Geraldine K. Piorkowski, "Confused Love Seekers: Understanding Adult Children of Divorce," Going Bonkers Magazine, 4.5, October 2010, pp. 12-13. Republished with permission of ABC-CLIO LLC. Permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.
Based in Chicago, Geraldine K. Piorkowski is a psychologist and author of Adult Children of Divorce: Confused Love Seekers and Too Close for Comfort: Exploring the Risks of Intimacy.
Adult children of divorce are more likely to get divorced than others. Without having a "blueprint" for a healthy long-term relationship, these individuals may jump from one relationship to another or avoid them altogether. Some adult children of divorce see minor flaws and benign incidences as red flags, magnifying their sensitivities and making them feel unsafe in relationships and wary of love. Others attempt to master what went awry during childhood, choosing partners with the same negative qualities of their parents. Furthermore, the media popularizes the myths of love at first sight and romance as a transformative power, promoting unrealistic standards and expectations. Therefore, adult children of divorce must figure out how their upbringing affected them and create a new roadmap for building relationships in their lives.
Did you grow up with divorced parents? Have you ever given thought as to how that experience may be shaping your own behaviors today?
The literature is clear. Adults who grew up in divorced families are twice as likely to get divorced as others, and three times more likely if both partners came from divorced homes.
Especially anxious about romantic love, adult children of divorce either go from one relationship to another or avoid them altogether like the plague. Because they have no blueprint for a long-term, satisfying romantic relationship from their parents, they are understandably confused about what makes a relationship work, and are all too ready to consider divorce when moments of unhappiness strike.
Can't Believe It Will Last
Less trusting of their partners than adults who grew up in intact families, children of divorce are pessimistic about love and quick to see minor flaws as major stumbling blocks. The departure of a parent from the family home often leaves these adults waiting for the other shoe to drop in their own romantic lives. On the lookout for similar trouble, they are wary of love. If their divorced parents fought a great deal, an angry exchange with a partner becomes a red flag signifying trouble ahead.
Adult children of divorce frequently fall in love to make up for the missing ingredients in their childhood.
Similarly, when an adult grew up with emotionally distant parents who later divorced, emotional distance of any kind in a romantic relationship, no matter how temporary or natural, can feel unsafe.
When there was a cheating, unfaithful parent in the picture, mild flirtatiousness or gregariousness on the part of the partner, even when totally innocent, can signal danger in flashing red lights.
Unfortunately, for children of divorce, their parents' problems get dumped in their laps in one form or another. A magnified sensitivity to related problems and skewed interpretations of love are part of that inheritance.
Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places
Adult children of divorce frequently fall in love to make up for the missing ingredients in their childhood. When a strong father figure was absent, women who grew up in divorced families often seek out older, professionally successful men as partners to have someone to love, protect, and care for them. Unfortunately, many of these substitute father figures possess the same negative qualities as their own fathers, e.g. emotional unavailability, alcoholism, or unreliability. Trying to master what went wrong in childhood is part of the motivation, but the similarity to the original parent becomes their undoing. Or these children of divorce are so accustomed to playing a certain role in the family, e.g., that of caretaker, that they look for emotionally immature partners to nurture, just as they did with their mothers or younger siblings. Choosing partners to make up for childhood losses, or to maintain a familiar role, frequently leads to unhappiness because there is very little of substance (in terms of interests and values) to maintain the relationship.
Reaching for the Stars: The Myths of Love
The unrealistic standards for romantic love implicit in TV sitcoms, romantic novels, and movies, set the stage for disillusionment and loss of love. For children of divorce who lacked parental models of a healthy romantic relationship, the media provides an alluring alternative.
TV shows, such as "The Bachelor" with its emphasis on "love at first sight" propose a magical view of love that depends on visceral reaction. Rather than providing guidelines for long-term relationship satisfaction, such TV shows are showcases for infatuation—a short-lived emotion that is based primarily on sex appeal and calls for fantasy and make-believe to survive. In contrast, real romantic love requires (in addition to physical attraction) emotional intimacy or closeness that develops slowly over time as people get to know one another. An additional, desirable component in romantic love is commitment, which is the resolve to make a relationship work well and endure forever, if possible.
Check out which of your beliefs about love are realistic and which ones aren't.
Besides believing in "love at first sight," adult children of divorce tend to believe in the transformative power of love, that is, the notion that love can change frogs and scullery maids into princely creatures. In the modern version of the fairy tale, "the Beauty and the Beast," rogues, drunkards, and other scoundrels become caring and considerate partners once the magic potion of love works its charm. In short, these adults believe that love has the power to change their partners, and themselves, into more ideal people. Unfortunately, the world of love doesn't work that way.
Making Romantic Love Work
Now that you understand the myths of love, and a little more about how being a child of divorce has shaped your own life, it's time to figure out how to make love really work for you.
Recognizing your Hidden Beliefs
Check out which of your beliefs about love are realistic and which ones aren't. Besides the ones already mentioned in the beginning of this article, other dysfunctional beliefs may include:
- unconditional love (she will accept all of your faults, warts and all)
- mind reading (he just knows what you need or want; there is no room for misunderstanding)
- destined or fated love (there is only one person out there for you—your soul mate)
- love conquers all (it doesn't matter how different you are in terms of background, lifestyle, religion, etc., you'll make it work.)
Know What You Want and Why
Identify what qualities you're attracted to, and assess whether it's a positive or negative trait. Also realize that physical attraction (especially the instant kind) is typically based on one characteristic and not the whole person.
Choose Consciously and Wisely
Choose a "best friend" as a romantic partner—someone you can talk to easily about a wide range of topics and who shares your interests and values. Sharing similarities along many dimensions is important. Being able to enjoy the same leisure activities, clubs, and or religious organizations contributes to couple satisfaction. Companionship is an important benefit that gets increasingly valuable as couples get older.
Be Open to Romantic Possibilities in a Wide Range of People
Often sexual attraction follows emotional closeness: it's not necessary to have it the other way around. If you're dating someone regularly for 3-6 months and there's no romantic spark, it's unlikely to develop. Similarly, if you're attracted to someone physically and there's no real emotional intimacy after a period of time, it's time to move on. Some people fall in love slowly over time: sometimes a best friend becomes your lover; sometimes sex is awkward and fumbling at the start; sometimes love is quiet and caring rather than passionate and mind-blowing. In other words, love comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, if you're open to its arrival.
Research has shown that couples who argue in a critical, contemptuous, and defensive manner are more likely to get divorced than those who have disagreements in a warmer, more collaborative, ready-to-compromise style.
Work Through Your Parents Divorce
Determine how your parents' divorce affected you. What are your sensitivities and vulnerabilities in romantic relationships as a result of the divorce? For example, do you get anxious about being abandoned, betrayed, and/or abused when you get close to someone? If so, your unrealistic fears need to be resolved. Also, blaming only one parent for the divorce is often short-sighted. Most of the time, both parents contributed to the ending of the relationship. Black and white thinking (where one parent is the victim and the other the bad guy) is not helpful in understanding what really went wrong. Also, you need to see yourself as different from your parents, not a carbon copy of either parent or of their life together.
Improve Your Skills
Take a course in communication and conflict-resolution skills, which your parents were probably lacking. Research has shown that couples who argue in a critical, contemptuous, and defensive manner are more likely to get divorced than those who have disagreements in a warmer, more collaborative, ready-to-compromise style. Let your partner know what your vulnerabilities and sensitivities are, rather than blame him/her for not being able to fix them.
Create a New Romantic Roadmap
You will require a different roadmap for a long-term, romantic relationship than the one provided by your parents. Find out which of your friends or relatives has a satisfying relationship and interview/observe them to determine how they made it through the rough spots. Read about the "ups and downs" of long-term relationships and how others navigate them. Long-term relationships change over time as fantasy and novelty gradually become replaced by greater emotional closeness.