By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Do you fear that if you tie the knot, your marriage will end in divorce like your parents did? If you are worried about the future of your relationship, you are not alone. Americans have a strong tradition of divorce. The divorce epidemic reached its peak in the late 1970’s. Since then, couples tend to see marriage as disposable and the divorce rate has remained high – over 40% of first marriages end in divorce.
In the twenty-first century, many people see divorce as a viable option to the inevitable hard times of marriage. Stable and healthy marriages seem to be in short supply. You may view marriage as voluntary and not as essential to your life goals. Adult children of divorce have good reason to feel that their marriages are doomed to fail. According to sociologist Paul Amato, experiencing parental divorce approximately doubles ones chances of seeing their own marriage end in divorce. You might be surprised to learn that daughters of divorce are even more divorce prone than sons, and that women initiate and file for divorce 2/3 of the time.
It is important for you, as an adult child of divorce, to keep your partnerships in perspective. The truth is that all relationships end, either through breakup or death. But many people raised in divorced homes are preoccupied with the fear of a relationship ending. They fear that no matter what they do, their marriage will suffer the same fate as their parents did. Even if they do decide to marry, they may go into marriage with a lingering thought in the back of their heads that tells them it won’t work out.
This skeptical attitude can contribute to the high divorce rate. Don’t let fear stop you from achieving the true intimacy that comes with commitment. Many people hedge their bets against failure and avoid making a full commitment to a romantic partner. By doing this, they miss out on the level of intimacy that comes with making a complete commitment to their partner.
Certainly, children raised in divorced homes learn the hard way that marriage is not a sure thing. They didn’t grow up with healthy templates for long lasting love. These factors put them at a much higher risk for divorce compared to counterparts from intact homes. On the other hand, most adult children of divorce have a healthy respect for commitment and are determined not to repeat their parents’ mistakes. But repeating the past can be second nature if, as a child, you were exposed to unhealthy intimate relationships and then divorce.
Examining your attitudes about love and commitment can help you to explore options that are right for you. As you let go of fears of your relationship failing, you’ll gain confidence in your ability to love fully and make a long-term commitment.
Let’s look at Alexis, whose parents divorced when she was sixteen after many years of intense conflict and unhappiness. She is a prime example of a young woman who hedges her bets against failure by withholding a commitment to marriage. Brushing her thick hair from her brow, she says “My relationships are usually short lived, a couple of months, and I take long breaks between relationships. I want a healthy relationship, but I have a tendency to go for the guy who I know isn’t right for me.”
In contrast, Tonya’s parents divorced when she was eight years old, and she has a tendency to fear abandonment – so she clings to relationships even when her needs aren’t being met. Tonya blamed herself when Keith was unfaithful, saying, “Is there something wrong with me?” She wonders out loud, “Am I flawed in some way – not woman enough, sexy enough?” Tonya is a successful, educated woman, but relationships have been her Achilles heel. Her craving for a failsafe relationship will always be unsatisfied, because such a relationship doesn’t exist. Even people from intact homes are faced with this reality – relationships, even marriages, provide no guarantees.
Is it possible to overcome fear of relationship failure? Elizabeth provides a good example of a young woman who endured her parents’ adversarial divorce and has restored her faith in love. Happily married for the past five years, she understands the fragility of marriage and went into her marriage to Zane with her eyes wide open. Elizabeth examined her parents’ divorce from an adult perspective and realized that her parents had irreconcilable differences. She says, “I guess my parents weren’t meant to be together, their marriage motivates me to make my marriage a priority.”
Elizabeth spent several years in therapy and worked on visualizing the type of relationship that she needed to thrive. Living together was not an acceptable option for her because she wanted to have children and believed that they would benefit from married parents. Research studies show that children raised by parents who live together without a legal agreement see their parents breaking up at an alarming rate – even higher that the divorce rate for married parents.
With passion in her voice Elizabeth says, “I do have fears, but most of all I remind myself that Zane is my soul mate. He is my best friend and I remind myself that I don’t worry about my friends leaving. Also, I think that if someday we part ways it will be horrible, if it happens. But why waste our time together – our happiness – worrying about something in the future that may or may not happen. I make sure that I tell him every day that I love him. I make sure to be interested in the things he cares about, because I love his happiness as much as mine.”
With cohabitation on the rise, marriage seems to be less of a necessity. Living together without a legal commitment has become more acceptable in our culture. Yet many people continue to see marriage as desirable and believe that it is a worthy goal. Studies show that marriage is good for us – promoting better sleep, and both physical and mental health. Understandably, an unhealthy marriage can work against one’s well-being.
The task then, is to learn from your parents’ failed marriage and your own past – creating loving relationships that are healthy and lasting. The following tips may help you on your journey for love:
Go slowly and allow your relationship to develop over time. Expect rough patches and practice the art of patience and forgiveness.
Avoid making a long-term commitment before the age of twenty-five. You’ll enhance your chances of finding lasting love if you know yourself and have established a solid identity.
Attempt to pick a partner with a similar background and interests. Couples who have vast differences in these two areas have an increased risk of divorce.
Stick with a committed relationship for at least ten years. Most marriages dissolve in the first ten years – especially the first five years. Hang in there unless your partner is abusive.