The Legacy of Divorce on Children and Relationships

If you divorce, are your children doomed to repeat your relationship mistakes? The answer will surprise – and encourage – you.

By Mel Krantzler, Ph.D., and Patricia Biondi Krantzler
Updated: November 11, 2015
Legacy of Divorce

In our counseling practice with men and women who have grown up in families that have never been divorced, we have observed much fear of commitment to a long-term relationship or marriage. Relationships are scary, they tell us; and as for marriage, look at their parents' lives -- daily disasters. In terms of conventional wisdom, you would imagine they grew up in bitter divorced households rather than in "intact" families.

For all too many men and women who have lived in households where Mom and Dad stayed together unhappily, the high divorce rates are being used as excuses for avoiding any long-term commitment or marriage. Why try to engage in a committed relationship if it's bound to fail? After all, the Census Bureau confirms that one out of every two marriages ends in divorce. And if you were married once, you stand double the chance of getting divorced if you married again.

They have also taken for granted the family imprinting they received about staying together permanently ("Look at what it did to my mother and father"). They feel that marriage inevitably fosters a barren existence. They never questioned while they were growing up whether or not marriage meant only what they saw their parents living through, and they never reflected in their adulthood that better relationships could exist.

On the other hand, in our research with the many men and women participating in our adult children of divorce groups, we have found -- what even surprised us both -- a primarily upbeat view of long-term commitment and marriage. Not because they wanted to replicate their parents' relationship, but in spite of it. While growing up, the adult children of divorce (who are currently involved in successful long-term relationships) were able to disassociate themselves emotionally and intellectually from their parents' marital problems. They viewed themselves as observers, not as participants, of family wars. This enabled them to learn from their parents' disastrous relationship rather than repeat it. The quality they possessed was one of the forms of resilience that enabled them in their adulthood to become winners instead of losers in long-term relationships -- with or without a marriage license.

These adult children of divorce (ACDs) have the ability to consider themselves as outsiders. It seemed to come naturally to them to view their parents' relationship problems as jigsaw puzzles, and that they had to seek out the missing pieces to make sense of those puzzles. And the crises they experienced, both before and after their parents' divorce, made them see their family situations as opportunities to rethink the meanings of commitment and marriage. Their outsider point of view enabled them to do so.

Creating Positive Relationships

The adult children of divorce who have successful long-term relationships can attribute that reality to their taking personal responsibility to make positive things happen in their life. No cop-outs, no fault-finding in others to excuse one's own fears and inadequacies. They refused to play the role of victim that they saw one or usually both of their parents play out on a daily basis. Consequently, while it was important to discover what these ACDs avoided in their own relationships that their parents didn't avoid, it was equally necessary to explore and define the ways in which they took personal responsibility for making their long-term relationships work well.

Here is what ACDs report as helping them to build positive relationships.

1. Respect Each Other as Separate Individuals
These ACDs were determined to value their partner as a separate individual and regard him or her with courtesy and decency, validating what he or she had to say about any issue even when not necessarily agreeing with a point of view that might differ from their own. "My parents were pleasanter to an acquaintance, a salesperson, a fellow worker, or a friend than they were to each other. They used four-letter words just on each other, and I used to say that when I grew up I'd never be like that." This is the kind of statement we frequently heard.

2. Value Each Other's Differences
They learned to appreciate each other's differences and showed each other the space and time to develop their own interests and abilities as well as what they had in common. "We learn from each other," an ACD told us. "My wife has taught me to appreciate nature and earthy things because I grew up in the city streets of Chicago. On the other hand, I've been able to acquaint her with art museums, poetry, and foreign films, which she never was exposed to before. And she likes them very much. Our differences have added spice to our relationship, rather than poison like they did with my parents."

3. Make Relationships as Equal as Possible
"In these times, my wife works a full day, just as I do, so it's only right that I share the housework with her. I make more money than she does, but she has an equal right to make important decisions with me. I didn't marry her because I could dominate her by making more money, I married her because I loved her, period." A common thread exists in all the ACDs we counseled, and that is this need to make a relationship as equal as possible if it is to succeed. They had witnessed the gross inequality, the eternal one-upmanship in their parents' marriage and saw these practices led to divorce. Dysfunctional couples lack the awareness of how and when to cooperate with each other. They are like two ships passing in the night, misunderstanding each other until a time develops when their two ships collide into a divorce. In these dysfunctional relationships, a husband and a wife are trapped into mistaking suggestions for improving the behavior of one's partner as criticisms and complaints. The tone in which these statements are made is usually tainted with anger and resentment. The bottom line is that both the husband and wife feel attacked, put down, and criticized as if each were a little child. It's as if Big Mamma or Big Daddy is laying down the law and you are being forced to comply with your partner's demand. They have not treated each other as equals, but as a person one must dominate to get one's needs met.

4. Cultivate the Power of Forgiveness
The belief in the need to practice forgiveness and to apologize to one's partner for any harm that is done was imprinted in all of the ACDs who have successful relationships. Here is the consensus of their thinking, which is the exact opposite of what their parents did while they were growing up. Past hurts recalled, remembered slights and putdowns, cruel acts done in anger, harsh words that cut like a knife -- these were "normal" events they saw their parents create while they were growing up. They later learned their parents weren't "bad" people, but did hurtful and harmful things to each other because they didn't know how to avoid such actions. They never forgave themselves or each other or decided to take the next step of learning how to eliminate their destructive behavior so it wouldn't be repeated. The ACDs who have successful relationships learned what not to do by observing their parents' angry behavior. For many of these ACDs forgiveness meant forgiving their parents for their hurtful behavior and using their power of forgiveness in their own relationships to successful effect.

5. Differentiate Between your Partner as a Person and His or Her Behavior
One of the way-stations on the road to these ACDs' parents' divorce was their inability to understand or practice the message that their partner was not the behavior they disliked. When spouses repeatedly use unkind words to each other, brainwashing occurs as if it is directed against the person rather than the behavior that is disliked. The truth that you can hate some of a person's behavior but still love the person was unknown to the parents of today's ACDs. Consequently, each felt any criticism was an attack on their personhood. In the long run, instead of eliminating the behavior they disliked, they eliminated each other from their lives by getting divorced. The successful ACD learns from this defect in their parents' relationship and makes every attempt to avoid it happening in their own relationship. He or she would be quick to say to one's partner, for example, "Look, I love you, but I don't like the amount of money you spent on that computer gadget you just bought without consulting me." This focuses the issue on the problem to be solved, namely how much money should be spent, rather than labeling one's partner as a selfish person, which would sound like an attack against the person, leaving the issue of solving how to spend the family's income hanging in the air.

6. Seek Outside Problem-Solving Help
ACDs in successful relationships tell us they never hesitate to seek outside help from a marriage or relationship counselor when they are faced with what seems to be irreconcilable differences. They would tell us, "Our parents always believed it was a sign of personal failure if they would reveal to outsiders that they couldn't solve their marriage problems. So they never solved these problems and got divorced. It's a strong person who goes to a counselor -- not a weak one. How dumb it would be if you had a heart attack and wouldn't go to a doctor because you thought you should fix your own problems. Well, it's no different if you believe you have a broken heart because things are going badly in your marriage. That's also dangerous, because it can cause depression which can make you physically ill. So it's only sensible to go to a counselor to give you some insight on how to resolve the problem you and your partner are facing -- going together because you don't go to get divorced but instead to get rid of the behavior that's liable to cause you to divorce."

7. Confront and Overcome Unfinished Business from Childhood
Successful ACDs don't hesitate to seek out professional help with the problems in their interpersonal relationships when it is needed. However, there are many unresolved problems in all people's lives -- problems from childhood -- whether one grew up in a divorced or a non-divorced household. Many of the ACDs in our groups went to counselors before as well as after they were involved in a relationship and found that counseling was enormously helpful in resolving unfinished issues from the past that were still plaguing them in adult life.

They contended with negative inheritances from their dysfunctional family backgrounds such as incest (not only girls by a father or a relative, but also boys had been attacked). Some discovered they had an Attention Deficit Disorder which had been left undiagnosed.

Another major concern was attempting to resolve problems by violent means. Such men and women grew up seeing their parents physically abusing each other. It appeared they used violence against each other as a way to attempt to solve their marital difficulties even though this behavior intensified their problems.

Consequently, a number of ACDs grew up unconsciously believing such behavior between two people was "normal." When they discovered it was abnormal, they sought out and received professional help to eliminate this behavior from their lives because they had consciously decided years ago they would never act in this manner when they grew up. Once they were in touch with the unconscious programming that triggered them to replicate their parents' antisocial behavior, they were able to establish new, nonviolent methods to solve their problems.

8. Practice Tolerance Instead of Judgmental Behavior
ACDs have an unacknowledged advantage over the men and women who grew up in a non-divorced household: they are exposed to a far wider variety of lifestyles because once divorced, their parents moved in different directions, different neighborhoods, or cities; associated with different individuals; and became involved in new relationships.

When their parents lived together before divorcing, these ACDs usually had little exposure to our multicultural society. Many heard their parents voice negative statements about people of other ethnic groups, immigrants, homosexuals, the unemployed, and poor people in general.

The divorce gave many of these children a fast education in tolerance that otherwise might have taken them forever to learn. The same parent who bad-mouthed the unemployed and the poor could (and not too infrequently did) become one of that same put-down group. The area an ACD might live after their parents moved away from their old neighborhood might be mixed with people from various ethnicities and backgrounds. The ACDs found out that those "others" were good people with whom they could become friends. A parent might change his or her sexual preference from being attracted to a person of the opposite sex to one of the same gender -- and the ACD may find that new lover of one's parent likeable and friendly. And if a parent remarried, the stepparent might be a compassionate, generous person. "It takes all kinds of people to make up this world. I'm not God to pass judgment on them -- but my parents did before they divorced, and all it got them was a divorce!" That about sums up the way many ACDs view the world.

Effective Communication

It is only when you and your partner treat each other as equals -- deserving to be listened to with respect -- that a positive resolution of family concerns and disagreements can be accomplished. Here's how:

  • Understand that the way in which you say something will determine whether or not your partner will even hear what you have to say. For instance, a wife tells her husband: "You never hang up your clothes before we go to bed. Why do I have to do it for you all the time?" Then her husband responds: "You're always spending too much money. You buy a dress and wear it once. Do you think I'm made of money?" These are legitimate issues that need to be respected and attended to, but neither of them is dealing with these issues. All they're responding to is the sound of each others voices: the harshness, the attack quality, the righteous indignation, and the judgmental criticism that are implicit in their communication with each other. Consequently, they feel they have no alternative but to attack back because they feel their positive sense of self is threatened. Arguments like this escalate to charges and countercharges and are exchanged until both the husband and wife are exhausted. Nothing has been solved, and resentment festers. They have not heard the content of what their partner wants to discuss -- they're only hearing what they believe is criticism of their person. In other words, the way in which they talked to each other prevented their issues from even being heard.
  • To be heard, talk in a normal tone of voice and point out you are not criticizing your partner, but wish to draw his or her attention to an issue that concerns you. Your partner will then listen to the issue because he or she now knows you are not criticizing but are concerned about a problem he or she would like to discuss. Respect your partner as an equal when differences of opinion exist between the two of you. You will then be able to evaluate in a fair way the validity of your partner's concern. Even if you agree to disagree, do so respecting each other as having an equal right to his or her opinion. Above all, never attack your partner as a person. It's important to state you may disapprove of your partner's behavior, but do not disapprove of him as a human being. The danger phrases always to be avoided are: "You never..." and "You always..." These phrases are character attacks that seem to focus on behavior but really are heard as an attack on one's sense of self.

So it's not what you say to your partner that will get yourself heard, it's how you say it. In a good marriage, everything is open for discussion and resolution when a husband and wife respect the way they talk to each other.

Avoiding the Minefields of Marriage

Twelve "minefields of marriage" were repeatedly voiced by the adult children of divorce (ACD) in our ongoing surveys on the most significant dangers in their parents' marriages that they themselves recognized and avoided in their own relationships.

  1. Avoid Marrying Too Early in Life. Adult children of divorce more often marry later in life than the men and women who grew up in non-divorced households.
  2. Avoid Choosing Marriage to Escape from Problems. ACD parents had convinced themselves that marriage would solve their personal problems. Instead, it only created greater problems for themselves and the children they later had.
  3. Avoid the Poison of Blame-Making. ACD parents were continually blaming each other for their problems, rather than focusing on how they could solve a problem that was causing difficulty.
  4. Avoid Complaint-Collecting. "My parents always had a list of complaints directed against me," said Ellen, a 35-year-old ACD group member. "In my house, the cup was always half empty, it never was half full."
  5. Avoid Drugs or Alcohol. Because of having had to live in a drug- or alcohol-induced violent household, many adult children of divorce have made special efforts to learn as much as possible about these addictions and have tried to avoid them in their own lives.
  6. Avoid the Make-Me-Happy Relationship Infection. This is the belief that your partner exists to make you happy. Happiness in a marriage occurs when two persons are happy in themselves before they marry. Each person is responsible for his or her own happiness, but a good marriage has the synergistic effect of enhancing the happiness of each in their sharing the challenges of life together and prevailing over them as a couple.
  7. Avoid Physical or Emotional Abuse in a Relationship. All of the adult children of divorce in our ongoing research groups acknowledged they experienced some form of emotional abuse in their families. The ones who were able to salvage their self-esteem did so by their ability to cultivate resilience. They sought out resources of enlightenment (e.g. counseling assistance, educational courses, or social work groups) that enabled them to transcend their family conditioning.
  8. Avoid the Entitlement Illusion. "Each of my parents believed that life and their marriage 'entitled' them to good fortuneÉ They didn't know they were asking for the impossible, that they had to make their own happiness -- that and nothing else was what they or anyone else is entitled to."
  9. Avoid the "I'd Rather Be Right Than Happy" Syndrome. It always appeared more important to each of the ACD's parents to "win" a family argument than to resolve differences in a compassionate manner. In the divorce, each parent wanted the child or children to take his or her side, to "prove" mom or dad was "wrong" and a bad person. It was the resilience of these adult children of divorce that enabled them to refuse to take sides and focus attention instead on renewing their own lives.
  10. Avoid Sexual Affairs. Mutual trust is the key to a successful marriage. That means you'll care more about each other than anyone else will; you'll be able to express your vulnerability without being judged negatively; and you'll have a partner who will renew your courage instead of demean you. And nothing -- but nothing -- will erode that mutual trust more than extramarital affairs.
  11. Avoid the Togetherness Trap. "You must think, feel, and behave like I do. You must like what I like and do what I do -- or else you don't love me." It was one of the major reasons for the fights, anger, hostility, and name-calling that paved the road to their divorce: to insist on togetherness at all times is not love but a form of control that masquerades as love.
  12. Avoid the Power-Play Game. The equation was money equals power equals total control of the decision-making process. The spoken or implied demand in these ACD families was "because I'm the one who pays the bills, I have the right to expect total conformity to my wishes. There is no room for compromise; only my word counts."

________________________________

This article has been edited and excerpted from Moving Beyond your Parents' Divorce by Mel Krantzler, Ph.D. and Patricia Biondi Krantzler (McGraw-Hill Books, 2003). Psychologist and bestselling author Mel Krantzler has teamed up with his wife Patricia to reveal that healthy, productive lives are the rule rather than the exception for adult children of divorce. Drawing on extensive research, as well as personal and professional experience, the Krantzlers offer guidelines to empower children of divorce to reinforce their self-esteem, leave behind feelings of victimization and resentment, and create positive relationships. Available at better bookstores everywhere; for more information about this and other divorce-related titles, visit www.books.mcgraw-hill.com.

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