07 Dec Is your child suffering from the divorce too?
LYING on my couch, a new client – we’ll call her Susan – recently became extremely distressed. In her 50s and adamant that she longs for marriage, she had convinced herself that she’ll never meet a man to whom she can fully commit.
Every relationship Susan’s had over the last three decades has followed the same pattern: she falls madly in love, throws herself with glee into every thrilling moment of being with someone new and then as soon as things look like they’re getting serious, she pulls the plug, and deliberately sabotages the relationship.
She’ll deliberately pick holes in his personality, instigate unnecessary arguments and repeatedly stand him on dates, until he’d had enough.
And yet she insists she wants to find long-lasting love. ‘I’ve just never met anyone I can take things to the next level with,’ she said, implying it was circumstance, not her behaviour, that meant she’d never been able to commit to any man.
When Susan came to me she had a partner who’d she’d been seeing for a few months – a perfectly eligible bloke – successful, interesting, kind and attractive. Yet he’d mooted the idea of moving in together, and serious doubts about his eligibility had started to creep in.
I should point out that Susan is a solicitor, and clearly intelligent enough to recognise she’s already with someone who ticks all the right boxes. But despite him making her happy, she said she felt compelled to start pulling away.
Hers might appear to be a complex, perhaps even hopeless case, but actually it’s an age-old story that relationship coaches like me see time and again.
I only had to delve into this client’s childhood for a story to quickly emerge of her parents’ acrimonious divorce and the traumatic affect that had on her developing psyche.
They split up when she was eight – yes, more than four decades ago.
But as new research released this week has found, children whose lives are shattered by divorce often continue to suffer the emotional after-effects long into adulthood.
According to a state-funded study by the International Longevity Centre, people from broken homes are three times more likely suffer from chronic illness when they reach their 50s.
An astonishing 9,000 people, all born in 1958, took part in the National Child Development Study, and were followed throughout their lives, to see the long-term effects of traumatic childhood events.
The results were unequivocal. Children of divorced parents were more likely to drop out of school, get pregnant and take drugs. The impact on their employment prospects of those whose parents had divorced by their 16th birthday can continue right through to retirement age.
I see many of these behavioural patterns in my clients.
Day in and out I coach men and women who are struggling with their relationships, both at home and in the wider world.
As soon as we start to pick at their past, it quickly transpires that they are the products of broken marriages and hostile relationships themselves – the legacy of which continues to have a destructive influence on them 20, 30 or 40 years down the line.
After all, our parents provide us with our very first example of what it means to be in a relationship. How they conduct themselves within it, and just as importantly, if and how they choose to end it, helps form their children’s opinions of this complex aspect of life from an early age.
Whether we like it or not, as parents we are role models. Our children learn to cope – or not – with a whole raft of situations by watching what we do with them.
If they find themselves in the middle of a bitter break up, they learn that love is hard and that it doesn’t last – and that when relationships come to an end they do so amidst great anger and heartache.
Meanwhile, the rows and recriminations they’re exposed in the run up to that break up tells them that family and conflict go hand in hand; they adopt the unhealthy idea that screaming and shouting are the only ways to be heard and that the best way to avoid conflict is to keep your opinions to yourself.
It’s all very well saying ‘we don’t row in front of the kids’. But even babies pick up on tension between their parents. Before they’ve mastered language, children learn to read body language and intonation. You might not be calling your husband a bastard in front of them in as many words, but a rolling of the eyes and quips dripping with sarcasm, will tell them all they need to know about what you really think of this man they love.
Such experiences in their childhood home can go on to have a huge ripple affect on the rest of their lives.
Many become fearful of relationships, and for some their self-esteem can become horribly damaged – others like Susan, may go on to avoid commitment and actively sabotage good relationships before things get too serious.
The bitter arguments; the horror of realising that her dad would be leaving the family home; the agony when she witnessed the love her parents once shared die in front of her eyes – all this had become deeply engrained on her psyche.
So much so, that she’d internalised the idea all relationships must eventually come to a painful end, so far better not to get too close to any man in the first place.
By unravelling the impact of her parent’s divorce, Susan has been able to finally grasp that she’s actually met plenty of men she could have settled down with. It’s just that her subconscious has always tried to protect her, by pushing each of them away before she could get hurt.
Now, she carries around a list on her mobile of the things she loves about her boyfriend, and refers to it every time she feels tempted to block the relationship’s natural progression. The last I heard, they were still together. I really hope they move in together soon.
And it’s not just women who are affected.
I have another client, David*, whose story also speaks loudly to this new research. David, a marketing manager in his late forties, grew up in a home where his parents’ way of dealing with problems was to stand in front of each other and shout it out. Eventually they divorced – something he was terrified he might now be heading towards himself.
He had married someone who grew up in a very different domestic environment. If one of her parents raised their voice, then the other would automatically leave the room so that each had enough space for things to calm down.
Years later, for David and his wife, this meant two people with very different strategies for coping with conflict were coming at every argument from a entirely different perspectives.
When David’s wife left the room each time he raised his voice, he felt unloved and ignored. Meanwhile his loudly vocalised displeasure, which felt perfectly normal to him, made her feel attacked and disrespected.
What’s more, this issue had followed David into his professional life. At work he would behave in a similar way, and had even been disciplined following complaints of bullying behaviour. Unless he got to grips with this issue, he was justifiably concerned that he could lose his wife and his job.
David needed help to see that his parents’ relationship had given him an unhealthy blueprint when it came to sorting out relationship problems.
Again, by looking to his past we were able to find ways to help him enjoy a better future. The shouting has stopped to everyone’s relief.
Of course, I am not saying that people should resolutely stay married, no matter how dysfunctional and deeply unhappy a relationship has become.
As well as helping those who want to save their relationships, I also guide people through the emotional minefields of divorce. Sometimes, especially with the right coping strategies, it turns out to be the best thing for all concerned.
Indeed, we shouldn’t begin to pretend to our children that relationships never fall apart, otherwise how on earth will they cope when they hit obstacles later in their own lives.
They need to be resilient to failure, and if we raise them thinking life’s one long fairytale that creates a whole other pile of problems.
What they need to see from their parents is that you can, even amidst the great heartache of a marriage breakdown, handle this kind of difficult situation well.
Throughout adulthood their hearts are going to get broken – they’ll lose friends, perhaps jobs, and people they love might go on to betray them.
With that in mind, a childhood divorce – while something you’d ideally want to avoid – can actually be turned on its head so that it becomes a valuable life lesson in coping with these kinds of adversities.
It can teach them that it’s not the bad things that happen to you in life that truly define you. It’s how you handle them that moulds you into the adult you become.
In other words, bad things happen and sometimes life really hurts.
But if a child grew up with parents who found a way to part amicably, and went on to turn that sad event into a fresh start, then their divorce might end up providing a positive life lesson after all.
As seen in Daily Mail, Femail Section, 6.12.17