While preparing for our wedding, I spent hours rearranging the rehearsal dinner seating list, stressing about how to avoid having my divorced parents at the same table. My fiancé, Brian, and I agonized over where to seat our divorced parents and their significant others during the ceremony. On our wedding day, we instructed the photographer to take two separate sets of family pictures. I remember feeling guilty asking my mom and dad to take just one picture with me.
One of the happiest days of my life—my wedding day—was tainted by my parents’ broken vows. I would later discover that long before I said, “I do,” my parents’ divorce impacted my future marriage by robbing me of a healthy marriage role model.
My parents divorced when I was two, and my maternal grandparents split up around the same time. During my early teens, the seemingly “perfect” marriages of both my uncle and aunt ended. My mother remarried and divorced several times. Everywhere I turned, marriages in my family seemed to fall apart in total devastation for the ones left behind, especially the children.
Growing up in this divorce culture should have soured me on marriage, but it strengthened my desire to break the chain. What I wanted more than anything was to start building a culture of marriage for my children.
I knew going into marriage that the odds were against us. Adult children of divorce are one-and-a-half to two times more likely to divorce themselves. But even still, I knew that this did not have to be our story. Despite the odds, Brian and I vowed that we would look to God, and not ourselves, for strength, and seek outside help when necessary to build our forever family. We faithfully took six months of premarital counseling, but we were not prepared for how our parents’ failed marriages would impact our own.
One major challenge children of divorce face is a lack of healthy marriage role models. After all, it’s hard to actually do marriage well, when you’ve never seen it modeled growing up. While I can’t speak for my peers, for me this means that:
1. I never witnessed a healthy argument between a married couple. I rarely saw my own parents settle an argument in a healthy manner. At home, I would lie awake at night listening anxiously to the loud and angry voices of my mother and her husband arguing in the next room. When my father and stepmother argued, it was usually about me. While the arguments between Brian and I are nowhere near the dysfunctional blow-ups I witnessed as a child, they are not always healthy. The marital communication we’ve learned comes from books, not from seeing it modeled by our parents, and we’re still learning how to “fight fair.”
2. I never saw a marriage built on trust and mutual self-giving. About a year after our daughter was born, we attended a weekend marriage retreat hosted by a Christian organization, which ended up being a lifeline for our weary marriage. At this marriage retreat, we learned how important it is for each partner to give 100 percent of themselves. This was a foreign concept to me. I grew up watching the single women in my life either act as doormats for men who did not deserve them, or hold just enough of themselves back to be safe. I saw too much self-giving as a weakness and even dangerous for women. As a result, I struggle to completely let down my guard and give 100 percent of myself to my husband.
3. I never saw a married couple weather a storm and make it. Except for my great grandparents, who were married over 50 years, most of the marriages in my family that faced hard times came to a bitter end. This made it difficult for me to see the big picture—to understand that marriage is a lifelong journey of ups and downs. As Gary Chapman wrote in “The Four Seasons of Marriage,” marriage, like weather, goes through natural seasons of change:
“Sometimes we find ourselves in winter—distant, discouraged, and dissatisfied; other times we experience springtime—filled with hope, openness, and anticipation.”
One study found that two-thirds of couples who described themselves as “unhappily married” but stayed together instead of divorcing were “happily married” five years later. Understanding that hard times are a normal part of marriage has helped encourage me during difficult seasons we have faced.
Adult children of divorce come to marriage at a disadvantage because most of us have never seen a healthy marriage. But we are not doomed to repeat our parents’ mistakes. We can seek out supportive communities, such as churches and marriage organizations that will provide resources to help us build strong families. We can reach out to older married couples to help mentor us along our way, and we should be open to seeking marriage counseling when necessary. Marriage is a difficult journey, but by committing to forever, working hard, and seeking outside help, we can build the forever families we deserve.