By LARSON BINZER
Julie Smith* always Skyped her family when she was homesick through her first two years at New York University. The dial would ring and the screen would fill with the familiar chattering of her parents, brother and, of course, Gran, sending hellos and love all the way from The Netherlands. They stood in her familiar kitchen where Julie grew up, reminding her of the best of her childhood.
Now after the dial, Julie sees her mother’s familiar smile and hello, but the screen is void of the childhood memories and characters with a new home in the background. Last year when Julie’s brother left for San Francisco, her parents separated after ten years of relationship problems, beginning their new lives as 50 and 60-year-old adult singles. Returning home this summer, Julie grasped the reality that things would never be the same in her- now two different- homes.
“My parents’ divorce makes me look at other relationships differently, because I realize relationships are not always what they appear to be on the outside,” she said. “I think it’s important to understand that even though you can experience true love, you can never know if it will last forever.”
This situation of parents splitting up later in life is not an unusual one today. Although the rate of divorce in America has declined since the 1980’s, the divorce rate in people over the age 50 has more than doubled in the last 20 years. This means that just as twenty and thirty-year-old millenials are starting to think about marriage, their parents are divorcing after decades together. Numerous studies over time have shown that coming from divorced parents can change a person’s views on commitment, abandonment, trust and marriage, according to an article in the Graduate Journal of Counseling Psychology. Because of this, as millenials are growing into and through adulthood, many children of divorce are experiencing issues with trusting partners romantically, fearing the concept of marriage, and feeling the need to work extra hard to avoid divorce themselves.
Trust issues are especially common among children of divorce, according to a study done by Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Beverly Rodgers, founder of Adult Children of Divorce Parents and counselor for married couples from divorced families, said that many of her clients explain they feel “an overwhelming sense of doom” about their relationships. A major consequence of this, she said, is that these children often have trouble trusting romantic partners in their adult lives because “trust could leave them feeling duped or foolish, in the same way that one or both parents felt in their own divorce.”
Emily Witham, 21, explained that because her parents are divorced, she feels that she has much more trouble trusting potential romantic partners.
“I feel like I subconsciously disregard any romantic feelings I have towards others or feelings that they have toward me, because there’s that possibility that it will end badly. It takes a lot for me to let my guard down,” she said. Witham, whose parents divorced when she was 1 year old, explained that she began having these trust issues at just 14, afraid to date even then because she expected it to end in heartache like her parents’ relationship.
This inability to trust often leads to anxiety about marriage, which does not seem to be unwarranted. The risk of divorce rises significantly if one or both of the married couple comes form a broken family, often because they lack skills in conflict resolution and a model on which to base marital expectations, according to Dr. Charuvastra, professor of “Children of Divorce,” a psychology class at NYU. This has led to an increased fear of and opposition to marriage, according to a study done by Marquette University.
Danielle Strolia, 23, whose parents divorced when she was 12, explained that even because she comes from a divorced family, she is more pessimistic and nervous about marriage because of the struggles her parents endured in their own relationship.
“My parents did really love each other at one point, and it’s scary that such a love can just disappear,” Strolia said. “Even though I want to say that when I get married, I’ll be 100 percent sure that we’d stay together forever, my parents’ divorce showed me that you can be terribly wrong in believing in a marriage that way. I would be a lot more optimistic about marriage if they had stayed together.”
Despite this belief and studies to support it, many millennial children of divorce are determined to make their marriages work, both for themselves and to prevent their children from reliving their own experience. “There is a sense that because most children of divorce really feel the pain of their family falling apart, they don’t want that to happen to them. They don’t take marriage for granted,” Dr. Charuvastra said. He said that, despite the odds against their marriage, children of divorce are often more motivated to make marriage work in order to “redeem what they’ve lost” in the divorce of their parents, namely stability and the chance at a conventional family home.
Father Cajetan Cuddy, at St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village, agrees. As a priest, part of his job is to prepare engaged couples for the difficulties of marriage. He says that the couples who are children of divorce are often more aware of these issues, and that they are often more determined and inspired to make their upcoming marriages work.
“I have seen couples that come from broken families who say that they want to ensure that their marriage will be lasting,” Fr. Cuddy said. “They say that although they love their parents very much, they don’t want to put their children through what they went through as children with their parents’ divorce.”
Witham serves as an example. She remembers the pain of enduring her parents’ divorce as a child, and said she will fight as hard as possible to protect her future children from that heartache.
“Both of my parents come from intact families, I don’t think they know how difficult divorce is on children,” Witham said. “If I were to get married and have kids, I would want to make sure that my kids never go through what I went and am going through… divorce is as an absolute last resort.”
For these children of divorce, there is hope for a successful marriage. Dr. Rodgers explains that, although the statistics might be discouraging, coming from a broken home can serve as an inspiration for a couple to work through marital issues. Because the child of divorce knows firsthand the consequences and sadness that accompany a divorce, he or she knows what they are fighting against. This knowledge, plus increased accessibility to marriage education and counseling, are what she says will help bring the divorce rate down.
Darla Jones-Davis, 23, whose parents divorced when she was young, was married in September. Because of her parents divorce, she said she felt nervous about commitment and was always hesitant to marry or trust a partner since she was a child. But over time, she said coming from a broken family ended up setting her heart “in the right direction,” and gave her more of a reason to make sure her marriage was open and trusting to last forever.
“I often wondered would he really love me forever, even when we have kids or if we went broke,” Davis said. “But we share something in common; we both love each other. When we said our vows we meant them. Of course we struggle and fight over stupid stuff from time to time. But we move on and leave it in the past, because we want our future kids to see how happy we are together as a couple.”
*name has been changed