Last week I went to dinner with my 80-year-old dad who was visiting me from Arizona. We were reminiscing about the days before my parents' divorce. Some of my childhood memories were actually good. Then he said to me, "Even though your mom and I got divorced, you and your sisters turned out just fine. You've all done great."
I just sat there and nodded my head. I didn't have the heart to tell him the truth. We hadn't turned out fine. Even though he knows my sisters and I also got divorced, he doesn't know the depth of the emotional pain we went through in our own marriages and divorces.
After my divorce, I was determined to figure out why so many kids who grew up in divorced homes often followed in their parents' footsteps. I found myself wondering how kids from divorced homes can be expected to know what it takes to create a successful relationship of their own if they didn't observe one between their parents. I wanted to know how to break the cycle of divorce, but first I had to investigate the reasons why divorce is often passed down from generation to generation.
During the past 20 years, I interviewed over 400 divorced adults who grew up in divorced homes. The results revealed a pattern of four destructive relationship behaviors. And the behaviors were gender neutral--both men and women engaged in the same unsuccessful tendencies. I felt somewhat relieved because I, too, had made most of these relationship mistakes.
Most kids who grew up in divorced homes never had the opportunity to learn what love looks like. Instead, they learned what love does not look like. They may have witnessed a lot of tension, chaos and instability in their home and this is what feels normal and familiar to them. Subconsciously, this is what they think love is.
I discovered the two dominant traits in most children of divorce are fear of abandonment and fear of not being good enough to be loved. Sometimes adult children of divorce are consciously aware of these fears, but often the fears are subconscious and difficult to recognize in our behaviors. Often they are the driving force which causes us to make poor choices when selecting a husband or wife.
Fear of abandonment and feeling unworthy of love manifest in four destructive relationship behaviors:
• People pleasing doormat - We believe if we sacrifice our own needs to please our partner, he/she will never abandon us. We are willing to settle for so little from our partner because our fear of rejection is overwhelming. We will do anything to try to keep the relationship together.
• Chasing after love - We may latch on to the first person who gives us attention or may pursue someone who really doesn't want a relationship with us. We crave the approval and acceptance of our partner and dislike being alone. We may even try to convince our partner how great we are and how no one will ever love him/her as much as we do.
• Fixing a partner - We are attracted to a person who needs our help and our love to fix all their problems. We are convinced our love is the solution. We believe we can change our partner and, in doing so, everything will work out.
• Shutting down emotionally - We are not willing to take a risk on love for fear of getting divorced and may have a series of superficial relationships with no real commitment to any of them. We may marry, but remain emotionally unavailable.
I'm not proud to say that, in my past, I have participated in three out of these four self-destructive behaviors. Selecting a spouse as a result of engaging in any of these behaviors does not make for a long-lasting, healthy marriage. Hence, the cycle of divorce continues.
Young people who have never before been married often say to me, "When I get married, I only want to do it once. I am not going to get a divorce like my parents." While I applaud their sentiment and intention, it's important to recognize the above subconscious behaviors working against many adult children of divorce.
I believe a conscious awareness of these behaviors is the first step toward breaking the cycle of divorce in a family.