Daughters of Divorce: How to Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup

It’s no longer up to others to help you bounce back from your parents’ divorce. It can no longer be about their attitudes or behavior. It’s time for you to create change in your life and move forward.

parents settle during divorce: equitable division in divorce: couple shaking hands in agreement while their daughters of divorce play in a field

Today, more than 40 percent of all Americans between the ages of 18 and 40 are children of divorce. For decades, researchers have identified the risk factors that parental divorce brings to their children. Recently, many studies have examined the impact of parental breakup on children into adulthood, and also the factors that promote resiliency. In my research, published in The Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, I discovered that young adult women have unique vulnerabilities after their parents’ divorce than can impact their self-esteem and trust in partners, and create both a fear of commitment and longing for security in intimate relationships. My interest in studying divorce began with my own experience. Divorce runs in my family and I believe that my parents’ breakup cast a shadow over my young adult romantic relationships. As a result, I was fearful of repeating the cycle of divorce and fearful to commit to partners, even ones who could have been a good fit for me. It was a weird mix. I was fearful of commitment yet stayed in toxic relationships too long due to fear of being abandoned.

Daughters of Divorce

My research results support the view that many daughters of divorce, as compared to sons, have a tendency to be pessimistic about intimate relationships lasting. This can cause them to have a fear of commitment. Further, daughters of divorce are more than twice as likely to divorce themselves, when compared to their counterparts raised in intact homes. During my interviews of 320 young adult women, for my book Daughters of Divorce, I asked respondents to describe their experiences growing up in a divided home, and to identify their most prominent memories – such as their belief about why their parents divorced and whose fault it was. They were also asked to answer questions such as: “What is the most difficult part of a romantic relationship for you?" During these interviews, I was able to identify some key emotional challenges faced by daughters of divorce in my sample and they are listed below.
  • Trouble trusting romantic partners
  • Damaged or lowered self-esteem
  • Issues with intimacy and commitment
  • Extreme self-reliance or independence
  • Persistent doubts about the stability of present relationships
  • A father-daughter wound

The Road to Healing

My findings support the view that the road to healing for daughters of divorce begins by identifying your divorce experience now that you are an adult. Truth be told, experiencing divorce as a child can make you more careful about who you select as a partner as an adult. This can emerge as a signature strength. As a daughter of divorce, you understand the fragility of love, yet can maintain a respect for its sacred place in your life. Growing up, Megan would observe her parents’ frequent arguments (that were abusive at times), and tell herself that she wanted to marry someone who respected her opinion and would love and cherish her. Megan put it like this: “I love my parents, but they were unable to manage conflict and compromise. My dad put my mom down a lot, which caused her to withdraw, and they grew further and further apart.” It’s no longer up to others to help you bounce back from your parents’ divorce. It can no longer be about their attitudes or behavior. It’s time for you to create change in your life and move forward. For instance, Megan, 36, has learned some valuable lessons from her parents’ high conflict marriage and subsequent divorce. She has taken some time to heal and examine her thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs about herself and relationships. As a result, she selected a partner who reassures her when she is mistrustful, and who is faithful and reliable. Josh, 38, brings out the best in Megan because he doesn’t blame her for her insecurities and mistrust. Instead, he reminds her that he is there for her every day. Megan reflects: “Know your partner inside and out before you marry. Know yourself before you commit to someone. Be sure you help each other strive for the best, bring out the positive qualities in each other, and be certain to grow together.” During our last counseling session, Megan told me that they are eager to start a family together because she feels reassured about Josh’s love and devotion to her. Fortunately, Megan has discovered that she can change self-defeating patterns in relationships and not repeat the patterns of her parents. Instead of being paralyzed with fear and shame, Megan is learning to be vulnerable with Josh and ask for what she needs to feel secure. This is helping her to build trust and intimacy in her marriage. With increased awareness, you can also learn to recognize the forces that shape your choices in partners and build healthier relationships that are long-lasting. Taking a risk on love with a suitable partner can enable you to gain confidence and self-love. In fact, your parents' divorce can be the catalyst to make you stronger, more realistic, and better prepared for the requirements of a loving and respectful partnership.

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