The divorce statistics have fluctuated some but basically, they haven’t moved much in years. The rate of divorce for first marriages is close to 50%; for second marriages, it is close to 66%. So, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that you, or someone you are close to, has experience with divorce.
In my family, the divorce tally is: my parents, two aunts, an uncle, a sister (twice), and a stepbrother. My parents both remarried to spouses who were also divorced. All told, total divorces: 9. Total number of children impacted: 16.
The National Opinion Research Council conducted a survey of adult children of divorce that spanned more than 20 years. Here’s what they found: In 1973, adult children of divorce were 172% more likely to get divorced than adult children from intact homes. In 1999, adult children of divorce were only 50% more likely to get divorced than adult children from intact homes … which sounds like good news.
However, the bad news is that the survey also found a 26% lower rate of marrying in the first place among adult children of divorced parents.
So, does this mean that if your parents divorced, you either will never marry or, if you do, it will fail? Not at all. I have been married for 26 years. My other sister just celebrated her 28th anniversary. Several of the second marriages in my family lasted until the death of one partner—often over 30 years.
The reality is that your parents’ divorce will have an impact on your marriage. We first learn about love and marriage from our parents. We learn what it means to be a man, woman, husband, wife, mother, and father from them. We learn about trust. We learn how to handle conflict and difficult times … or, not.
Children of divorce often experience expectations of failure, fear of loss or abandonment and fear of conflict throughout their lives. These anxieties are reflected in their romantic relationships by poor partner or behavior choices, giving up too quickly when problems arise or avoidance of any perceived level of commitment.
If you are an adult child of divorce, there are two common responses you might have to marriage:
1. You may decide not to get married. However, not getting married doesn’t mean you won’t be in relationships; it just means you withhold yourself from truly being in the relationship fully. You go through the motions, maybe even have children, but you are walled off from real connection. When the relationship ends, as it surely must given your distance, you will still feel pain and grief. You will also get confirmation of your self-fulfilling prophecy that relationships don’t last.
2. You may make a solemn vow to never get divorced. Few people marry with divorce in mind. The lifelong commitment to marriage is intentionally made by both parties. But for some children of divorce, this commitment may be kept at a high cost to themselves.
The risk of putting up with unacceptable behavior from your partner to avoid the pain of another divorce is real. This involves making concessions that are not in your best interest By this, I mean agreeing to things you don’t really agree to in order to avoid conflict or the marriage ending. Over time, these concessions wear you down. You may indeed avoid the dreaded divorce, but the marriage may be just as painful.
Putting yourself into either of these extreme relationship categories will ultimately be problematic. The secret to not repeating your parents’ fate is to learn about relationships in general, and what happened in your parents’ marriage specifically. Issues of trust, honesty, respect and productive communication are critical in both cases.
Your experiences with marriage and divorce have probably left you with some fears and anxieties in these important areas. Gaining an understanding of how you’ve been impacted, and the resulting reactivity you’ve developed, will help you devise better strategies for relationship success. Embracing your relationship challenges and learning to manage your reactivity are crucial to implementing those strategies.
Having this knowledge will also help in the most critical relationship decision of all—choosing an appropriate partner. When you know your own vulnerabilities, you can protect yourself from them being used against you.
I still carry the scars from the breakup of my parents’ marriage Even after 26 years, my greatest fear is my husband coming down the stairs and announcing he’s leaving. I’m still afraid he will abandon me when I fail to meet his expectations. Luckily, I have been able to share this with him and he has never threatened divorce, even when he’s been most upset. Of course, he will never throw a surprise party for me again either, but that’s a story for another day.