“You focus on your children and one day you wake up and you’re not committed. You’ve fallen out of love: especially with your busy lives and three kids. I want my marriage to succeed with my whole heart.”
– Maura, age 37
In our preface, I wrote that I could never picture my wedding day. The concept of a wedding, or even a successful marriage, seems alien to me, as it does to many daughters of divorce. Many see this as a source of sadness. Our society tends to view marriage and family as the ultimate sign of satisfaction and fulfillment in a women’s life. To have a successful marriage and family is proof to the outside world that a woman has “got it all together.” She has created some semblance of stability and healthiness in her personal life, so she must be okay. Women, and especially daughters of divorce, can put undue pressure on themselves to find the right man, marry, and develop a happy home life. But if they possess this goal, it can present many problems. Most women from disrupted homes don’t have a healthy template to follow when it comes to nurturing and sustaining a committed relationship, making it difficult for them to know where to start. Perhaps the first step for daughters of divorce is to reevaluate their view of relationships and adjust their expectations.
Even in the twenty-first century, when ideas about the nature of modern families have changed, many notions about marriage remain the same. Women raised in divorced homes can be especially hard on themselves when it comes to making their relationships work. They tend to feel if their relationships end, there is something wrong with them. The reality is that with time people grow and change. This does not mean love has failed. Simply because love does not last forever does not mean there is something wrong with it. Relationships, whether they last three months or three decades, can provide their participants with the love, understanding, and intimacy they need at the time. Often, the courage to end a relationship that is no longer meeting both partners’ needs shows the greatest strength.
“I still feel like I have to take care of me. I feel like I never want to depend on anyone because that’s what my mom did, and look what happened to her.”
Rachel, age 28
Growing up in a divorced home, a girl is forced to face life’s realities far younger than many of her peers. But on the flip side, the divorce experience arms her with great strengths. The vast majority of women from divided homes describe themselves as independent, steadfast, loyal, and conscientious adults. They are hard-working, trustworthy, and self-reliant – and pride themselves on these traits. Divorce caused them to grow up fast, and as a result, they have become responsible and resourceful women, able to handle the blows life gives them, regardless of how painful they may be. They may be self-assured and autonomous – confident they can take care of themselves while others can’t. The truth is that self-reliance is a double edged sword. While it has many virtues, it can rob women of true intimacy and the type of partnerships they desire.
Self-reliance must not be confused with self-confidence. There are many self-reliant women from divorced homes who work hard, have successful careers, and competently raise their children, but their self-esteem remains low. Many women from disrupted homes are self-reliant to a fault, putting far too much pressure on themselves. They bring self-reliance to a new level because they are unable to rely on anyone. Reliance on others can be healthy and affirming. The problem is that as children, divorce may have presented girls with searing loneliness. As children, daughters of divorce may have felt that all they had was themselves, so they over-functioned to compensate for what their surrounding environments lacked.
“I think at first I trust someone until I fear them leaving…and then I lose trust for no reason at all.”
– Haley, age 25
Many women who grew up in divorced homes wonder why they continually seem to pick the wrong guys. Even if they find themselves in a reasonably healthy relationship, daughters of divorce still may be unable to completely trust their partners. Sometimes, their partners are simply untrustworthy based on their past actions, so they have reason to feel leery. Other times, the initial breakdown in childhood has caused women to lack trust in their romantic partners.
When women mistrust their partners, they are not simply distressed at the thought of becoming victims of infidelity. Mistrustful women hold the fundamental belief that their partner does not have their best interest at heart. Daughters of divorce may doubt their partners truly love them. They may believe the person they fell in love with will waiver in their devotion. They may think that he will change, and they’ll be left wondering what happened to the man they fell in love with. Most of all, women who mistrust their partners are filled with fear of abandonment.
“Inexperience can so often be our ondoing. I accepted bad behavior too often in my past relationships, and stayed too long. Now, when I see a red flag, I confront it.”
– Theresa, age 25
For daughters of divorce, childhood experiences run the gamut. Perhaps you grew up in a chaotic household with substance abuse or other addictive behavior. Perhaps domestic violence or infidelity tainted your childhood. Maybe a new stepfamily forever changed your life and the way you see the world. Or perhaps you experienced an inner conflict living between two worlds if your parents had joint custody. No matter your experience, you undoubtedly endured some degree of dysfunction. Otherwise, you would have grown up in an intact home. Regardless of the circumstances, one truth remains. The way you feel about yourself today is a direct result of how you felt about yourself as a child.
Your relationships, and the responses you receive from others, have helped create your self-esteem. This started very early on, within your family. Your divorce experience forever altered your sense of self-worth. As an adult, when you attempt to create romantic relationships of your own, you acquire a different sense of self-worth. In the Psychology of Romantic Love Nathaniel Branden indicates that you experience who you are in the context of your relationships. “When we encounter a new human being our personality contains, among other things, the consequences of many past encounters, many experiences, the internalization of many responses and instances of feedback from others,” he writes. Negative experiences in relationships can change who you are as an individual. They can change what you expect from the world and what you expect from your romantic partners.
How are you? I am fine but I have been sick. I had pneumonia but am bettir now. I can not go back to school any more this term. My Sunday school teacher wants me to hurry up and come back. I want Santa Claus to bring me a doll bed for my big doll. I hope that you had a nice thanksgiving. I had a drumstick.
Write to mother and me real soon.
Your Baby [age 8]
November 30, 1937
This letter (unedited) was written by my mother to her father who moved to another state and rarely visited after their family dissolved. She was fond of telling me stories about being a “depression baby” and about how money was almost nonexistent after her father left – how they cooked on a wood stove and received food rations from a soup kitchen. My mother’s letter expresses her strong love and longing for her father’s presence in her life. Even though she rarely saw her father due to her parent’s breakup, my mother hungered for his attention. Distant or absent dads, like my grandfather, perpetuate a sense of “Daddy Hunger” that can create a deep craving for male attention for a daughter of divorce.
Many women underestimate the importance of their father in their lives. Like other researchers, we found that the women in our study were profoundly affected by their relationship with their fathers. Fortunately, many of them reported that their fathers were able to maintain loving relationships with them. On the other hand, some fathers were preoccupied with their new lifestyle or family. Others lacked the financial means to support two families. A father’s presence (or lack of presence) in his daughter’s life will affect how she will relate to all men who come after him.