You may have heard that divorce runs in families. This is certainly true for me. Divorce goes back five generations in my family and some of my relatives have even raced to the altar two or three times. As an adult child of divorce, therapist and author, I'm passionate about helping adult children of divorce break the cycle of divorce and achieve satisfying relationships. To this end, my daughter Tracy and I launched a website to promote healing for people struggling with the divorce experience.
I don't believe anyone wants to endure the pain and heartbreak of divorce or see their children suffer. Since studies show that adult children of divorce have double the risk of divorce compared to those from intact homes, it makes sense to discover the root of the divorce bug and figure out how to shake it. So let me start with myself. I've been happily remarried for fifteen years, yet my friends still catch me referring to my husband Craig as my "current" husband. It's obvious that I'm still having some difficulty getting out of divorce's shadow.
In any marriage, you are bound to encounter a few bumps in the road. When this happens, you may be tempted to point the finger at the other person, or even blame yourself. But what happens with me is that I'm wired to experience high levels of stress when I have even a minor disagreement with my husband. For me, even a difference of opinion over a trivial issue can cause my nervous system to go into overdrive, creating high levels of stress, doubt and an urge to flee. This flight or fight response is common when we feel threatened, but it's exaggerated in my case.
Are we wired to recreate the past? For instance, I was at a friend's 50th birthday celebration recently and was suddenly flooded with feelings of mistrust as my husband, who enjoys dancing, was swept up in a circle dance with several women -- leaving me in the dust (from my perspective). My feelings of vulnerability were so intense that I spent most of the evening in the ladies room, and I barely spoke to Craig on the way home. Needless to say, he was perplexed as to why I was so upset. Later that night, in an effort to reassure me he said, "You're my wife, I love you, there's no cause for alarm."
What I've come to believe is that our childhood experiences, including our parents' divorce, create a scaffolding for how we experience love as adults. In my case, my parents' split when I was seven years old. Because I didn't grow up with a healthy template for how couples achieve intimacy and resolve conflicts, I'm more prone to reenact unhealthy relationship patterns. Although I desperately want to build a positive relationship with my husband, I don't always know how to go about it.
By now, you've probably gathered that I have a distinctive take on marriage -- one that predisposes me to think about divorce as a viable solution to unhappiness with my wedded state. Research by E. Mavis Hetherington, the author of For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered , confirms my experience and sheds light on the generational aspect of divorce. After studying over 1,400 people for 30 years, Hetherington found that adult children of divorce are much more likely to see divorce as an option than others raised in intact homes.
From my experience and research, I have developed seven ways to overcome the legacy of divorce. Here are the seven pathways you must follow in order to do so:
• Pathway 1: Examine your parents' divorce from an adult perspective. Realize you don't have to define yourself by your parents' failed marriage. Explore your childhood with your parents, family members or trusted friends.
• Pathway 2: Attempt to forgive others and move on from the past. You can't change the past, but you can make better choices today. Forgiving others doesn't mean you condone their behavior.
• Pathway 3: Examine your relationship with your parents. Try to repair any wounds with your mother or father that may prevent you from having a healthy connection. One way to do this is by writing a statement or a letter releasing negative feelings from the past.
• Pathway 4: Get to the root of self-esteem issues. Internalize the core belief you are good enough. For example, keep track of negative automatic thoughts that keep popping into your head and substitute them with positive counterstatements.
• Pathway 5: Extend trust to others. Operate from a viewpoint that your partner wants the best for you and will not hurt and abandon you. Let him or her prove, through word and deed, that they are trustworthy. Extend trust to a partner worthy of trust and don't assume the worst. Pause and examine whether your mistrustful thoughts are a result of your past or present.
• Pathway 6: Develop interdependence and reign in your self-reliance. Allow your partner to come through for you. Many adult children of divorce are fiercely independent and pride themselves on these traits. While autonomy is positive, it can rob us of trust and intimacy. Visualize yourself in an honest and open relationship and set a goal to accept nurturing from your partner. Put together a vision board or write down what you want your relationship to look like.
• Pathway 7: Examine your attitudes and beliefs about love and commitment. A healthy respect for commitment will enhance your ability to build love, trust, and intimacy. Identify specific ways you might be avoiding commitment. Also evaluate your choice in partners and recognize the qualities they share. Making careful choices in a partner will help restore your faith in love.