Research has documented the harmful effects on children when their parents divorce. So it's not surprising when some young adults wonder if their marriages are as doomed as their parents'. Do the now-grown children of divorce carry the same seeds of failure that doomed their parents' marriages?
Happily, the answer is no. The assumption that adult children of divorce (ACODs) are destined to make the same mistakes that caused their parents so much marital pain is unfounded. It fails to take into account God's ability to heal us and to help us overcome our past. Young adults who saw their parents divorce often develop strengths and resiliencies that others lack. There are indications that the current generation of young adults, having suffered through their parents' divorces, will work overtime to find ways to avoid a similar fate.
But we also need to acknowledge the significant challenges. In many ways, it is more difficult for ACODs to succeed at marriage. People who grew up in a single-parent home, or who watched their parents' marriage disintegrate into emotional estrangement and divorce, find themselves at a disadvantage. They didn't have the opportunity to learn commitment and problem-solving strategies by observing two parents who faithfully practiced those skills. However, while children are harmed by divorce, the effects can be minimized.
To avoid repeating your parents' failures, you need to confront three fears common to ACODs: the fear of failure, the fear of betrayal, and the fear of abandonment. By taking a few practical steps, you can prevent these fears from damaging your own marriage.
The Fear of Failure
When you grow up witnessing the gradual destruction of your parents' marriage, it's difficult to believe that's not the norm for all couples. Jana* was a 24-year-old woman who had been married only two years when she came in for counseling. She was a talented, attractive fashion designer married to an attentive husband who loved God. Yet Jana came to my office suffering from generalized anxiety about the future of her marriage.
When she was six, Jana's parents divorced. The police had been called to her home many times as a result of her father's drunken rages. Because of her childhood trauma, Jana was plagued by anxiety and worry. In her mind, her adult life was going much too smoothly.
Since her life had been a series of good moments followed by devastating crises, she had come to expect that good things can't last. "I'm just waiting for the next shoe to drop," she told me. While Jana's story is an extreme case, many ACODs share her insecurity about life and the good things it has to offer.
To overcome the fear of failure, take action in two areas:
Trust God's plan for you. "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'" (Jer. 29:11). Young adults who, as children, were imprinted with the prediction of failure need to grasp the healing power of this promise from God. Memorize this verse and repeat it to yourself when you fear that your marriage, no matter how blessed it is today, is ultimately doomed.
Take steps to conquer fear. Write down any thoughts that keep you from believing that God wants to rid your life of fear, then ask God to banish those thoughts and give you victory over the sense of impending doom.
The Fear of Betrayal
Jeff was a 30-year-old man who came to counseling seeking help with relationship problems. His parents divorced when he was seven, after they both had committed adultery. Knowing that the two people he loved the most were capable of unfaithfulness made him wonder if lifelong fidelity was even possible. Could he really trust his wife—or himself?
ACODs often have heightened concerns about sexual fidelity. Judith Wallerstein, a leading researcher on divorce's impact on children, found that when these children grew to adulthood they exhibited an unusually high degree of loyalty to friends and family members. So it's possible for heightened sexual concerns to produce a stronger commitment to fidelity.
However, if a parent's sexual infidelity has caused you to doubt yourself or your spouse, take these steps to rebuild your confidence:
Take inventory. Think about your mate's character traits and perform an objective assessment. Which of his or her characteristics do you admire? What traits lead you to regard your spouse as a good risk for lifelong loyalty?
Reaffirm your commitment. When you got married, you both promised to forsake all others. But it's not a bad idea to reaffirm those commitments from time to time. Pray together and rededicate yourselves to maintaining lifelong sexual fidelity.
Redirect your thinking. Meditate on God's faithfulness to you by singing or reading through the hymn "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" or memorizing Ps. 117:2 ("the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever"). Trust God to help you and your spouse fulfill your commitment to be faithful.
The Fear of Abandonment
Melody was only 13 when her parents divorced and her father married the woman with whom he'd had an affair. Then, when Melody was 16, her dad divorced his second wife. Up to that point, she had seen her dad regularly. But after his second divorce, he cut off all contact with her. By then, Melody had accepted Christ, and her faith pulled her through those dark times.
But at age 28, Melody feared she might be abandoned by another man she loved dearly. Her husband, Cliff, was diligent and hard-working, and he was devoted to their marriage. But he was quiet and often not emotionally available to her. Melody remembered her dad's emotional distance and it frightened her.
She tried not to worry, but she couldn't fight off the anxiety she felt about her husband. Even though he had given her no reason to doubt him, she was suspicious of his activities, often quizzing him when he came home. She couldn't escape the fear that her husband would abandon her just as her father had.
The fear of abandonment is common among ACODs, so try these strategies:
Gain some objectivity. You were attracted to your spouse because he or she possessed admirable qualities. List the attributes that drew you to your mate. In a separate column, list the less-than-admirable characteristics you observed in your parents that may be keeping you from accurately seeing your mate's strengths.
Remember God's constant love. Meditate on Josh. 1:5: "As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you." God's love for us precludes the possibility that he would ever abandon us. Draw on the power of his constant love as you grow in commitment to each other.
Hope for the Fearful
Young adults whose parents divorced might struggle with one, two or all of these three fears. When anxiety and worry start to overwhelm your thoughts, equip yourself to combat them.
Review God's acts of grace. Keep a written record of the times when you have felt God's healing power in your life and marriage. What needs has he met in unmistakable ways? Regularly review that list and thank God for his love.
Record evidence of God's care. List the people God has provided to bless your life. Write down what they have said or done that has communicated God's care and provision.
Seek the support of others. Find a member of your congregation who will pray for you. Ask that person to pray that God will enable you to rest in, enjoy, and trust his goodness in your life.
Team up in marriage. Let your mate know that you need his or her verbal encouragement and reassurance when negative thoughts plague you. Also rely on your mate to help you differentiate between real threats to a successful marriage and what is only imagined.
Clarify your own uniqueness. God formed you in the womb, and he made you unique from everyone else—including your parents. It might help to say out loud: "My marriage is not my parents' marriage." Talk to your spouse about the gifts God has given each of you that help you solve problems in your marriage.
Don't lose hope. If the fears persist, make an appointment with a qualified Christian counselor.
I have seen God work miracles in the lives of those who diligently seek his healing grace. God can change the legacy that you have received into his legacy of love and faithfulness—which is meant for you, your spouse, and your marriage.
Karen L. Maudlin, Psy.D., CPCC,is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in the Chicago area.
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