Five steps to making our parents' relationship residue work for us.
Breaking free of the relationship notions gathered from our parents seems about as easy as adding another six inches to one's height (sans heels, of course).
Licensed therapist and author Elisabeth Joy Lamotte tells us that healthy, happy relationships are attainable through five easy steps (no, one of them is not matricide), which she's outlined in her book Overcoming Your Parents' Divorce: 5 Steps To A Happy Relationship. Lamotte discusses with Tango the importance of recognizing the specific effects of our parents' relationship on our own love lives, whether it was troubled, divorced or even healthy. Read the Q&A to learn about the steps and how to make commitment phobia work to your advantage.
GL: How did you decide to write this book?
EJL: I had it in my mind for years. I've always been very interested in divorce; my parents divorced. Throughout my practice, I kept noticing a theme with my clients whose parents had divorced. The theme was struggling with relationships, but eventually coming out of it, doing really well, making good choices and eventually building very happy relationships. Children of that divorce boom of the '70s are coming of age now and there are a lot of great books out there that talk about how adults who were children of divorce fear commitment, and I would say that is absolutely a great insight. But you don't hear a lot about how sometimes their fear of commitment can work for them and help them grow from their parents mistakes.
GL: There is a causal relationship between parents divorcing and children struggling in relationships later in life?
EJL: That's what the literature says. Not having the chance to see a happy relationship does seem to sometimes—not always—cause someone trouble in the adult dating world.
GL: I've read that having divorced parents doesn't mean that offspring have higher chances of divorce themselves though, is that true?
EJL: I haven't found any evidence of this. I'm not a professional researcher, but I did spend a lot of time looking around.
GL: But you have seen a recurring fear of commitment where the common denominator is being the child of divorced parents?
EJL: Lots of people fear commitment for lots of different reasons, so I don't think it's just people whose parents have divorced. What I do think isn't really out there is that fear of commitment can have an upside. What it can lead you to do is wait until you're more emotionally mature before you make a commitment, and have some more time where you're out there dating, having more experiences and getting to know who you are and who you would really want to be with long-term as you mature into adulthood.
GL: Almost a backlash to seeing parents get married young and put themselves aside for the marriage.
GL: What about children whose parents had very troubled relationships but didn't necessarily divorce?
EJL: There are stories in my book about people whose parents stayed together unhappily and how hard that can be on someone because most books about growing up with divorced parents don't look at that other possibility. I don't think it's as simple as advising people not to get divorced because you'll ruin your children's lives forever. You could grow up with people who slept in separate bedrooms and maintained separate lives, and subconsciously you might then find that kind of relationship more familiar and more comfortable.
GL: If I'm someone going through the dating process and my parents were divorced or had an unhappy marriage, what are signs that my current approach to dating might be damaged?
EJL: What I notice is divorce affecting people in so many different ways, that every single marriage is different. Every single divorce is different, and will impact someone in a different way.
Now, for example, if a mother is devastated by the divorce and maybe didn't have high self-esteem before the divorce and proceeds to make really bad choices in her romantic partners while raising kids, you might then find that that impacts the self-esteem of her daughters. It's never a guarantee because there are so many different factors that play into it, in terms of how involved are the grandparents, and what other resources are in place for the child. It's never that you can predict for sure. These are the things to look for in people whose parents divorced.
GL: What do you say to the idea that we all have to stop blaming our parents at some point?
EJL: Great question and part of why I wrote the book. I think it's easy to look at some of the messages out there & get really frustrated and feel like you're damaged goods. This can be self-fulfilling, in some ways and why I made a step-by-step guide to overcoming effects of divorce and to find a "dividend." The idea is that you can take control of this, find a silver lining and you can, like so many other people whose parents divorced, have really happy relationships and a happy life. Not that having divorced parents is easy and not that there are dynamics of it that are going to disappear. You're still going to have to navigate two sets of parents, etc.
GL: What advice would you give to a patient who feels his/her parents' divorce is affecting the happiness of his/her own relationship?
EJL: First, I'd have you take the survey thatâ's in the book. All of my participants took it. For example, it asks "How did your parents' divorce affect you as a child?" "What did you learn about marriage from your grandparents" and if either of your parents have re-married, if they're happy, etc.. Then have you talk to your parents, if they're capable of that. Ask them a set of questions separately about their marriage and divorce. And, if your grandparents are still living, I'd encourage you to ask them similar questions about their relationships. If you can't speak with any of those people, I would encourage you to find a family friend/relative to ask them to. It's about getting a more adult perspective on your parents breakup.
GL: Do we tend to hold onto the view we formed when we it happened?
EJL: We can. Even if our view changes, it can be colored from a child's perspective and I think there are great conversations you can have with the adults in your life that can give you a different perspective.
Then, I encourage people to look at how divorce affected them as a child & how it does as an adult. That's the second step.
The third step is to really face your commitment phobia because it comes in all these different shapes and forms. Is it that you choose unsuitable partners? Is it that you choose suitable partners but are unavailable to them? Is it both?
The fourth step is called calculating your dividend. Can you find an upside to the divorce, as awful as it was. Are there ways that you grew from having a step-sibling or step-parent or other relationship that came into your life because of the divorce. Trying to find the little areas where it may be that the divorce is part of who you are in a good way.
Step five is coaching people through forging healthy relationships. Going about them in a different way than they may have been doing.
GL: Is it about going after a different type of person than you have been?
EJL: Yes. I took this phrase from a client. If you can slowly get to know different people, you get a better sense of what you like, don't like. I was explaining this to one client, and she said "Oh my gosh, you make it sound like it's one big relationship supermarket, and everyone's just going around squeezing each other like fruits and vegetables." The theme is to shop the relationship supermarket, and it builds on another theme where I compare people your date to being candy bars vs. apples. Candy bars being unsuitable partners, apples being suitable partners.
GL: Do you think that the divorce rate will fall as people marry at later ages?
EJL: My instinct is yes. I think people marrying later have had a chance to know themselves better. They can be more settled with the choice and happier. A lot of people who divorced in the 70s as you mentioned married really young when they were basically kids. If you marry older, I think you'll see people with less of a need to go through a second adolescence.
I wanted to write this book because all the literature makes it seem like fearing commitment is such a bad thing, but I think it's a blessing in disguise, for a lot of people. You know yourself better, you're more emotionally mature when you marry, you're more aware, you have more life experience, you're in a better position to know what you really want.