Over 40 percent of Americans ages 18 to 40 are adult children of divorce. Leading divorce researcher Nicolas Wolfinger explains that the legacy of divorce is passed on in families because adult children of divorce often don’t have positive role models for long-lasting relationships and they tend to marry companions from similar backgrounds.
Anyone who grew up in a divorced home has probably questioned at some point whether or not they are doomed to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Adults who have endured their parents’ split might fear commitment due to concern about repeating past relationship patterns. After all, it’s human nature to be wary of making the same mistakes your parents did and to desire pleasurable intimate relationships that bring happiness and security.
While experiencing parental divorce can have life-long consequences, including divorce proneness, psychologist Lisa Firestone suggests that self-awareness and a willingness to work on self-defeating relationship patterns can help adult children of divorce break the cycle of destructive relationships.
How Adult Children of Divorce Can Break Destructive Relationship Patterns
According to Dr. Firestone, you can learn to recognize destructive dynamics that exist between you and your partner, and you can take simple steps to change. She writes, “Breaking patterns can be as simple as asking yourself who usually makes the decisions about where to go for dinner or what movie to see, then reversing the roles of active and passive decision-maker. Little changes like this can help add feelings of equality to your relationships.”
The first step in creating real change in relationship patterns is to shift the focus away from “fixing” your partner and their negative traits to examining your own behavior and repairing your relationship. Since dynamics and patterns become entrenched early on in a relationship, the sooner a person shifts the focus from examining their partner’s flaws to looking at their own, the better.
Interestingly, when you get close to someone, it can bring to the surface unresolved issues from the past—the very things that you might want to avoid dealing with. Over and over again, I’ve seen relationships sabotaged or crumble because one or both partners are unaware that they bring a backlog of hurts, fears, and ambivalence from their past into present interactions.
It may have a lot to do with Imago, which is your unconscious image of your ideal mate based on composites of caretakers who influenced you strongly at an early age. Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. addressed this in his groundbreaking book, Getting the Love You Want. Seeking Imago, the ideal relationship, we subconsciously try to reconstruct or fix what’s broken.
For instance, I spent decades unknowingly looking for someone caring, honorable, and capable of unconditional love like my father, who I didn’t see consistently after my parents divorced. However, each new relationship led to more disrespect and degradation. So, I tried to change that person, to “help” them find the path to love and devotion. I finally quit trying to fix everything and everybody and began the process of self-improvement.
An important key to getting out from the shadow of your past is to gain awareness. Relationship experts Gay Hendricks, Ph.D. and Kathlyn Hendricks, Ph.D. write, “A close relationship is a powerful light force, and like any strong light, it casts a large shadow. When you stand in the light of a close relationship, you must learn to deal with the shadow.” Perhaps it’s because intimate relationships bring the possibility of love and closeness that we are confronted with wounds from our past.
For instance, Sydney, a 20-something woman I interviewed for my book Daughters of Divorce, tends to mistrust her husband. Since her father was unfaithful to her mother many times, she assumes that Eric will cheat on her—even though he hasn’t given her any reasons to mistrust him.
Sydney married Eric after a brief courtship and often reacts with fear and suspicion when he returns home late from work or there’s the slightest imperfection in his story. Sydney has a propensity to blow things out of proportion when she says, “You’re always late and you don’t care about me.” In the past, Eric reacted negatively to these accusations, but he has learned to reassure Sydney and now calls her if he’s going to be late.
Eric is working on showing Sydney through consistency in his words and actions that he is there for her. Likewise, Sydney must learn to examine her thought processes and not overreact. Is her self-doubt and mistrust grounded in reality or a fragment of her past? She must be willing to let go of self-defeating thoughts—to free herself from the blueprints of her past and take responsibility for her own reactions to Eric’s lateness.
Like all challenges in life, greater awareness and willingness to work on an issue can spark change. The good news is that you can you unlock your past and make conscious choices about what you want out of life and relationships. Author Karen McMahon writes, “Dating and being in a relationship can be immensely valuable as it is only when we are in a relationship that we work out our ‘issues.'” Let’s face it, it’s time to move out of the role of victim and to take responsibility for of the choices you make in partners and how you respond to others.
These steps will help adult children of divorce make healthier choices in relationships:
- Gain awareness of past hurt and adopt a more realistic perspective of it. This might mean talking to your parents about their marriage or taking a closer look at your own relationships.
- Acknowledge the damage that was done and shift to an impersonal perspective that’s focused on understanding and healing rather than blame and shame.
- Take responsibility for your actions and set goals to change based on how you want relationships to be. Write down three goals and check your behavior. Ask yourself: Is there a discrepancy between your actions and goals?
- Attempt to pick partners who don’t trigger your childhood defenses and are trustworthy. If you have a partner who is trustworthy, don’t assume the worst.
- Examine your expectations about intimate partnerships. You might be more focused on your dream of how a relationship should be rather than the reality of how it is, leading to disappointment.
- Focus on the things you can control. Accept that you can’t control the past but can exercise the power of choice today.
Crafting a new story for your life includes not allowing your parents’ divorce or unhappiness to define who you are as a person. Develop positive intentions each day such as:
- I am going to make a decision to control those things that I can, letting go of those things that are beyond my control.
- I won’t let my parents’ divorce or my past prevent me from making positive choices today.
With time and patience, you can begin to visualize the kind of relationship you need to thrive. You don’t have to let your past dictate the decisions you make today. Remember to be gentle with yourself and others on your journey.
Follow Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.