Daughters of Divorce: The Struggle for Love, Trust and Intimacy

I’ve written extensively about stepfamilies, how to build trust in relationships, and how to restore a shaken faith in love. I’ve also blogged about divorce and finances, improving self-esteem, and the importance of the father daughter relationship. When it comes to divorce, there’s no shortage of topics to write about. But sometimes it’s important to remind myself about why Moving Past Divorce started, which was to help women who grew up in divorced homes.

My mother and I, who are both daughters of divorce, launched our website movingpastdivorce.com and wrote a book, Daughters of Divorce because we know that many women struggle silently and needlessly. My mother saw her first marriage end in divorce and I struggled through two unhealthy relationships of my own, unaware of the reason why. Women who grew up in fractured homes lacked positive role models for relationships, and feel challenged to find lasting love as adults. Judith Wallerstein, a pioneer in the area of divorce research, famously conducted a 25 year landmark study which concluded that children of divorce struggle to build healthy relationships and live with the fear that they will end.

Wallerstein studied many young women who suffered from what she dubbed the “sleeper effect.” As children, they may have done their best to be “good girls” and play the hand of cards that divorce dealt them. But as young women, they tend to pick partners who are all wrong for them. Most daughters of divorce have trouble with trust and intimacy, and fear that no matter what they do, they will be left. When they fall in love, it reawakens long hidden emotions that they tried to bury in childhood.

We conducted our own descriptive study, a follow up to Wallerstein’s breakthrough work, and interviewed more than 300 women who grew in divorced homes. Without exception, every one of these women described themselves as being fiercely independent, and they prided themselves on this trait. Many recalled working hard in school, holding down multiple jobs, paying the bills, and making sure that if they had to, they could do everything on their own. What we came to discover is that while autonomy is surely positive, it can also rob women of the love and intimacy they so deeply desire. The truth about self-reliance is that it’s not simply an assertion of independence – it’s a deep fear that if you let someone in, they will leave you.

Every person harbors a desire to love and be loved, but the problem for many daughters of divorce is that they fear they won’t be loved and cared for, and that their partner will not have their best interests at heart. This is after all, the wound that was created in childhood. Divorce is outside of a child’s day to day experience. Even if a child is told a divorce is not her fault, she can internalize the pain of the breakup and feel something is wrong with her. These emotions can resurface when a child of divorce forges adult relationships of her own. And the results are not pretty. If a woman who grew up in a disrupted home gets married, her chance of getting a divorce is twice as great as her counterparts from intact homes.

Like all struggles in life, greater awareness and a willingness to work on an issue can bring about change. And the fact of the matter is that most daughters of divorce can and do improve, once they’re able to get to the bottom of where their relationship problems come from. My mother and I feel we are living proof that it is possible to restore your faith in love, and that every person, regardless of what they’ve been through, is worthy of finding love they can be sure of.

Are you a woman who grew up in a divorced home? Have you found your relationships to be more difficult as a result? Tell us in the comments below.

Tracy Clifford

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order our new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”

 



27 Responses to “Daughters of Divorce: The Struggle for Love, Trust and Intimacy”

  1. Hi Tracy (and Terry)!
    I really enjoyed this article…truly! I recognized much of myself in this…fierce independence, assertion, and the fear of not being cared for emotionally and otherwise. I am currently in my 4th marriage. I have 2 children, my husband has 2 children…yes, blended family! And truthfully, I’m not sure that this one will last either. I will say that in each marriage, my partner was my perfect teacher. Reflecting back to me significant life lessons, and I am grateful.

    I am not a daughter of divorce…I am a grand-daughter of divorce. And even though my parents are still together, the energetic imprints left by an earlier generation are felt. Both of my sisters have been divorced as well.
    For me, my greatest life lesson taught to me through my relationships with men (and money), is that at my core I felt that I wasn’t good enough. Somehow, I was less than whole. My life journey is about coming back to wholeness through self-love. For if we don’t love ourselves fully and unconditionally, then how could someone else?

    • Terry says:

      Hi Christine, Thanks for your insightful comments. I’m glad that you can relate to Tracy’s blog and can recognize the generational aspects of divorce. It certainly is a legacy passed on in families and as females we tend to be more vulnerable to issues related to trust and self-esteem. I’m eager for our book to be published so you can read it and we can chat about it. In chapter two – “Ghosts from the Past” – I tell my story. My best, Terry

  2. Gretchen says:

    Thank you both for your research and your follow up materials. I am stunned by how precisely I fit the profile of a daughter of divorce. I am fiercely independent, assertive but filled with self-doubt and believe that love will lead to abandonment no matter how hard I try.

    I am only now coming to terms with how much my parents’ divorce affected me because I was always so grateful that I had no memories of my parent’s marriage. In short, alcoholism and domestic violence define their short marriage and I always deeply respected my mother for getting herself and her two small children away from that situation. But from the adult perspective, I can definitely see how my childhood was characterized by the after-math of their divorce. My mother took every burden on herself and did not have the financial support of either court-ordered child support or a partner until I was 13 years old. I also grew up playing rate Mom’s date and watched her struggle to find a prince amongst all the frogs.

    All of this left an impression and I saw the search for love as a struggle rather than an opportunity for joy. I have only had one long-term relationship in my 40 years because I just can’t let anyone in. I long to but I feel so sure that I will not be loved for who I am. Or, if someone ever does make me feel that way, it will only be temporary and I will surely be abandoned. I am doing my best to work through all of this because I can’t continue to dream of love while at the same time pushing away every man who crosses my path.

    I will close by saying that I had a very cathartic realization recently. As stated, pushing men away is a constant for me. I am a master at seeming ‘taken’ and behaving in a ‘polite but definitely not interested’ manner. The truth is, I work hard to avoid being asked out because I actually experience a deep and intense bout of anxiety whenever I am. I struggled to get to the bottom of why this always happened and it finally hit me that I when I am asked out, I feel the exact same way I did whenever my father would come to take us for the obligatory visit. He was largely an absent parent but he would periodically demand to see his progeny though he made no emotional, attentive or financial investment in either of us. He remained an abusive alcoholic throughout my life and his attention was frightening and intrusive to me always. I now know that my childhood reaction to my father has absolutely impaired my ability to receive a man’s attention with either eagerness or curiosity.

    So, great. The genuine curiosity and kind attention of men has been distorted my entire life. Working on it. Definitely working on it!

    • Terry says:

      Hi Gretchen, I’m honored to have you share your story and I look forward to more communication with you. Your honesty and insight is refreshing!I’m so glad that you found our website and look forward to the day our book is published so that you and millions of others can feel a sense of unity with myself, my daughter Tracy, and all of the over 200 women we interviewed for Love We Can Be Sure Of. I hope you have a chance to read my article posted today, 12/3/12, on HuffPostDivorce entitled “The Sleeper Effect.” It’s about the delayed reaction to parental divorce that many girls experience.The link is posted on our Facebook page (movingpastdivorce)or you can goggle HuffPostdivorce sleeper effect an it will come up. I hope you stay in touch as you move forward to a place of healing and restore your faith in love. My Best, Terry

  3. Robyn Besemann says:

    Thank you for this article. These are the issues I find in all the participants of our classes, “Chained No MOre…A Journey of Healing for the Adult Children of Divorce”. There are a multitude of “aha” moments when they realize the connection between their experiences surrounding their parents’ divorce and their issues today. They see the power of those chains, heal from them and then use the tools given to move forward; free from them. I look forward to your new book. I led Divorce Care for Kids and The Big D…Divorce Thru the Eyes of a Teen and saw their immense hurts, so wrote Chained No More for adults.

    • Terry says:

      Hi Robyn, Thanks for your supportive comments. I read your bio earlier today and noticed your work with adult children of divorce. It appears that we share the same passion for being a healing community for people raised in divorced families. If you read my bio, you know that divorce runs in my family and I ended up passing on the legacy of divorce myself. My daughter Tracy and I are building a platform to publish our book and hope it is on the shelves soon. We look forward to hearing more from you. Your work is truly inspiring and I hope you will share our website and Facebook page with others. Regards, Terry

  4. TRACY says:

    I am a product of divorce,my parents divorced when i was 10. I can see myself in everyone of these stories, and relate to so much of the STUFF i hid away as a child, that now, prevented me from finding love, true love on an emotional, spiritual and physical level. im 43 and 2 years into leaving an narcasistic ex, and 6 years after the fighting, torment and downfall of the marriage. at that time my daughter was 9 and my son was 6. when i moved out my daughter took on the part of absent parent with my ex. she became caregiver to him, and her brother.
    no doubt, all this has strenghtened her, but also has done terrible damage on the inside, as i did, but didnt DEAL with it. my question: what resources are out there NOW that i can provide for my daughter so that she does not carry on and carry with her so that she can find love, the right kind of love and NOT have to be scared. she has grown up so much and is strong in standing up for herself. one of the products of the divorce is having to attend a high school where the whites are the minority. she struggles with that alone. ive worked hard to get the respect back from her and my son. they are realizing that there dad and I will never be friends and always enemys and seeing the reasons why i left. so, again, how, what can i introduce to my daughter15 and for my son12 at this age to help them..

    • Terry says:

      Hello, Your situation is challenging and difficult to answer in an email. We recommend that you talk to a therapist about this and continue to read our blogs and visit us on Facebook at movingpastdivorce.com. The best approach is to get information and to continue to work on having a positive relationship with your daughter. It can take several years for true healing to take place and she can benefit from counseling when she is receptive to it. Daughters of divorce have many strengths such as self-reliance and independence and you can focus on those. You sound like you are on the right track! Thanks for your comment. Tracy & Terry

  5. Eric Ray says:

    Hello,

    My name is Eric Ray and I have written a song about this subject. It’s called: Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home

    I wrote it from my daughters perspective. Feel free to share it if you like it.

    All comments are welcomed.

    Kind regards,
    Eric Ray

    • Terry says:

      Hi Eric, Thanks for sharing – your support is greatly appreciated! We’ll check out the lyrics to your song soon! We wrote a book about daughters of divorce which will be on the bookshelves in 2014. Let’s stay in touch!Regards, Terry & Tracy

      • Eric Ray says:

        Hi Terry and Tracy,

        Here are the lyrics

        Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home

        Words by Eric Ray Debnam © 2013

        You said you were leaving then you left us
        On the road somewhere out there
        You’d find your freedom
        What life’s all about
        You’re gone and you left us out

        Did you find the good life you were after
        Did you realize it was here all along
        Night after night
        When I turned out my light
        I’d pray that you’d come home

        Chorus
        Daddy won’t you please come home
        I’m not the same since you’ve been gone
        You should see me dressed up
        In my ribbons and bows
        Daddy won’t you please come home

        You might be working in Alaska
        Or somewhere on the eastern coast
        Or anyplace in between
        Where the pastures are green
        Where you live nobody knows

        Chorus
        Daddy won’t you please come home
        I’m not the same since you’ve been gone
        You should see me dressed up
        In my ribbons and bows
        Daddy won’t you please come home

        When I was young the years went by slowly
        With age they just roll on by
        I forgive you
        For leaving
        Now I’m older and alone
        Do you miss me like I miss you
        Come in from the cold
        Oh, Daddy
        Oh, Daddy
        Won’t you please come home

        Chorus
        Daddy won’t you please come home
        I’m not the same since you’ve been gone
        You should see me dressed up
        In my ribbons and bows
        Daddy won’t you please
        Daddy won’t you please
        Daddy Won’t you please come home
        Oh, Daddy you should see me
        In my ribbons and bows

        Kind regards,
        Eric Ray

        • Terry says:

          Hello Eric, Thanks for sharing your beautiful and inspiring song. I’m going on a radio show today and a bit swamped but I plan to be in touch! Regards, Terry

          • Eric Ray says:

            Hi Terry,

            Ok. Thanks 🙂

            I have recently included the lyrics of the song via closed captioning in the video.

            Kind regards,

            Eric Ray

          • Terry says:

            Hi Eric, I look forward to listening to your song when things slow down. Currently, I’m working hard to get my book, Daughters of Divorce, published which I wrote with my daughter Tracy. The holidays and other projects are keeping me busy too. I’m also a licensed therapist with a clinical practice specializing in children and families and I teach college! Please keep in touch! Regards, Terry

          • Eric Ray says:

            Hi Terry,

            Ok. very nice 🙂

            Thank you for the interest in my song.

            Kind regards,

            Eric

  6. C-Jay says:

    I have a teenage daughter and I feel like even at this early age, she seems to choose the wrong boys. I’ve been divorced for 7 years, but it was amicable. I’m curious if there’s ever been a study about daughters of bad divorces verses amicable ones. Amicable divorces should at least teach children that adults can resolve conflicts in a mature manner.

    I am not a child of divorce but grew up in a household in which both my parents were miserable, fought all the time and basically hated each other. I don’t have very fond childhood memories. I learned about loving relationships from watching the Brady Bunch. I feel like I would be much more well adjusted if my parents had gotten divorced.

    There should probably be a study about children of parents that stayed together but weren’t happy. Just because parents stay together, doesn’t make them automatically good examples of loving relationships. I think my daughter actually has a better example of loving relationships with divorced parents.

    • Terry says:

      Hi C-Jay,
      Sorry for the delay in responding – I’ve been editing my book which is about daughters of divorce. Hopefully, you will read it (when it is published) but in the meantime, check out some of the other blogs on my site for information on this topic – such as “Are You Afraid of Relationship Success?” In a nutshell, my 3 research studies show that daughters of divorce do have a better chance of having a successful long-term relationship if they have not been exposed to high conflict between their parents and they had regular, consistent access to both parents. However, many pick the wrong guys and/or turn away partners who could be a good fit for them due to fear of commitment. They are fearful that if they fall deeply in love – with a suitable partner – it won’t work out because their parents married failed. Girls often experience”The Sleeper Effect’ and have a delayed reaction to parental divorce. Please see my blog by that title on this page.I’m a daughter of divorced and have interviewed hundreds of women raised in divorced families.
      You made good points and you should have confidence that your daughter can and will improve. Keep posted for the notices about the publication of my our book “Daughters of Divorce.” My daughter Tracy and I wrote it together! In the meantime, great to hear from you and hope you visit us again soon! Regards, Terry

  7. Jay says:

    My parents divorced when I was 7. My father was abusive. Ive recently come to the decision not to date again because I just keep choosing partners either like my mother or like my father. How can I break this cycle?

    • Terry says:

      Hello,

      This is a common pattern – we tend to repeat what we have observed and experienced in our childhood home. Please check out blogs on this site and counseling could help you as well. My book “Daughters of Divorce” is going to be published in 2015. If you are a female it could help you because it has strategies in it.
      Regards,
      Terry

  8. I am a daughter of divorce and I am currently married. I must say it was extremely hard to be a daughter in divorce with a father who had qualities that were emotionally abusive, manipulative and downright horrible. My parents had a horrible short married (divorced when I was 7) and an even worse divorce. It led to my father and I having no relationship by the time I was 22 years old. I was lucky enough that my mother enrolled me in many therapy groups/ private sessions to talk about the hurt I lived through while my father was in my life. That worked for me, but not always the case.

    When I first met my husband and he had similar qualities to my father (an artist, love to play guitar and other similarities), I had a very hard time. I remember having conversations with my mother and my friends talking about how he reminded me of my father and I was struggling. Although he had these similarities, he had other important qualities that were much different. He is giving, loving, understanding, and communicates well.

    I almost threw it all away because of the similarities. I almost threw it all away for the types of abusive men I dated before my husband. It’s hard to move forward in love when your “role models” are so dysfunctional. Like many others I found role models in my grandparents and in the parents of friends.

    It is a hard from us daughters of divorce.

    • Terry says:

      Thanks for sharing your story – it’s one I can relate to! Check this website for notices of the publication of our book “Daughters of Divorce” in January, 2016!It’s full of stories like ours and tips for overcoming issues related love, commitment,intimacy and trust!
      Regards,
      Terry

  9. kiko stott says:

    Thank you for writing this. Every word is true. I am a woman who grew up in a divorced parent home. For years after moving out and a couple of boyfriends I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t trust men or why I had such issues with intimacy or why I didn’t have a lasting relationship. I always worried about them leaving to the point I would leave them in an attempt to not get hurt. After many hours of therapy did I finally realize that it in part was because my dad left me. I felt he never accepted me. In turn meant he didn’t love me. Now, I have a daughter who has a dad that pops in and out of her life, never attend special events or any function of hers. I’ve tried talking to him but he just thinks that it’s me. I will forward this article to her dad in hopes that if it comes from a different source he will realize this is a real thing and his daughter deserves more.

    • Terry says:

      Kiko,
      Thanks so much for your positive feedback! I recommend you pre-order our book “Daughters of Divorce (can get to pre-order links from home page on our website). It’s full of information and helpful tips to move past the issues you described and can help your daughter too!
      Best,
      Terry

  10. James says:

    I am a 39 year old guy I have a best friend who is a woman who is a daughter of divorce.

    I love her completely( unrequited love) we are best friends but she always goes for bad men- she married a dead beat and divorced him and dates losers and it breaks my heart each time she sees someone else. I am of the belief that my partner is my best friend- she is of the belief that she can have a best friend who is male and also have a boy friend. She married a guy quickly who was her own age, but often goes for older men. For me it is a soul destroying empty life loving someone who constantly goes for losers- all while when I am with her we just simply click- outside of relationships we are on a similar wave length- I care very much about her child (who she had when she was married) and yet she has zero romantic interest in me. it could be that I am just not attractive enough for her (But I have seen her past relationships and they are not much better) I am not a handsome guy by any stretch of the imagination- I sometimes feel that I am filling in the blanks for her dead beat boyfriends- by that I mean my friendship plus the deadbeat guy she is dating forms the full relationship she is after. I don’t know how to communicate that here- Her boyfriends don’t seem to care that much about her and are not there when she needs them- but I am. It hurts everytime she starts dating someone else. unrequited love is the worst kind of love I am not sure if thats all it is- or her dad leaving her at 13 is causing her to avoid the man who wants to devote his life to making her happy and choosing dead beats

    • Terry says:

      Hi James,

      I recommend that you tell her about my website and buy her my book “Daughters of Divorce” which can be purchased through this website for a low cost. it may help her to realize that she is not alone and that research shows that daughters often have wounds from their parents’ divorce that manifest themselves in romantic relationships. You may enjoy reading my book as well. Overall, I can’t give advice about someone I don’t know but my book have already helped thousands of women find lasting love and love themselves. Link to book order: http://movingpastdivorce.com/order-daughters-of-divorce/

      Regards,
      Terry

  11. Julie says:

    Hi Terry
    My parents divorced in a bitter battle when I was eight after my father announced he was leaving his family of three kids to be with a co worker, (younger and childless of course!). My mother was beautiful, like a movie star, and an artist, but not the right person for my dad. He wanted and intellectual partner and freedom to spend time traveling and living the glamorous life of a scientific academic. The divorce left us impoverished in a middle class neighborhood which was humiliating for my family and me in particular since I was a girl needing clothes and wanting to fit in in socially. Neighbors whispered about the shabbiness of our house and I could never have a friend over. But We benefited from life in a wealthy community with good schools so I was thankfully fortunate, just very poor and I felt like an outcast. Not only did I never have my fathers attention or validation after he left, but I also lived as an outsider, extremely lonely since I could not participate in anything due to lack of funds or parental support. My father praised all his friends’ kids, and his co-workers successes, never ours even though my brothers and I were known in our town for being unusually attractive, smart and successful. I hid in my room studying nonstop and derived pride in being told by my mom that I was perfect. I was the good daughter who tried to advise my mother through the mess her life became. I went on to a top university determined to get away from the life that shamed me. I fell madly in love in college with a handsome, kind law student and then raised two outstanding kids with tremendous care and support. All was perfect indeed! I aimed to be the consummate mother and understanding wife to make up for all that my parents were not.
    But now I am an empty nester (my kids and husband are quite successful) and still in my solid marriage after 35 years. I am suffering with profound depression, and feeling abandoned. While some of this is due to my kids leaving, my guess is that it is partially my buried past haunting me since the pangs of pain feel almost identical to those of my youth. I feel like an outsider in alot of situations since I cannot participate confidently in the adult activities that my husband does so well, such as golf, tennis etc. I am filled with rage and jealousy of my husbands visual attention to other women. Even though he demonstrates total commitment and loyalty to our marriage and professes deep love and care for me, I often feel like the favorite old shoe: highly respected and shelved. It seems unfair since I am still very attractive and wanting a romance. I want to understand how I can appreciate the deep passion my husband claims to feel, but instead I focus on rejection and have obsessive thoughts about his possible preference for other womens’ looks. Saying this feels ridiculous! I am wondering how much of my thoughts are valid and which ones are just fears from my past coming out, ie fear of being cast aside for something better. I understand that men ogle women and supposedly it is harmless, but it “stabs” me nonetheless, especially since my husband denies it and becomes defensive and argumentative instead of explaining his behavior and acknowledging my pain. It reminds me all over again of that feeling of not being considered good enough, like when I was ten years old and not able to obtain my fathers attention in spite of my successes and positive attributes. These thoughts aside, I am very confident when I am alone and also when it comes to attracting men or pursuing new activities. The irony of writing this is that it is my husband who pointed out the parallels between my recent unease to my dysfunctional past. I want to be rid of these “niggly” thoughts that are taking me down. Luck has been on my side with just about everything so I want to celebrate what is good in my life instead of losing it all to negative, childish thoughts. (funny, just writing this has helped a bit!)

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