Most couples, without even realizing, follow the marriage example set by their parents—for better or for worse. But many of us grew up with either nonexistent or less-than-perfect examples of happy marriages, and we don’t want to make the same mistakes our parents did.
My parents divorced when I was two, so my earliest memories are not of our family together but of me going back and forth between them. What I wrongly learned about marriage as a result is that it is often fleeting and sometimes painful and that divorce is a way out when love ends. After twelve years of marriage, I still struggle to get out from under the influence of my parents’ divorce. Doing marriage right is much harder than I imagined, and I am only just beginning to understand the degree to which my parents’ failed marriage has influenced my own.
However, I have learned that I don’t have to repeat my parents’ mistakes. By looking at their relationship with a critical eye and making intentional efforts, my husband and I can build our own marriage on a firm foundation instead of sinking sand. Here are three tips that have helped us.
01. “Leave and cleave.”
In her book The Good Marriage, sociologist Judith Wallerstein offers nine psychological tasks to help couples form forever marriages. According to Wallerstein, married couples must “detach emotionally from the families of childhood, commit to the relationship and build new connections with the extended families.”
I have heard this kind of detachment described as “leaving and cleaving” (a biblical reference). At a marriage conference my husband and I attended, one of the speakers defined “leaving and cleaving” as “leaving the emotional and financial dependence on your parents and clinging to your spouse.” This is wise advice for every married couplebut especially those with divorced parents or unhealthy families. While we should honor our parents regardless of their marital history, some amount of separation from their marriage is vital to the health of our own.
Early in our marriage, my husband and I made a deliberate decision to avoid talking about our marriage with our divorced parents. We try not to complain about each other to our parents, and when we face struggles, we do not burden our parents with this information. We also do not go to our parents for marital advice.
This is not meant to be disrespectful to our parents, who want our marriage to succeed where theirs did not. It is about guarding our marriage from the past, where we received some toxic messages about love and marriage. For our marriage to succeed, we need to be intentional about replacing those broken messages with positive ones. More generally, for couples who have still-married parents, “leaving and cleaving” is a healthy part of the process of becoming one and making your spouse your first priority as you seek to build a new family.
02. Embrace the positive and reject the negative.
We have to treat our parents’ marital relationships like a garden full of weeds—keeping what is good and discarding what is bad. Those of us who come from broken homes may not have a lot of positives to pick from, and some of us have parents who stayed married in unhappy or so-so relationships that we do not want to repeat. I have a friend whose parents have been married for more than thirty years in a mildly happy union that left her desiring something better in her own marriage. While there are parts of her parents’ marriage she does not want to duplicate, such as their difficulties with communicating, she greatly admires their unwavering commitment to each other.
Sometimes rejecting the negative requires seeking outside help, such as couples counseling, to keep from repeating unhealthy habits that we picked up from our parents. One major resource we have that our parents did not is a growing body of research on divorce and broken families. There are a variety of national, state, and local organizations that utilize this information to help couples build healthy families, and many of their resources are free. By seeking out the myriad of resources available to us, we can weed out the good marriage messages we received from the bad.
03. Seek strong marriage role models.
The day my husband and I got engaged on a beach in Virginia, we met an elderly couple who shared the secret of their thirty-plus years of marital bliss in one word: Communication.
The wisdom they shared with us that day is something that every married couple needs over the long term, especially those of us from broken homes. In order to avoid repeating our parents’ marriage mistakes, we need to seek out healthy marriage role models or mentors who have weathered the bad times and are willing to offer us guidance on how to navigate the difficulties of married life. Sometimes this can involve simply asking questions of older married couples we know and respect, but more often it means forming relationships. If you don't know other married couples, seek out a marriage mentoring program through a community organization or church, where mature married couples are matched with younger couples to serve as marriage mentors.
In whatever form it exists, our parents’ relationship is our first and greatest teacher about love. Sometimes our parents’ marriages can negatively impact our understanding of marriage. But our parents’ marital failures do not have to determine the outcome of our marriages. We can choose to learn from the past but not repeat it.