By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Since you are reading this blog, it’s likely that you have been touched by divorce – either because of your parents’ breakup or because of your own divorce. Either way, it’s important to realize that you can have successful long-lasting partnerships even though the odds are stacked against you. There is growing consensus among researchers that parental divorce approximately doubles the odds that adult children of divorce will experience their own divorce. Likewise, second marriages have at least a 10% higher divorce rate than first marriages. But with courage and persistence, you can defy the statistics that say that your romantic relationships are doomed to fail.
Various forms of self-defeating or dysfunctional relationships might prevent you from achieving the happiness you deserve. Visualizing the type of relationship you want, becoming more self-aware, and discovering ingrained beliefs and expectations are key to rebuilding your life. A central finding of my research is that divorce doesn’t have to define who you are as a person or the choices you make. You can build a true partnership based on mutual respect that is long-lasting if you are willing to do the work.
How can you learn to trust others and restore your faith in love when intimacy reawakens your childhood fears or memories of adult breakups? First, you must believe that you have it within your ability to make healthier choices. Then you must examine your beliefs and expectations about relationships and work through issues that might prevent you from creating the life-long partnerships that you deserve. Caroline’s story is an example of how to use your past experience as an opportunity to create the kind of life you want today. Like Caroline, you can develop a positive mindset about love and learn to avoid the pitfalls that increase the probability of your own breakup or divorce.
Caroline, age twenty nine, struggled through a series of short-term relationships and avoided commitment due to feelings of mistrust and fear of ending up like her parents. She learned a strong work ethic from her mother and is a successful professional. But for several years, she had difficulty believing that her boyfriend, Erik, had her best interests at heart, which caused her to feel mistrust and anxiety at times. Due to her family script, she was programmed to fear abandonment and betrayal. After all, her father was unfaithful to her mother many times. Nonetheless, she chose a partner who loves her unconditionally, and is fully capable of giving her the devotion and reassurance she craves.
Most women would have crumbled with the childhood that Caroline endured. From an early age, she was subjected to her parents’ dysfunctional relationship, infidelity, and an adversarial divorce. But deep in her core, Caroline believed that she could overcome her past and that she deserved to be loved. Fortunately, she sought out a licensed therapist to help guide her through the dicey waters of young adult relationships. She didn’t allow fear and shame to stop her from healing from the past. With the support of a trusted therapist and a close friend, Caroline was able to unlock her past and put her parents’ marriage and divorce into an adult perspective. She learned to embrace the concept that working through problems in a relationship can lead to deeper communication and commitment.
Competent-and-caring, Caroline has carved out a life for herself that is based on having the courage to trust others worthy of her trust. During a recent interview at her favorite seaside coffee shop, Caroline radiated confidence as she shared these words of wisdom: “My relationship with Erik is very different from my parents’ marriage. He treats me with respect, love, and consideration – and accepts me for me.” Several days after our interview, Caroline forwarded an e-mail to me announcing her engagement to Erik.
While marriage may not be your current objective, embracing love and trust is a worthy goal. The following tips can help you to change self-defeating patterns that don’t promote your best interests:
Let go of guilt and positive things will start to happen. Whereas when you see yourself as a failure, your actions will confirm a negative view of yourself.
Attempt to see yourself as capable of learning from the past, rather than repeating it. Learn to separate the past from the present and begin to live in the present.
Healthy relationships don’t come without risk – allow yourself to be vulnerable and to trust others who are trustworthy. Therapy, reading, and supportive friends can help to guide you.
You have the power to make positive things happen in your life. Recognize the newness in each day and use positive intentions such as “I am capable of creating loving, trusting relationships.”
Like all smart women, Caroline knows that she needs to adopt realistic expectations of herself and others. Rough patches in a relationship can either bring people closer together – or tear them apart – depending on how they’re handled. Adult children of divorce are wise to avoid giving up, shutting down, blaming, criticizing, or being extremely self-reliant. Caroline’s positive intention of building a loving relationship with Erik is an important first step. Fortunately, she has a healthy respect for commitment and an optimistic outlook about her future. While there are no guarantees in any relationship, Caroline has not allowed fear to stop her from claiming the love that she deserves.
Your divorce experience has made you stronger, more realistic, and better prepared for the requirements of love. Whether you choose to marry or not, you have it within your reach to create satisfying relationships and to achieve personal happiness. Keep in mind, it’s never too late to restore your faith in love.
Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter and Facebook. She is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).