Most relationship experts believe that the number one factor that shapes your view on love is your own life experience. That includes the movies you watched and the music you listened to growing up, and of course, your own personal history. Whether you know it or not, your parents also set a profound example for what to expect — and if their marriage didn’t work out, there’s a good chance that impacted your approach to dating. In fact, experts say you can look out for specific signs your parents’ divorce is affecting your love life.
“A divorce — no matter how amicable — changes a child’s life forever,” says Dr. Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, adding that the impact can range from subtle to severe depending on the circumstances.
According to Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, a licensed clinical psychotherapist, relationship expert, and author of Training Your Love Intuition, there’s an inherent risk of either recreating or over-avoiding the decisions of your caregivers, meaning that their divorce can cause you to subconsciously seek out either a very similar or different bond.
Before you start cursing your parents for ruining your love life, however, know this: The impact that their divorce had on you isn't necessarily always negative. Here are some subtle signs that your parents' split is affecting your own attitude toward dating.
You have an undeniable fear of commitment.
It goes a little something like this. You’ve gone on three dates with someone and things are going swimmingly. Just when you start to sense that things are taking a serious turn, however, you suddenly bail out. According to Dr. Klapow, an aversion to commitment is a common reaction to a difficult parental divorce. After watching your parents’ relationship fall apart, you might adopt the belief that all relationships fail in the end — so you do whatever you can to avoid getting hurt by an inevitably negative outcome.
Even if you don’t actually fear commitment, you may be extra cautious about it because you’re afraid of making a poor choice of partner and ending up in your parents’ position. Basically, your parents’ divorce may have caused you to vet potential partners more carefully — and there's nothing wrong with that.
"I don’t want what happened to my parents to happen to me," says Ryan, 28. "So, I think I’m less naïve going into marriage, and less willing to venture into a relationship that’s not likely to succeed.”
You avoid dating entirely.
If the dating game feels far too risky or downright anxiety-inducing, that might have something to do with your parents' failed relationship. Dr. Wish notes that avoiding dating entirely is a common protective mechanism for those who have felt the painful consequences of divorce.
According to Dr. Klapow, observing a divorce can trigger a certain level of cynicism around romance. From what you've observed, relationships only lead to broken hearts, so you may adopt the attitude that there's no reason to engage in them.
For Alex, whose parents divorced when he was 4 years old, hearing his father constantly complain about his mother during their visits led to trust issues with men in particular — which has posed challenges in his dating life as a gay cisgender male.
“I'm almost 32 and I've never had a serious relationship," he says. "I can form deep bonds with all the women in my life, but I can't do that with other men. I don't trust that people are interested in me, or I fear that if I were to get involved, after a while they'd leave — like my dad did.”
To be clear, if you're content being single, that's perfectly OK. There's nothing wrong with taking a break from the dating world to focus on your own needs, goals, and interests. However, if you find that you've developed a pessimistic mindset that's preventing you from feeling happy or fulfilled, then that's something worth exploring with the help of a trained professional, like a therapist.
You can't seem to walk away from relationships.
For the sake of your own well-being and happiness, it's crucial to know when it's time to walk away rather than stay and fight for a relationship. So, if you're often willing to "stick it out" at the expense of your own best interests, that's something to pay attention to. Witnessing your parents' divorce may have instilled a certain fear or anxiety around the end of a relationship, and as a result, Dr. Klapow notes that you may have become loyal and dedicated to the extreme.
"More than for better or worse, fearing a breakup of any sort despite incompatibility or animosity is often a reaction to a parental divorce," he explains.
You hold back emotionally.
Intimacy in relationships requires vulnerability — which means letting your guard down and fully allowing your partner in on your thoughts, feelings, and experiences as well as your imperfections. If you find yourself holding back emotionally because you're afraid to be vulnerable, Dr. Klapow says that may have been caused by your parents' divorce.
"You may have trust issues that stem from your fear of being hurt the way your parents did," explains Dr. Wish.
"After growing up with parents who were not together, I became almost perfectionistic as a partner in order to prevent someone from potentially leaving," says Hannah, 30. "I tend to be afraid of making a mistake of showing my 'flaws' for fear that my partner might change their mind about me. And I'm also hypervigilant in looking for any possible signs that they might walk away."
Emotional safety means feeling secure in being open and honest with your significant other. If they've given you no reason not to feel that way and you're still holding back, your distrust of how they'll react and avoidance of vulnerability could stem from your own past experiences.
You're a serial dater.
Do you hop from relationship to relationship to avoid feeling alone? Always being in a relationship may give you a sense of security if your parents' divorce turned your world upside-down.
"It's almost a reaction to feeling abandoned as a child by the divorce and compensating for it," explains Dr. Klapow.
If you’re struggling to form fulfilling and meaningful relationships and you suspect that your difficulties are connected to your parents’ divorce, rest assured that there are steps you can take to shift your perspective in a positive direction. Dr. Klapow emphasizes that the most important thing you can do for yourself is to work on eradicating the detrimental views you formed around love and separating what you observed in your parents' relationship from your own experiences. Having the guidance of a qualified mental health professional can help immensely in this effort.
“Think of your parents' divorce as a potentially game-changing, wake-up call to get the emotional courage to examine your past and present intimate relationships,” says Dr. Wish.
To help figure out how your parents’ divorce impacted you, Dr. Wish recommends writing out several lists: “My Relationship Fears,” “My Parents' Marriage Taught Me that Men/Women Are…” and “Observations from My Past Relationships.” What did you learn from your parents about control, anger, independence, criticism, reliability, and affection? Sussing out what you absorbed from your parents' relationship may offer valuable insight into why you now behave the way you do.
The key thing to keep in mind as you embark on this journey of self-discovery is that while the lasting effects of your parents' divorce are both normal and understandable, they don't have to sabotage your own love life. The beautiful thing about relationships is that no two are the same, which means that regardless of what you observed growing up, you do get a say in your own romantic destiny. Now, it's time to ask yourself: Will you bravely challenge the harmful beliefs you've adopted about love, and choose to form your own? Remember — you get to write your own love story, and it starts with leaving your parents' in the past.
Dr. Joshua Klapow, clinical psychologist and relationship expert
LeslieBeth Wish, clinical psychotherapist and relationship expert