Ending the Divorce Cycle

by John Trent

Adult children of divorce who are considering marriage – or who are already married and struggling to keep it together – face a daunting challenge. Like every human being, they want to be loved and accepted. They long to find those things in a marriage that will be strong and thriving and mutually fulfilling “for as long as we both shall live.”

Unfortunately, many adult children of divorce (ACOD) have never seen a solid marriage relationship. They have no idea what it looks like. Their only experience is with dysfunctional marriages that don’t last.

A Vision for Success

You may be an ACOD, but you can create a strong, lasting marriage. One key is seeing firsthand how solid relationships work by spending time with couples who model God-honouring marriages.

Though my mom’s own two marriages failed, after she became a Christian (which happened after her divorces), she developed the deep conviction that God wants marriage to last a lifetime and that with His help, it’s not only possible but normal. She imparted that truth to me. Then I saw it modelled.

Doug Barram was the Young Life leader at my
high school. He invited students to hang out with his family. In Doug’s home, for the first time, I saw a strong marriage up close.

The man adored his wife; you could see it in the way he looked at her, spoke to her, kissed her and helped her. And you could see that she felt the same about him. Doug was the kind of husband I wanted to be.

He also loved his kids, played with them, talked with them, prayed with them and tucked them into bed at night. So here, too, was the model of a great father that I needed to see. Watching Doug relate to his family, I was like a giant sponge, soaking up all of it. This was the family life for which I had yearned.

My mom’s words about what marriage should be had provided me with a vision. Doug and his family put flesh on that vision. Between the two, I formed my expectations for the kind of marriage I would one day build.

What Good Models Provide

If you’re an ACOD, what would you gain from observing marriage role-model couples? Mine gave me four things.

First, they gave me hope that the marital commitment can endure for a lifetime. If your only family experience has been that marriage doesn’t last and that conflicts lead to the death of a relationship, you need hope. You need some reason to believe that things can be different for you (and your spouse).

Without examples of marital success to look at regularly, however, such hope will be hard to come by. Your frame of reference will still be confined to scenes of failure.

The marriage model of Doug Barram and his wife expanded my frame of reference. I saw that failed marriages aren’t the only kind and that marriage can survive and even be great. What my mom said about how marital commitment is supposed to last a lifetime is true.

Second, my models gave me the expectation of lasting commitment. Once you have the hope that marriage can endure, you need to progress to the expectation that it will endure. Marital health and thriving together need to become your new idea of normal.

Again, the encouragement of my mom, plus the strong relationship of the Barrams, eventually developed a positive expectation in me. I went from hoping that I could be more successful than my parents at marriage to firmly believing that this would be the case. Despite living with the negative model of parental divorce, I could and would have a solid marriage.

Third, my models gave me examples of healthy ways and habits to build a marriage. Relationships often flounder because the people in them simply stop doing the positive actions that keep the relationship strong – things like helping each other; saying “I love you”; putting an encouraging arm around a discouraged loved one’s shoulder; and deferring often to the other’s desires.

“We are mesmerized by the romantic idea of marriage and blinded to the reality,” wrote Gen X author Pamela Paul. “We are sold on Cinderella, not on how uncomfortable wearing glass slippers for the next 50 years might be.” In other words, we forget how much hard and consistent work it takes to live “happily ever after.”

I saw love put into action. I saw my mom regularly putting her kids’ needs ahead of her own. And I saw Doug helping his wife around the house and with their children and telling her “I love you” several times a day, in various ways.

Fourth, my models gave me examples of how to resolve conflicts without destroying the relationship. Conflict is inevitable, and ACODs tend to think it inevitably leads to divorce. But in healthy marriages, husbands and wives find ways to work out their differences and grow closer as a result.

Many times I saw Doug and his wife calmly disagree until they finally came to a meeting of their minds and hearts. I even heard him tell her, when tempers flared, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” And always I saw them take their differences out of sight from their kids, working out their issues in private to ensure their children’s emotional security.

In these four significant ways, my mom and the Barrams showed me, despite my handicaps as an ACOD, that I could have a good marriage. They shaped my hopes and expectations and gave me the practical skills for building a strong, lasting relationship.

This article first appeared in the July 2006 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. Adapted from Breaking the Cycle of Divorce, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2006, John Trent, Ph.D. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.