If you answered yes to the questions above, you are not alone. Today, more than 40 percent of all Americans between the ages of eighteen and forty are children of divorce, and fear of commitment is a noted long-term consequence of growing up in a divorced household.
Hollywood's hype about nasty divorces may have you thinking about your own parents' divorce and the long-term consequences. But having divorced parents does not mean that you are doomed to be unlucky in love. Yes, many experts cite reports of how adults with divorced parents fear commitment and therefore face a gloomy romantic future. No, these predictions are not necessarily accurate.
Many adults with divorced parents build happy, healthy marriages. But this inspirational phenomenon has largely been overlooked by therapists and the media. Many adults with divorced parents struggle with dating and commitment, overcome their struggles, and go on to build happy and rewarding partnerships. In this article, I briefly outline five critical steps to achieving a happy relationship.
If your parents divorced when you were growing up and you want to avoid repeating their mistakes, explore the following steps and apply them to improve your current relationship or develop a new one that is healthy and lasting.
Hopefully today's blog can help you take steps to overcome your fear of commitment and help you avoid repeating your parents' mistakes. If you like what you read, check out my book on this topic, Overcoming Your Parents' Divorce.
Step One - Re-Write Your Story:
This first step involves a two-part process of recounting and exploring the narrative of your family history in order to understand your past from an adult perspective. If you have vivid memories about your past, you may think you un
derstand all there is to know about your parents, your grandparents and their relationships. But memories of the past may be colored by a child's perspective.
Take the time to talk with your parents and grandparents and you may be surprised by what you learn. Gathering this family history provides an important foundation for your efforts to forge healthy relationships. The more you know about your parents and your grandparents, the more likely you are to successfully break dysfunctional family patterns and grow from your parents' mistakes.
- Ask each parent to share their version of how they met and what initially appealed to them about the relationship. Learn more about your parents' early courtship and have a direct discussion about what the marriage was like and why they divorced. Next, learn more about your grandparents and their relationships by asking similar questions.
- If your grandparents are still living, talk to them. If they are not, ask your parents to tell you more about their marriage and their lives. Information about your grandparents can help you better understand your parents and their adult choices. For example, if your grandparents were unhappily married, learning more about their relationship may reveal how your parent didn't get much of a chance to understand what a healthy relationship would look like. Maybe this information could shed light on your parents' divorce.
Keep in mind that you are the best judge of whether your parents and grandparents can handle a direct and honest conversation about the past. If they can, go for it! If not, consider talking with a relative or a trusted family friend.
Step Two – Face the Mirror:
The second step requires frank, honest reflection about how your parents' divorce affected you as a child and how it continues to affect you as an adult. This step may seem straightforward; many adults with divorced parents can describe, in detail, how their parents' divorce rocked their emotional world. However, in order to understand how your parents' divorce can actually help you have a happy relationship, it is not enough to intellectually acknowledge how your current struggles are related to your past. Instead, you must take full ownership of the extent to which your family history leads to specific behavior and patterns that do not work for you in your adult life.
For example, one of my psychotherapy clients -- I'll call her Martha -- whose father left her mother and started a family with another woman. Martha's parents never officially divorced and her mother continued to view her father as the main man in her life. By facing the mirror, Martha made the difficult realization that she completely bought into her mother's mantra that "a bad relationship is better than no relationship." Like her mother, she lacked self-esteem and remained in relationships with men who were openly unfaithful.
Facing and taking full ownership of this dysfunctional pattern became an important step in Martha's process of beginning to change her patterns and choose healthy relationships.
Step Three – Confront Your Commitment Phobia:
In order to have a healthy relationship, you must identify the specific ways in which you avoid commitment. Many adults with divorced parents struggle with commitment; however, fear of commitment is often more complicated than a conscious reluctance to take a healthy relationship to the next level.
Many times, it involves a pattern of choosing flawed relationships and trying, at times desperately, to save them. People who follow this pattern may tell you that they embrace rather than fear commitment, as they try so hard to make their relationships work. But trying to save a relationship with an unsuitable partner is not a form of embracing commitment; it is a pattern of avoiding intimacy. Think long and hard about your dating history:
- Do you choose suitable partners or unsuitable partners?
- When you choose suitable partners, are you nice to them?
- Or are you only nice to the unsuitable ones?
Honest reflection about your underlying commitment phobia is a necessary step in the process of overcoming your parents' divorce.
Step Four – Calculate Your Dividend:
This step infuses the task of learning how your parents' divorce can help you achieve a healthy relationship with optimism and energy. Take stock of any potential good that has occurred as a result of your parents' divorce. Take an inventory of any good relationships that are in your life as a result of your parents' breakup. While you're at it, take stock of any bad or mediocre relationships to see if you have learned anything of value from them. For example:
- How have you grown and what have you learned from your father's girlfriend?
- What have you gained from becoming a step-sibling?
Once you have taken stock of relationships that may have a dividend, conclude this step by considering the ways in which your commitment phobia identified in step three may be a dividend in disguise. Ask yourself:
- How has it been adaptive or protective to delay commitment?
- How has it worked for you to remain single?
- What have you learned from your relationships thus far?
- Are you more emotionally mature than your parents were when they married?
By understanding that even something as traumatic as divorce can carry a dividend, you position yourself to use a positive lens moving forward.
Step Five – Forge Healthy Relationships:
Once you have completed steps one through four, you are ready to practice doing things differently with respect to dating. I use the term "practice" intentionally; approach step five as if you are training yourself in a new skill. If dating unsuitable partners is what you have done thus far, then this negative pattern is what will feel most comfortable. If being unavailable to your partners is what you are used to, you can expect the urge to continue to do so. We are all most comfortable with patterns that feel most familiar. As you learn to stop engaging in dysfunctional relationships and start forging healthy partnerships, you are likely to experience a good deal of anxiety and feel various forms of discomfort.
One way to deal with your discomfort is to approach dating as a laboratory in which you will practice and experiment with change. Remember when you first learned to drive a car? In the beginning, there was so much to think about – stepping on the gas pedal, hitting the brake, remembering to use your turn signals, putting the car in drive when your wish to go forward and reverse to go backward.
Driving took a great deal of conscious effort. Over time, however, you learn to think about and employ all of these necessary skills without having to put as much conscious effort into the process. Forging healthy relationships takes practice and hard work. As you practice doing so, you will need to coach yourself to be open to different kinds of people. Coach yourself to go slow when getting to know potential partners.
As I say to my clients, "shop the relationship supermarket!" This concept was introduced to me years ago when I was explaining the importance of step five to a psychotherapy client whom I'll call Mary. Mary was a self-described "serial monogamist" who had been in one long-term relationship after another and had never, ever been single. I encouraged Mary to give herself a chance to date and experience different kinds of people, rather than jumping into a new relationship as soon as her old relationship ended.
I explained the value of getting to know different types of people and determining what qualities are genuinely most important, and what qualities you might be willing to compromise on if enough other positive qualities are present. As I presented my "forge healthy relationships through dating" talk, Mary interrupted me with a laugh and a smile and replied: "Oh, Elisabeth, you make it all sound like there's one big relationship supermarket and everyone's walking around squeezing each other the way they would squeeze fruits and vegetables!"
While I would not recommend going around squeezing people as if they are fruits and vegetables, Mary was onto something. My experience working with many clients over the last fifteen years confirms that you will have more success with dating if you approach it similarly to the way you would approach a trip to the supermarket.
You will have more relationship success if you do not approach dating as an all-or-nothing experience in which another person's opinion, acceptance or rejection is excessively important and relevant to your self-worth. You will have more success with dating if you shop in the fruits and vegetables sections and stay out of the candy aisle. Be an informed, empowered shopper. Concentrate on your own preferences and avoid over-emphasizing the approval of others. Focus on what you like, what you don't like and what the healthiest choices are on the market.
Mary is just one of many adults with divorced parents who learned to shop the relationship supermarket, overcame the impact of her parents' divorce, and eventually built a happy and lasting relationship. Of course, it is never easy to overcome a life event as altering and encompassing as your parents' break-up, but with hard work and honest reflection, you can do it!