The Sleeper Effect

Dear Terry and Tracy,

My parents’ divorce really didn’t upset me much. I wasn’t surprised because I knew they weren’t getting along. I used to go to bed every night wondering if they’d both be at the breakfast table in the morning. When I was thirteen my dad moved out and I was happier because I didn’t have to deal with the constant tension and petty arguments. In high school I made the honor roll so both of my parents pushed me to apply to good colleges. I wasn’t interested in going to any of the more prestigious schools in another state, so I choose a state school close to home.

Things went okay the first year of college but then I fell apart. I met my first true love and dropped out of college the summer before my sophomore year. We moved in together and things got really stressful. Suddenly nothing mattered but Kyle and I became obsessed with his whereabouts – even checking his text messages to see if any girls were texting him. He just wasn’t as committed as I was and we used to fight about stupid things like who was taking out the trash. After four months of constant bickering he broke up with me and I was devastated.

I’ve been seeing a counselor to help me get back on track and she told me that my problems with Kyle probably have something to do with my parents’ divorce. I don’t see the connection because I remember feeling relieved when they split up. I just want to get over Kyle and start feeling a sense of purpose in my life again. How can my parents’ divorce eight years ago be affecting me now? 

– Claire, age 21

Claire,

It’s common for girls to have a delayed reaction their parents’ divorce. Adolescence is a time of disconnection and repression in women’s lives. Girls often experience social pressure to deny their authentic experience when faced with a traumatic loss like parental divorce. It makes sense that you would bury your feelings when your parents split and have a delayed response. After all, most girls are socialized to define themselves through relationships. The breakup of a family is often out of the realm of everyday experience, so girls tend to suppress their emotions – appearing to others that everything is okay. Like you, I was studious and looked good on the outside after my parents’ divorce, but had a delayed reaction when I hit late adolescence – suffering from heartache and anxiety in relationships with men.

Based on my personal experience and research, many daughters of divorce experience a “sleeper effect” – a tendency to repress intense anxiety related to parental divorce – only to have a delayed emergence of powerful effects later on. A seasoned therapist and researcher, Dr. Judith Wallerstein discovered the “sleeper effect” when she conducted an in-depth study of forty-seven daughters of divorce over several decades. She found that the sleeper effect can be particularly dangerous because it occurs at a crucial time when young women are making decisions about love and relationships. If trust and abandonment issues aren’t dealt with, they can wreak havoc on romantic relationships. Letting go of the past and forgiving your parents will help you to craft a new story for your life. Following these steps to becoming a more forgiving person will help you to release painful feelings and to move past your parents’ divorce:

  • Gain awareness about your past hurt. This might mean seeing a therapist and/or reading books designed to help adult children of divorce.
  • Take steps to lessen the impact the grievance you hold has on your relationships. Repair the damage and find ways to heal hurt feelings. Try seeing your parents’ split and other losses from their point of view.
  • Begin the process of change by choosing to feel hurt for a shorter period. Let go of unrealistic expectations – such as changing your parents – and don’t take on your parents’ pain.
  • Accept that most people do the best they can and try to be more understanding. This doesn’t mean that you condone the hurtful actions of others. You simply come to a more realistic view of the past.
  • The final step is becoming a more forgiving person. Developing a positive intention – such as building healthier relationships – will allow you to focus on love and forgiveness rather than shame and anger.

The sleeper effect mostly affects young women. Girls often appear to make out better than boys immediately after a parental divorce, but are more likely to go under cover and internalize feelings of shame and resentment. They are more likely to be people pleasers than boys. Parents often remark on the fact that their daughters recover more quickly, while their sons may act out behaviorally. But over the long run, girls are more prone to suffer from feelings of betrayal – even when they’ve never been abandoned by a lover.

Fear of relationship failure can color all of your relationships and impact your ability to trust that your relationships will last. Creating a new story for your life is possible if you are gentle with yourself. Parental divorce can trigger trust issues. Early on in a relationship, it’s wise not to be too trusting. But if your partner demonstrates trust over time, you need to extend trust to him. Only then will you experience the type of relationship that eluded your parents.

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Did you have a delayed reaction to your parents’ divorce? If so, please share your story or ask us a question. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome The Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”