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. Today, about 40 percent of all Americans will experience a parental divorce prior to age sixteen, according to researcher Paul Amato. 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 want to avoid pain and to desire pleasurable intimate relationships that bring happiness and security.
The good news is that you have the opportunity to learn from your parent's (and your own) mistakes and to create a healthy, long-lasting relationship. In Ericka Souter's recent Huffington Post article "5 Ways Your Parent’s Divorce Can Strengthen Your Own Marriage", she writes "Everyone always thinks of divorce as a major tragedy for a child. And it is. In many cases, the parent who moves out has little or no contact with the kids. There are emotional and financial struggles. But the breakup could have a positive effect too. It may actually help strengthen your own marriage later in life."
Ms. Souter's statements highlight what some experts call the silver lining of divorce. Elisabeth Joy LaMotte, a therapist and author of Overcoming Your Parents' Divorce, is another writer who believes that children of divorce have the potential to be better off in marriage than their parents. She 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."
What are the chances that you'll get a divorce if your parents' split when you were a child? The generational aspect of divorce is one of the many topics examined in "The Longevity Project" conducted by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin. This study started in 1921 and tracked some 1,500 boys and girls throughout their lives, aiming to find the secret to a long life. Their findings support Paul Amato's research that showed that being a child of divorce increases your divorce proneness—perhaps even doubling it. They discovered that adult children of divorce were more likely to divorce, had fewer group memberships, poorer community relations, and a shortened life span compared to counterparts from non-divorced homes.
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-feating relationships patterns can help people break the cycle of destructive relationships. 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."
In my professional opinion, 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 partners flaws to looking at their own, the better. Lisa Firestone notes, "The only way to change another person in relation to you is to change yourself. You have 100 percent of the power necessary to change your relationship, but you can only do so by taking a closer look at yourself, making your own personal development a priority and taking specific actions to change your part in the relationship dynamics you do not like."
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/fix what's broken. For instance, I spent decades unknowingly looking for someone caring, honorable, and capable of unconditional love as 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 recreate 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, Kelly, a woman I interviewed for my book Daughters of Divorce, has a tendency to mistrust her husband Mark. Since her father was unfaithful to her mother many times, she assumes that Mark will cheat on her—even though he hasn't given her any reasons to mistrust him.
Kelly, is a thirty-something married teacher whose first marriage ended due to infidelity. She married Mark 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. Kelly has a tendency to blow things out of proportion when she says "You're always late and you don't care about me." In the past, Mark reacted negatively to these accusations, but he has learned to reassure Kelly and now calls her if he's going to be late.
Mark is working on showing Kelly through consistency in his words and actions that he is there for her. Likewise, Kelly 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 Mark’s lateness.
In their breakthrough book Conscious Loving, Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks write: "Conflict can be powerfully addictive. Some of us are conflict junkies, and that addiction lasts far longer than substance abuse addictions. We may be attached to the drama of fights, even if we protest mightily that we want serenity." What is it that keeps Kelly self-sabotaging in her relationship with Mark? For Kelly, pain is a familiar feeling. Conflict is what's comfortable. Dealing with an unfaithful partner seems normal. A partner who wants nothing more than to be with her, and make her happiness his top priority is alien.
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 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.
The following steps will help you move on from the past and make healthier choices in present 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.
• 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, trying to let 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. Restoring your faith in love includes building relationships based on love, trust, and intimacy. Remember to be gentle with yourself and others on your journey.
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