THE BLOG

The Sleeper Effect

12/03/2012 02:36 am ET | Updated Feb 01, 2013

For the last three decades, I've been studying divorce -- both from a personal and professional perspective. But in reality, I wasn't truly prepared to help my daughter, Tracy, heal from the pain caused by my own divorce. I was blindsided by a powerful psychological phenomenon that impacts many daughters of divorce known as the "sleeper effect." Finally out of desperation, I went back to the books that had been collecting dust on my shelves so that I could examine my own patterns of behavior in intimate relationships and help Tracy make healthier choices in romantic partners.

What exactly is the "sleeper effect?" Judith Wallerstein, a pioneer in the area of divorce research, studied dozens of young women who appeared to be suffering from a delayed reaction to their parents' breakup. As children, they had done their best to be "good girls" and played the hand of cards that divorce dealt them. Wallerstein noted that while boys tend to have a more immediate adverse reaction to their parents' breakup, girls usually identify with their mothers and appear to be coping fairly well.

Studies show that girls are socialized by their mothers to be more obedient and responsible than boys. Dr. Linda Nielsen, found that girls tend to spend more time with their mothers (and less time with dad) than boys after their parents' divorce. It makes sense that girls are more likely to worry about their mother's adjustment and may conceal their emotions -- appearing to others as if everything is okay.

The breakup of a family may signify the loss of childhood for girls. These same girls may grow into womanhood and become particularly vulnerable to fears and anxieties about the future -- just as they are forming their own romantic relationships. When they fall in love, it reawakens long-hidden fears they tried to bury in childhood. Most daughters of divorce have trouble with trust and intimacy and fear that no matter what they do, they will be left. Consequently, they tend to pick partners who are all wrong for them and/or lack confidence in their ability to make love last.

The results of Wallerstein's twenty-five year landmark study were coming into focus when I realized that my own daughter, Tracy, was struggling in romantic relationships as a young woman. While her dad and I tried to have a "good divorce," we certainly didn't model healthy communication or marital endurance. While Tracy's transition in womanhood was marked by many successes including graduating from college, she began to doubt herself and was apprehensive about love and commitment as she was attempting to create adult relationships of her own.

Meanwhile, while shopping for used books at my local library, I picked up a copy of Mary Pipher's book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls and I felt as if I was struck by a lightning bolt. I realized that psychologists and therapists alike had been ignoring adolescent girls all along and that they really do slowly bury their authentic selves as they enter adolescence. According to Pipher, "Girls become female impersonators who fit their whole selves into small crowded spaces. Vibrant, confident girls become shy, doubting young woman. Girls stop thinking, "Who am I? What do I want?" and start thinking "What must I do to please others?"

Then it hit me, while in the midst of my own crisis as a mother -- many girls seem to breeze through their parents' breakup during childhood. Often they submissively accept their parents' divorce. This is due to our tendency, as females, to repress unpleasant feelings. I believe most parents and therapists underestimate the powerful effects of a disrupted family on the social and emotional development of girls. We minimize the pressure and expectations they feel as they try to distance themselves from their parents -- especially their moms -- at a time when their sense of trust, love and security is fractured.

Just as a girl is grappling with her complicated relationship with her mother -- filled with love, longing, and both closeness and distance, she has the added stress of dealing with her parents' divorce. Meanwhile, she is questioning where she stands with the first love in her life -- her father -- who may be distant, absent, or preoccupied with his new life since most parents remarry within six years after a divorce.

Like all challenges in life, greater awareness and willingness to work on an issue can spark change. Armed with insight into the root of their relationship struggles, most daughters of divorce can and do improve. Tracy and I developed a website that is designed to facilitate healing and to help daughters raised in divided homes restore their faith in love.

What can a daughter of divorce do to cope with the "sleeper effect?"

- Accept that your parents' divorce impacted your view of relationships but doesn't have to define your choices in romantic partners.

- Gain awareness about your parents' divorce. This might mean interviewing your parents, family members, or trusted friends. Keeping a journal or talking to friends can help you come to terms with your past and present situation.

- Write down three crucial ways that your parents' divorce has impacted (or is still impacting) your life. Seeking the help of a therapist and/or reading articles and blogs may be helpful.

- Set three personal goals to address these issues if the effects were (or are) negative. Visualize yourself in an open and honest romantic relationship. Put together a vision board or write down what you want your relationship to look like. Make it a point to reflect on this image several times each day.

- Develop self-trust and extend trust to partners who demonstrate through their words and deeds that they are trustworthy. Trust is the basis of all healthy intimate relationships.

- Attempt to forgive others and move on from the past. Try to see your parents' breakup from their perspective. Forgiveness doesn't mean condoning hurtful behavior -- it simply has less power over you.

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