Overcoming the Legacy of Divorce: 7 Pathways

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Divorce goes back five generations in my family. Sharing this fact still shocks me and gives me reason to pause. It’s not that my ancestors didn’t strive to have successful marriages or even brag about those that lasted, it’s just that we aren’t good at marriage. At a recent Fourth of July cook-out my daughter Tracy, age 26, said out loud “My family’s good at divorce, but making marriage last is where we fall short.” Tracy has always had a knack for hitting the nail on the head.

I’ve sat at many gatherings and listened to tales about fabulous weddings and even successful second marriages among family members. Since I’m a therapist and author who writes about families, some of my relatives began asking me a few decades ago why we’re so divorce prone. I guess this was the beginning of my quest to discover the root of our divorce bug and why we just don’t seem to be able to shake it. Mind you it’s not for lack of trying. Some of my relatives have even attended therapy sessions with the best intentions.

By now you’ve probably gathered that I have a distinctive take on divorce – one based on personal and professional experience. You may have heard the saying that therapists tend to go into the field to work through their own issues. This is certainly true for me.  If you read on, I’ll elaborate on my passion to uncover the reasons why divorce is so contagious in my family. We have it all over Al and Tipper Gore and many celebrities who are the first, second, or third generation of divorce.

That being said, I began researching divorce in the mid 1990’s when I was going through my own painful divorce. With two school-age children at my side and a new graduate degree added to my resume, I began working as a college counselor and interviewed hundreds of young adult children of divorce. My research findings generated a buzz on campus and I was lucky to publish three studies, yet my thirst for knowledge about the legacy of divorce in my own life wasn’t quenched. So in an effort to begin again and to “nest” I remarried in the late 1990’s – finding comfort in the fact that a reasonably bright and attractive professional man would take a chance on a divorcee with two kids and plenty of baggage.

Fast forward to 2007 when my daughter Tracy was 21 and I began to fear the divorce bug was spreading again.  It struck me like a lightning bolt that she was reenacting some of the same patterns in intimate relationships that I had experienced as a young woman. These included picking guys who were all wrong for her, ignoring gut feelings and red flags, and freezing up or getting cold feet when a suitable partner came along. To compound my fear that Tracy was following in my footsteps, I began to feel concerned that my own marriage was doomed to fail as we reached our ten year anniversary and were experiencing growing pains.

What I’ve come to realize is that what many experts say is true – divorce does run in families. After going back to the drawing board and interviewing a sample of more than 300 daughters of divorce in the past few years, I have come to this conclusion:

While adult children of divorce have double the risk of divorce compared to counterparts from intact homes (and triple if they marry an ACOD) they can learn from their parents’ failed marriage and gain confidence in their ability to find lasting love. The key to doing this is self-awareness and a willingness to follow 7 Pathways which I will share:

  • PATHWAY ONE: Examine your parents’ divorce from an adult viewpoint. Realize that you don’t have to define yourself by your parents’ marriage or breakup – you can learn from their failed marriage. Action Step: Ask each parent the reasons why they divorced. Even if you think you know the reasons, discussing it as an adult may shed new light on their split. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this or don’t have access to both of your parents, attempt to ask this question to a grandparent, aunt,  uncle, or trusted family friend.
  •  PATHWAY TWO: Attempt to forgive others and move on from the past. You can’t change the past, but you can make better choices today. Action Step: Write down three crucial ways that your parents’ divorce has impacted (or is still impacting) your life. Write down three personal goals to address these issues if the affects were (or are) negative. Keep in mind that the objective here is to focus on pain from your past that may be carrying over into the present. Attempt to pick goals that are attainable and it’s always wise to enlist the help of a close friend, family member, or therapist. Do at least one thing every day on behalf of your goals. The truth is that small consistent steps, such as following through on calling a therapist or coach for help, can create huge momentum.
  •  PATHWAY THREE: Examine your relationship with your father.  Try to repair any father-daughter wounds that may prevent you from having a healthy connection. Action Step: Write a statement that will help you release any leftover negative feelings from the past. For example, one possible release is: “Dad, I release you for not spending as much time with me after you remarried. I still feel some resentment about this, but I’m working on letting it go.”  Many women choose to keep this release private but another option is to include it in a letter to your father – regardless of whether or not you decide to mail it.
  •  PATHWAY FOUR: Get to the root of self-esteem issues. Internalize the belief that you are worthy of love. Action Step: Keep track of negative automatic thoughts (that pop into your head) and substitute them with positive counterstatements. Write a prescription to feel better about yourself. For instance, you might decide to do one positive thing for yourself each morning. Take a risk and try something new such as practicing ten minutes of stretching or yoga. Also, keep a list of three successes you’ve had during the course of each day. There is no such thing as a small step or success. Do something good for yourself today – and every day – no matter how small. You’ll be amazed how quickly your self-esteem will improve when you adopt this proactive approach.
  • PATHWAY FIVE: Extend trust to others. Operate from a viewpoint that your partner wants the best for you and will not hurt or abandon you. Let him prove, through word and deed, that he is trustworthy. Action Step: Pinpoint how your parents’ divorce may impact your feelings of trust in intimate relationships. Extend trust to a partner worthy of trust. When others have lost your trust, don’t assume the worst. Pause and examine whether your mistrustful feelings are a result of your past or present. Make a choice to trust your partner and keep in mind that restoring trust is a gradual process. Don’t be hard on yourself as you are learning to rebuild trust in relationships.
  •  PATHWAY SIX:  Develop interdependence and reign in your self-reliance. Allow your partner to come through for you. Action Step: Visualize yourself  in an honest and open intimate relationship and set a goal to be more accepting of nurturing from your partner. Put together a vision board or write down what you want your relationship to look like. Make a point to reflect upon this image or written passage at least twice a day. Remind yourself that it’s healthy to accept help from others and that the payoff from sharing your vulnerabilities is a deeper level of love, trust, and intimacy.
  •  PATHWAY SEVEN: Examine your attitudes and beliefs about love and commitment. A healthy respect for commitment will enhance your ability to build love, trust, and intimacy. Action Step: Identify specific ways you might be avoiding commitment. Along with this, evaluate your choice in partners and confront qualities that they share in common. Examine the impact your relationships have had on your self-esteem and life choices. Lastly, make a list of three qualities in a partner that are a priority for you. Set a goal to become more deeply invested in a romantic relationship with a current or new partner who possesses some of these qualities.

I invite you to join us on the journey toward building love, trust, and intimacy. We are launching our first audio podcast series on The Legacy of Divorce to be found on our homepage. There are three sessions which can be purchased separately or you can receive a discount for buying the entire series. If you are looking for guidance, support, or information about the legacy of divorce please sign-up for our bi-weekly enewsletter, blogs, and the Relationship Builder Kit. We invite you to ask us a question and to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”