We’re always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can actually better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. Now, onto this week’s topic: relationships between children of divorce and children of happy marriages.
Q: “I've been in a happy relationship with a man for a year and a half now. We're getting ready to make a big commitment — becoming domestic partners and buying a home. It's all great, but I can't help but notice how much easier commitment has been for him. His parents are one of those couples that have been together forever and are actually really happy. It's like for him, this is how he's always expected things to go. I, on the other hand, am a child of divorce, and always expect things to end. I'm pushing myself not to fear commitment, but sometimes, it's hard to explain to him how hard it is for me to believe that I can be this happy. Do you have any tips for couples from a 'mixed' background like ours? Have you noticed this pattern playing out in other relationships, and do couples from different backgrounds like ours tend to struggle with anything in particular? Would I have an easier time with someone else who's a product of divorce, or is it good to have one person who has a good model?”
A: Thanks for the question! First of all, congrats on the upcoming milestones. With divorce rates hovering somewhere around 30-50 percent, there are certainly plenty of couples who are in the same boat as you and your partner. Psych 101 time: what we witnessed of our parents’ relationship when we were children can have a big effect on our relationships as adults. We do tend to subconsciously gravitate towards relationships that somewhat mirror our parents’ relationship. That relationship is what we know. It’s familiar. It’s our model. If you and your partner have had wildly different relationship role models as children, it can pose some challenges to your relationship. But these are dynamics that can be worked through.
1. Know That We’re All Afraid
Here’s the most important thing for you to remember: everyone is a little afraid of commitment. Yes, even kids whose parents are still blissfully married. Commitment is a scary thing! It requires opening up to another person, being vulnerable, and trusting. It means taking on the risk that you’ll get hurt. If you’re never, ever afraid of commitment, you probably don’t fully understand what commitment means.
2. Remember That Divorce Isn’t Black And White
It’s easy to make sweeping generalizations about children of divorce and say that they’re all commitment-phobes or all afraid of abandonment, but life doesn’t work that way. Divorce happens in different contexts and affects people in different ways. Sometimes parents getting divorced is traumatic, but sometimes it can be the healthiest thing for the entire family. Sometimes divorce gets impossibly messy, but sometimes parents are able to handle it in a smooth and healthy manner. Sometimes it’s destabilizing and chaotic, and sometimes there are other support systems in place to keep the family functioning.
3. ... And Neither Is Marriage
Similarly, being married isn’t in and of itself “healthier” than getting divorced. Some married couples have wildly unstable relationships. Other married couples ignore all of their problems and try to brush things under the rug. Nobody’s relationship is perfect. Your partner’s parents may seem happy now, but they most likely went through some rough patches at one point or another. It’s hard to be married for decades without weathering at least a few storms.
4. Repeat: You Are Not Your Parents
Being the product of divorce isn’t an automatic sentence for a lifetime of commitment phobia and failed relationships. Children of divorce are capable of having perfectly healthy relationships. Likewise, having parents that are happily married doesn’t automatically mean you’ll have healthy relationships. It doesn’t mean you’ll be excited about or ready to get married yourself, and it doesn’t mean you’re completely unafraid of commitment.
5. Remember This Isn’t The Only Factor In How You Approach Commitment
It’s also worth noting that whether or not your parents have been divorced isn’t the only factor in your feelings towards relationships or the success of your relationships. You may have been influenced by other relationships that you saw growing up. You may have been cheated on by a past partner, which had an effect on your ability to trust subsequent partners. You may be a naturally cynical or optimistic person about relationships in general.
6. Know That Your Different Upbringings Don't Make You Incompatible
To answer one of your questions, sure, it might be easier for two people with healthy relationship role models to be in a relationship. There’s no denying that having healthy relationship role models can make it easier to have a healthy relationship yourself. At the same time, the status of your partner’s parental relationship is not important enough to be a deal breaker! It would be one thing to notice big commitment red flags at the beginning of a relationship, but you guys are pretty far in at this point. This shouldn’t be a reason to back out now.
7. Acknowledge Your Different Backgrounds
Now let’s turn the focus on some tips for managing your different relationships with commitment. The most basic thing you and your partner should do is talk to each other about your history with relationships. If you haven’t already, tell your partner about what your parents relationship was like when they were together, in the process of divorcing, and once they had divorced. Tell him about the effects you think it has had on you. Tell him about other experiences that may have affected your views about relationships. Ask your partner to tell you more about his parents’ relationship, including their conflicts and struggles. Make sure to validate each other by saying things like, “I can see how that was scary for you” or “it makes a lot of sense that this has affected you in this way.”
8. Depersonalize Your Fears
When you’re talking about your fears about relationships, it’s important that your partner understands that what you’re afraid of is commitment itself, not committing to him. These same types of anxieties or concerns would most likely come up with different partners. It’s not a personal affront to him, his character, or his trustworthiness. If your boyfriend understands that it’s not completely about him, he’ll be less likely to feel defensive or insulted, and will be more likely to be compassionate and understanding.
For example, if you’re talking about moving in together, you can say something like, “I’m excited to move in with you. It’s just hard for me not to remember what it was like having to move out of my childhood home after my parents divorced. That doesn’t mean I’m not ready to or excited about living with you, because I am. It just means those memories are still a part of me.”
9. Go To Therapy
No surprise here, but I’m always an advocate for people going to therapy. If you feel like you still have unresolved issues about your parent’s divorce, you may want to do a bit of individual counseling. If you and your partner feel like you can’t understand where each other is coming from, you can do couples counseling. It can feel really nice to have a space to process your feelings about relationships, and it will only serve to make your current relationship stronger.
Wishing you the best of luck!
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