Last week Brittany wrote about how her parents’ divorce made her feel like she “missed out on some of those lessons” about how to love and be loved. Fellow contributor, Alysse, has written about how her parents’ divorce “left her guessing in her own marriage.” Despite her initial fears and lack of models, Alysse has now been happily married for thirteen years. Today she weighs in on some of Brittany’s biggest questions.
Brittany: How can I let someone love me instead of building walls?
Alysse: When you come from a broken home, you often grow up too fast, and you sometimes experience a lot of messy situations that make you feel exposed and unsafe. This was my experience anyway. So, I think it is natural to begin building walls around our hearts to protect ourselves from being hurt again. I felt very vulnerable as a child and teen, and so much happened in my family and to me that was out of my control. And so when I got out on my own, my first thought was, “To protect myself, I need to make sure I control literally every situation, as much as possible, to keep from experiencing that hurt again, to keep from being a victim.” So building walls is a way to protect ourselves. I personally think a bit of caution is always good in the early stages of a dating relationship, especially if you have kids to think about.
However, when you find a man who truly loves you unconditionally, who shares your values, and treats you with dignity and kindness, and is willing to commit to being around long term, then you can start “tearing down the walls,” little by little. And that right man will help you do that, and you will know it is OK to let down your guard by how he treats you, and how you feel when you are with him. Not just that feeling of being “in love” but of being truly LOVED by him. That is how I felt with my husband. I had no doubt that he loved me from the get-go; whereas, with other guys, I always had doubts. His love helped me feel safe, and secure, which helped me stop building walls. For example, from the beginning of our dating relationship, my husband was completely “all-in,” and I never feared that he would leave me. He also went out of his way to make me feel like a princess, and treated me with respect, and with tenderness. I knew right away that I could be myself with him, and I really felt at ease letting down my guard. He also was open to growth, to learning how to be a better man/husband/father, which was important to me. With the “right” one, you will find it is easier to let someone in, and you’ll be better able to share your soul and really be vulnerable in a good and healthy way.
Brittany: Why is it so hard to trust that someone actually loves me?
Alysse: I can’t speak for you, but based on my own struggles with this, I think it is hard for us to trust that a man loves us because the man who was supposed to be our first and best love, our father, let us down, neglected, or even abandoned us in some way. I have always known my father loved me, and he is a wonderful father, but due to my parents’ divorce, it was hard for him to father me the same way he did his other children, who lived with him. I always felt like I was just getting his second best when it came to his time and attention, which left me feeling kind of half-empty and insecure. This can impact how we love and especially our ability to trust that a man will love us unconditionally, and will be completely there for us, forever, no matter what. I also think, if we have looked to other men to fill that hole in our hearts, like I did for so many years, this in itself is a set up for disappointment. I found that turning to God as my Father helped fill the emptiness that was left by an absent father.
Brittany: Why do I sabotage my relationships when they get good?
Alysse: Fear of failure, or of another man failing us, can cause us to push good people away or to distance ourselves from good relationships. Also, I think it is easy to think, “If I test this guy, and he stays around, he might be the one.” And this can backfire. One way I probably did this with previous relationships is to hold on too tight, because I was so afraid of losing something that I thought was good, and in the end that person still walked away. However, looking back, I can say none of those relationships were really that great in the first place, and in fact, some were bad, so it worked out for the best. But ultimately, I think this all has to do with the natural insecurity that comes from growing up in a broken family. We haven’t seen love struggle and overcome, we haven’t seen the two people who made us loving each other unconditionally, and we haven’t really ever seen a healthy marriage relationship, at least not from our parents. So, we really have no idea how to do these things ourselves, even though it is what we want most in the world—to love and be loved forever and to build a lasting family for our children.
I think it helps to look around for healthy marriage and relationship role models, perhaps friends or older family members that you trust. What we need most are examples of good marriages, and healthy relationships, but we have to be really intentional in seeking those out. I’ve generally had to look outside of my family for these examples, but they are out there, and they can provide guidance and offer advice about our relationships, if we reach out and share.
Brittany: How can I get over my fear of love and marriage?
Alysse: In some ways, your fear of love and marriage is natural—it comes from how you were raised, and maybe what you saw growing up and what you experienced. Let your fear of marriage and love make you cautious about jumping in too soon and rushing into a marriage, but then when you find the right guy (or better yet, when God brings him to you), give your fear to God and He will help you. But don’t expect the fear to end overnight, even with the right man. It will still be there, on and off, throughout your life, but it can get better.
Fear is still a struggle for me, especially when stressful events happen, or problems come up in our relationship. What helps me is prayer, and also intentionally replacing those bad memories and voices that are always kind of inside my head—that are giving me the broken picture of love and marriage—with positive messages and examples of marriage and love that help me remember that forever is possible.
Before I was married, what helped me to overcome the fear I had about love/marriage is being exposed to some truly good husbands and fathers, who were father-like figures to me, including a high school teacher, a pastor, a professor in college, and even an amazing boss. These men showed me (whether they realized it or not!) that healthy, lasting marriages are possible, that all fathers don’t go away, and more generally that good men really do exist.
Finally, it helped me to learn what love really is: that it doesn’t hurt us, that love wants what is best for us, it seeks our best interests, and it is patient and kind and giving (I am borrowing from a verse we actually had read at our wedding ceremony!). Seek real love, and when you find it, it will help you overcome your fears.
Brittany: How can I avoid repeating the cycle of divorce that I saw in my family?
Alysse: Wow, I am still working on this one! I wish I had a magic formula to give you. But, I think it is helpful to recognize your vulnerability to divorce, and then learn as much as you can about healthy relationships and what makes a good marriage. Take your time to look for the kind of man who will really be good to you and who is worthy of your love and trust. Whatever you do, don’t settle for someone who kind of treats you right, or who maybe has some other red flags or weaknesses you notice but feel like you maybe should ignore for the sake of finding someone. So many times, I’ve watched my mom and other members of my family settle for some unworthy guy because they so desperately wanted a father figure for their kids. You and your kids deserve the best, so be careful not to settle for less than you deserve.
When you meet the man you think is worthy, test him out with trusted married friends, get feedback from others you trust about him and his character, and really take your time. My father-in-law once advised me and my husband to “Date all four seasons (at least a year) but longer if you can.” This gives you time to get to know the other person. Then, definitely get pre-marital counseling from a trusted pastor or priest, and be willing to submit to their advice regarding the relationship, even after you are married.
Also—and this is something I have to work on as an introvert—when you do get married and experience struggles (which are normal but perhaps more difficult for those of us who come from broken homes), reach out to others that you trust for help and guidance. Don’t try to do marriage on your own, and don’t be afraid or ashamed to acknowledge that you are struggling.
Most importantly, look to God for the strength to overcome your past, and never, ever give into despair. I honestly would not have made it out without a relationship with Christ. He was/is my lifeline. And finally, always be hopeful that you can and will overcome with God’s help. None of us are doomed to repeat our parents’ marriage mistakes unless we give in to our fears and stop trying.