How Can You Get Out From Under the Shadow of Your Parents’ Divorce?

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Do you ever wonder if you’ll get out from under the shadow of your parents’ divorce? Do you worry about repeating the patterns of the past?  The challenge of creating and maintaining a healthy, long-lasting relationship is where your parents fell short. But you have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and build the kind of relationship that eluded your parents.

There are many reasons why adults raised in divorced homes get stuck in the past and have difficulty establishing healthy relationships in the present. You might find yourself in relationship patterns that mirror your family of origin. It’s understandable that you might repeat patterns that you observed in your childhood home. Another factor may be what Freud referred to as repetition compulsion. This is a tendency that people have to repeat patterns from the past as a way to gain mastery over them. In either case, becoming more aware of the unhealthy relationship patterns that contributed to your parents’ divorce can be a good first step.

Abby, in her late thirties, spent over two decades struggling with ghosts from the past and experiencing turmoil in romantic relationships. Because she had little insight into her past, she found herself reenacting the painful memories of her parents’ marriage and subsequent breakup. Abby’s parents split when she was nine years old when her mother discovered that her father had been cheating on her for years. Her adolescence was a time of turmoil as she lived between her parents’ two desperate worlds and acted out due to the conflict she experienced.

During young adulthood, Abby struggled through a series of unhealthy, short-term relationships until she met her fiancé, Rob, at age thirty-five. Prior to meeting Rob, she hadn’t had a healthy relationship for many years. She admits to sabotaging her relationships by being mistrustful and controlling. As Abby describes her issue with trust, she says, “My first serious boyfriend in college cheated on me several times. He betrayed me just like my dad cheated on my mom. After college, I dated someone named Kyle who was wonderful and treated me right. But since I wasn’t used to wonderful, I left him and picked guys who were the opposite of him. After that, I dated a lot of guys but didn’t have a serious relationship for many years.”

For nearly two decades, Abby avoided making a commitment because she was mistrustful and fearful of ending up like her parents. Like many daughters of divorce, she needed special permission to grieve the loss of her original family. With support from a seasoned therapist, Abby gained the insight to break the self-defeating pattern of mistrust and fear of commitment. When I asked Abby what the most difficult parts of an intimate relationship are, she stopped and nodded: “Trust and intimacy are not my strong suits. I hope that my marriage is nothing like my parents. I hope that it will be based on commitment and communication, which Rob and I have been working on.”

Penny provides another example of a woman who replayed patterns of the past for many years without conscious awareness. In love with the idea of marriage, Penny was looking for the nurturing and intimacy she lacked as a child. Like her mother, Penny was self-sacrificing and was attracted to someone who was her opposite – self-absorbed and unwilling to consider her needs. Ignoring the red flags early in the relationship, she was caught up in a pursuer-distancer pattern with her fiancé Bill, who could never fully commit to marriage. They had been engaged for six years and he was unwilling to set a date for their wedding. Unfortunately, Penny allowed herself to pursue a partner who bore a strong resemblance to her emotionally distant father.

There are many reasons why people have difficulty letting go of the past and moving past divorce. Sometimes, children take their parents’ offenses to heart and blame themselves. After all, all children want to admire their caregivers and so when they do things that are untrustworthy, children blame themselves as a way to make sense of their world. Some people even create a narrative for their life that focuses on suffering and blame. The following tips will help you to heal from the past and to make healthier choices in relationships in the present.

  • Gain awareness about past hurt. For instance, both Abby and Penny learned that their parents’ unhealthy patterns had impacted their choices in partners much more than they realized.

  • Acknowledge the damage that was done and shift to an impersonal perspective.   

  • Find ways to repair the damage by writing a new narrative for your life – one that includes picking partners who are trustworthy and willing to work on a committed relationship.

  • Examine your expectations about intimate relationships. You might be focused on your dream of how a relationship should be rather than the reality of how it is – leading to disappointment.

  • Focus on the things that you can control. Abby realized that she couldn’t control her father’s infidelity but she could choose a life partner who shared her view of fidelity and commitment.

Crafting a new story for your life includes not allowing your parents’ divorce or unhappiness to define who you are as a person.  Develop and use positive intentions or affirmations such as:

  • I accept that I don’t have control over all aspects of my life, but I can exercise the power of choice. I will attempt to make good choices and let go of those things that are beyond my control.

  • I won’t let my parents’ divorce or my past prevent me from making positive choices today.

With time and patience, you can begin to visualize the kind of life you need to thrive. You don’t have to let your past dictate the decisions you make today. Restoring your faith in love includes building relationships based on love, trust, and intimacy. Remember to be gentle with yourself and others on your journey.

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Do you find yourself repeating patterns from the past? If so, share your experience or ask us a question. 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.”

Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was be published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and can be ordered here.