Daughters of Divorce: The Struggle for Love, Trust and Intimacy

I’ve written extensively about stepfamilies, how to build trust in relationships, and how to restore a shaken faith in love. I’ve also blogged about divorce and finances, improving self-esteem, and the importance of the father daughter relationship. When it comes to divorce, there’s no shortage of topics to write about. But sometimes it’s important to remind myself about why Moving Past Divorce started, which was to help women who grew up in divorced homes.

My mother and I, who are both daughters of divorce, launched our website movingpastdivorce.com and wrote a book, Daughters of Divorce because we know that many women struggle silently and needlessly. My mother saw her first marriage end in divorce and I struggled through two unhealthy relationships of my own, unaware of the reason why. Women who grew up in fractured homes lacked positive role models for relationships, and feel challenged to find lasting love as adults. Judith Wallerstein, a pioneer in the area of divorce research, famously conducted a 25 year landmark study which concluded that children of divorce struggle to build healthy relationships and live with the fear that they will end.

Wallerstein studied many young women who suffered from what she dubbed the “sleeper effect.” As children, they may have done their best to be “good girls” and play the hand of cards that divorce dealt them. But as young women, they tend to pick partners who are all wrong for them. Most daughters of divorce have trouble with trust and intimacy, and fear that no matter what they do, they will be left. When they fall in love, it reawakens long hidden emotions that they tried to bury in childhood.

We conducted our own descriptive study, a follow up to Wallerstein’s breakthrough work, and interviewed more than 300 women who grew in divorced homes. Without exception, every one of these women described themselves as being fiercely independent, and they prided themselves on this trait. Many recalled working hard in school, holding down multiple jobs, paying the bills, and making sure that if they had to, they could do everything on their own. What we came to discover is that while autonomy is surely positive, it can also rob women of the love and intimacy they so deeply desire. The truth about self-reliance is that it’s not simply an assertion of independence – it’s a deep fear that if you let someone in, they will leave you.

Every person harbors a desire to love and be loved, but the problem for many daughters of divorce is that they fear they won’t be loved and cared for, and that their partner will not have their best interests at heart. This is after all, the wound that was created in childhood. Divorce is outside of a child’s day to day experience. Even if a child is told a divorce is not her fault, she can internalize the pain of the breakup and feel something is wrong with her. These emotions can resurface when a child of divorce forges adult relationships of her own. And the results are not pretty. If a woman who grew up in a disrupted home gets married, her chance of getting a divorce is twice as great as her counterparts from intact homes.

Like all struggles in life, greater awareness and a willingness to work on an issue can bring about change. And the fact of the matter is that most daughters of divorce can and do improve, once they’re able to get to the bottom of where their relationship problems come from. My mother and I feel we are living proof that it is possible to restore your faith in love, and that every person, regardless of what they’ve been through, is worthy of finding love they can be sure of.

Are you a woman who grew up in a divorced home? Have you found your relationships to be more difficult as a result? Tell us in the comments below.

Tracy Clifford

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