother. She was one year old when her father left – announcing that he was moving in with his girlfriend. Kayla was too young to remember the incident or his engagement to her stepmother less than a year later. But she does know that she felt a sense of emptiness because she longed for more contact with her father and only visited him occasionally due to conflicts between her parents.

Although Kayla didn’t attribute her difficulties in romantic relationships to the absence of her father until recently, she entered young adulthood with a pervasive sense of doubt related to her ability to sustain an intimate relationship. Due to her father leaving suddenly when she was an infant, Kayla had an inherent mistrust of men and a simultaneous longing for their attention and recognition. “Throughout my teens,” she tells me, “I had a very low self-image, and if I ever did date, I’d hang on and throw hysterical fits if they even hinted at leaving.” She reflects: “My fiancé, Tom, is teaching me what’s normal in a relationship. When we first got together I’d get mad easily, but I’ve learned I don’t have to get mad to show love. I used to believe that if I could hurt you first, you’re not going to hurt me. Tom is showing me that love doesn’t have to be paired with pain.

“After I had Shelby last year, I realized that things could be different between her and my father, so I decided to give it a try. In fact, he’s watching her right now while I’m in school, and I’m living vicariously through her.” When I asked Kayla what the main reason was for her willingness to work on her relationship with her father, she said: “I’m looking to give Shelby a different kind of life than I had growing up. What’s helping me is that my dad’s trying to be a good grandpa.”

Kayla’s story is a reminder that even the most troubled, baggage-laden relationship isn’t entirely without hope. Though growing up in a divorced home presented them with challenges, most of the women in our study found something of value in their relationships with their parents and reasons to forgive them. These women taught us that forgiveness is an essential aspect of forging healthy relationships with others.

Finding Love We Can Be Sure Of

Every person harbors a desire to love and be loved, but the problem for many daughters of divorce is that they fear they won’t be loved and cared for, and that their partner won’t have their best interests at heart. Healthy partnerships are within reach if you let go of fear and believe you are worthy of love and all of the gifts it has to offer.

The best relationships are ones born out of trust and vulnerability – we can’t stress this enough. In positive relationships, each partner approaches one another as an equal. The relationship doesn’t drain its participants; instead it nourishes. Differences between partners are complementary, not conflicting. These differences are advantageous; they don’t create a hindrance to the relationship but instead contribute to its growth. In a healthy relationship, partners draw out untapped possibilities in one another. A successful romantic relationship is where you feel at your best.

Like all challenges in life, greater awareness and willingness to work on an issue can bring about change. And the fact of the matter is that you can create more trusting relationships if you give yourself permission to be vulnerable and take risks. We are living proof that it is possible to restore your faith in love, and that every person, regardless of what they have been through, is worthy of finding love they can be sure of.

As a child of divorce, intimate relationships and marriage may present many challenges for you, but you must also recognize that you are armed with your own strengths to face these and embrace them. It’s likely that you don’t take commitment for granted. Your relationships are sacred to you, in ways that those who come from intact homes can’t understand. You probably find it’s easy to second-guess yourself, and you may be convinced that your life would have been better if you had grown up with a happier home life. But the experience of growing up in a divorced family can provide you with a deeper well of emotion to pull from and a greater appreciation for the sacredness of commitment and marriage.

Personal growth means shaping and reshaping your thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs. It can be hard to “unlearn” these deep-rooted ideas from the legacy of your parents’ divorce, but real growth and happiness occur when you face your disappointments and losses and work through them. No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to restore your faith in yourself and in love. Faith means having a hopeful attitude toward life – one that will help you get out of those stuck places and move into profound healing. Only then can you build relationships based on love, trust, and intimacy. You are worthy of love and, more importantly, you are capable of it. Now go get it!

Daughters of DivorceThis article has been edited and excerpted from Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks, 2016) by mother-and-daughter team Terry Gaspard, (MSW, LICSW) and Tracy Clifford. This uplifting guide will help adult children of divorce to heal the wounds of the past, recognize destructive dynamics, and create strong partnerships in the future. Terry is a regular blogger on and

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October 26, 2016
Categories:  Coping with Divorce

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