What Your Parents’ Divorce Means for Your Relationships

Will the past repeat itself?

02.06.17
Dating as a Child of Divorce Man Repeller Feature

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On September of 1986, my mother’s aunt set her up on a blind date with my dad. Once divorced, he was almost eleven years her senior. My mom, who was 29 at the time, took one look at him and started running — literally running — away. Had her aunt not lassoed her back and gotten her to go on the date, I wouldn’t be here today. And my parents wouldn’t have an almost 30-year marriage.

By all accounts, this sounds like a success story. In fact, considering that the divorce rate hovers at around 50% (and is higher for second and third marriages), people assume that if your parents are still together, you must have the secret to a good relationship embedded in your DNA.

But just like any relationship spanning 30 years, my parents have had conflicts to which, inevitably, I’ve been witness. The success of their marriage doesn’t hinge solely on their continued partnership, but rather the constant conversations and compromises that keep them on the same page.

Measuring the success of a marriage on a binary system of whether it ended in divorce or not doesn’t do the complexity of relationships much justice. When children are involved, a marriage stops being something that impacts the couple only and becomes the blueprint that the children will follow in their own relationships. Modeling good behavior (rather than saying, for example, to act maturely and rationally) is one of the most long-lasting lessons a couple can teach through their marriage.

This makes me wonder whether it’s true that we inevitably copy our pasts. Are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes, have the same fights and marry the same people as our parents? And if our parents are divorced, does this mean that we’re destined for the same fate?

The interplay of nature and nurture when it comes to mimicking behavior is really important. For example, studies have found that children who grew up in abusive households have about a 30% chance of becoming abusive parents themselves. Children of alcoholics are four times more likely to become alcoholics. Children of smokers are much more likely to smoke, too. Sure, some of these behaviors have genetic ties — you may be predisposed to addiction, for example. But so much is dependent upon the behavior we witness from the adults in our lives and how it molds us.

Dating as a Child of Divorce Man Repeller 2

Our parents’ systems of belief are also tremendously of consequence: More than half of young adults tend to believe in the same religion as their parents and hold their parents’ political affiliations. Mimicking the adults you’re close to doesn’t start in adulthood but much, much earlier — I mean, you’ve seen Toddlers and Tiaras.

The implications for relationships are tremendous. Surprisingly, though, children from high conflict yet non-divorced families are the most likely to divorce as adults.

This is interesting because we often hear that parents stay together “for the sake of the children.” While it’s certainly beneficial for divorced partners to continue co-parenting civilly, this doesn’t necessitate martyrdom — making oneself miserable so that the kids can have the now-debunked benefit of coming from a non-divorced family.

Divorce can sometimes come as a happy reprieve from witnessing your parents’ unhealthy behavior, therefore making it less likely that you’ll repeat it in the future. Divorce is only the coup de grâce to a chapter of unhappiness. Instead of fearing it, we should fear inheriting the unhealthy patterns we witnessed in our own childhoods.

I realize this all sounds like we’ll be turning into terrifying caricatures of our parents in the future, but it’s not quite that straightforward. If you’re afraid of inheriting your mother’s hardheadedness or your dad’s knack for picking fights at the most inopportune time, you’ve already taken a positive step forward.

Being aware (and therefore afraid) of repeating unhealthy behavior means you’re much less likely to do just that. We’re not all part of an Oedipal prophecy, stuck on a track and unable to control our futures. A little bit of awareness and introspection goes a long way, and can help you avoid relationship potholes.

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession.

Illustrations by Katherine Moffet. Check out her Instagram @whensdessert

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  • nicolacash

    The line “Being aware (and therefore afraid) of repeating unhealthy behavior means you’re much less likely to do just that” is key. I think the reason why some people find it difficult to identify unhealthy behavior in their relationships is because it’s what they grew up around, so it’s normal to them.

  • Those divorce rates seem a little alarming. In the US at least, 30% of first marriages end in divorce and the rate is pushed up to 50% when you you include all marriages. Maybe the rates cited are global?

    Anyway, I’ve never feared repeating my parents’ divorce but their marriage. So far, so good but it takes a lot of self-reflection and work.

  • Great read and a lot of thought on the matter. I’m well aware of how my parents’ relationship affected me, as well as other childhood events. I’m living with it every day. For some time, I actually wanted to get married and then get a divorce because I thought it would make me wiser. I do now realize how awful that sounds and have no desire to experience it.
    My believes have drastically changed over time. I am now more mature and secure in both my romantic and social life. It took me a long time to realize that me and my mother are just two different people, and what works for one doesn’t work for the other.

  • fatou diaw

    Very powerful read. thank you for this.
    https://closettostreet.com/

  • I think that last paragraph nails it, as long as you’re aware of your parents’ mistakes you can beat the odds.
    My parents divorced when I was 10, and I was actually glad because even then I knew their constant arguing wasn’t healthy. My current boyfriend is quite different from my father and my stepfather so I think I’m on the right track.
    Btw has anyone seen the movie ACOD (A Child of Divorce)? When I watched it I thought it would just be a comedy but damn is it relatable.

  • Jeanie

    Me and my sister are both in happy marriages, while our parents’ were not. I think maybe our parents were so extreme, we used their relationship as a guide for what not to do.

  • Kattigans

    Helena, I listened to you on an episode of Oh Boy the other day and fell in love with your story and your way with words. Now reading this a few days later, my heart skipped a small beat when I saw that you penned this article. I would’ve never guessed that you come from a divorced household when I listened to your interview. I did relish hearing that you’re an only child or at least a kinda one – me too! And my parents are divorced. It was messy and terrible. Its left me with many scars I’m learning to work through in adulthood and I fear I may repeat the same history in my life. But as you said, it isn’t something to necessarily fear. More so the closing of one chapter and knowing when its time to move on and enjoy the next part of one’s life. Thanks for sharing!