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


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.”

10 Responses to “The Sleeper Effect”

  1. Great to find this blog. Thanks for a quality read and some good info as well. Will revisit the blog and regularly drop by. Cheers.

  2. Gary Elms says:

    Sometimes you stumble upon an idea that generate further thinking – the right blog at the best time! Bravo!

  3. Randy says:

    I’m a guy and my parents divorced when I was 17. My mom was the one who initiated it and I found out by accident. I was devastated, but managed to have a fun and memorable senior year of high school. I had more freedom with my mom now going back to school and working. I went too went to a local college along with my best friend, who I had to plead with to be his roommate. He wanted a “fresh start” to going to college I guess. While I was there, I developed severe anxiety, especially towards social situations. I feel it ended up “tainting” my college experience. That was ten years ago and I am trying to put the pieces together as to what happened. I had never heard of the “Sleeper Effect,” but that seems to be what happened to me.

    • Terry says:

      Hello, I’m glad you can relate the article and I hope it helps you to know you are not alone. The sleeper effect is not commonly talked or written about. Please google Huffington Post Divorce, my name, and “The Sleeper Effect” and you can read another article that I wrote about it. I have expereinced it as well and know how hard it can be to cope. Getting support is a crucial step to recoverying from it. Sincerely, Terry Gaspard

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hello. I’m a 19 year old female and my parents divorced when I was 2. I’m not sure if I experienced the sleeper effect in 5th grade when I would cry if I heard music that made me think of my dad or if I am experiencing it now. I have self harmed mildly, to prove to myself that I am bothered by the divorce. I’ve never been to counseling and I’m in a top university. I can’t go for counseling because my mom would know and she often says how thankful she is that I’m doing well and how it would be so hard for her if I wasn’t how I am. She never wanted the divorce and my older brother had problems and is now getting over them. Going to stay with my dad one summer helped for a bit but my step mom didn’t seem to really want me there. I’ll be going again for a summer. Anyhow, I’ve never had a boyfriend so I’m not sure if this is also the sleeper effect.

    • Terry says:


      It appears that you are experiencing the “Sleeper Effect” and I do recommend counseling. I would talk to your mother and explain that this tendency is very common in daughters of divorce and encourage her to read my blog. If she does not agree that you need counseling, you may be able to seek counseling and on your own. It’s usually free on campus if you are a college student. A delayed effect from parental divorce doesn’t mean that parents did do a poor job or that there are serious problems. Our book “Daughters of Divorce” will be published next fall and will probably help you because it explores the “Sleeper Effect” in depth. Please visit our website for updates on our book.

      Generally speaking, unresolved emotional issues have a tendency to lay dormant and resurface at later times. Girls have more of a tendency to remember both pleasant and unpleasant emotions and to repress negative ones due to fear of losing love or approval – especially from their fathers.

      Best Regards,


  5. Laura Carney says:

    The sleeper effect took me quite by surprise after my wedding. I thought I’d dealt with all my issues with my parents’ divorce through years of therapy, but they still hit me hard. My father was killed suddenly in a car crash when I was 25, so this compounded things. I always felt that I did not have his guidance or protection in choosing a man to marry. This only mirrored how I felt when I was a kid at times, that he was not there to deal with some very real issues in my life. As I said, I dealt with this with therapists throughout adolescence and my early 20s, so this is shocking to me. It took my fiance 10 years to propose, so maybe that put off the problem even longer. I thought I’d be so happy to finally be married, but instead I feel a great deal of pressure to be a “good wife” while also fearing that what I’ve worked so hard to maintain in my life, this partnership, which has been even more challenging for me than my career, considering my background, could just poof, disappear, at any time. I don’t know where this sudden anxiety came from–and it’s strange because I’ve beaten depression, and many other things, I’m a very strong, resilient woman. I hope this will only last the first few months of marriage and not the whole time. I think what I fear the most is that I don’t know how to stand up for my needs and wants in the future–I fear my husband will have his way because I’ll be too afraid to interfere, worrying that if I do, he’ll see it as grounds for leaving, like my father did. At the same time, I very much want control over my own life and don’t ever want to have to follow someone else’s wishes. It’s a real inner conflict for me.

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