The broken home: It sounds more like a horror movie title than a term that could accurately describe a family’s situation.
Still, those two simple words are often used to describe any family that doesn’t fit the stereotypical mold: you know, two heterosexual people who get married, have children, and live happily ever after.
Unfortunately, growing up in what’s considered a non-traditional way can earn you a big old label from society—they come from a broken home—and that label comes with dozens of negative associations—they’re unstable, people say, they can’t commit. But are they right?
We are biologically wired to form connections; we want to be connected with other people.
“I truly hope we are getting away from the terms ‘broken home’ or ‘failed marriage,’” says relationship coach Deb Besigner. “As a dating and relationship coach, I work with clients who came from divorce, were raised by single parents, or are from an intact family. However, I don’t find that there is a noticeable correlation.”
But the stereotypes persist, which raises the question, is it possible that what they say about people who come from “broken homes” is true? Here, we have a few experts weigh in on some of the stigmas that are typically associated with the term.
Couples argue; it’s part of the deal. After all, living with someone while also dealing with daily life can get old; add children into the mix, and the stress levels—and argument frequency—can rise.
It is true that children who grow up constantly hearing their parents argue can suffer from emotional trauma, wrote Lisa Firestone, PhD, in an article for Psychology Today. The knowledge of tension between their parents can cause anxiety and worry, which can translate into behavioral or emotional issues. They may also blame themselves for the fighting.
Living with parents who may not fight but tend to shut each other out, however, may have an even bigger impact.
“I have found lack of affection between longtime married parents tends to be more confusing for their children,” says Besigner. “I often ask clients where they got their ideas of love, and if their parents did not show physical or verbal affection, or weren’t even kind, they have to go to fairy tales and movies [to see affection], which of course has given them a very unrealistic view of relationships.”
The takeaway here is that a child’s environment can affect their perceptions. Living under constant stress and tension can change their personalities, as can being around parents who fail to engage around their children. And yes, these anxieties can follow them into adulthood.
But an unstable or unloving environment can occur in any family dynamic: divorced or married. No matter the parenting situation, it’s largely instability and lack of observed affection that negatively impacts the way a child views relationships and romance in the future.
Perhaps the most common stereotype about children of divorced parents is that they stay as far away from relationships as possible. The belief is that watching their parents’ relationship unfold makes them fear getting hurt or repeating their parents’ mistakes.
“We are biologically wired to form connections; we want to be connected with other people,” says Julienne Derichs, a licensed clinical professional counsellor in the Chicago area. “Someone who comes from a divorced family may have conflicting feelings, thoughts, and behaviors about how safe and secure it is to feel connected to another person.”
And other times, a person with divorced parents may have never learned how to have a healthy relationship.
“Children from divorced families bear the brunt of their parents’ failure to sustain the relationship,” says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, (aka “Dr. Romance”), psychotherapist and author of How to be Happy Partners: Working it out Together. “If they don’t grow up experiencing what it’s like for two parents to get along, to work through issues, and to enjoy each other, they have no idea what it’s like. Therefore, they grow up missing a lot of relationship skills.”
Not knowing how to have a stable and healthy relationship can cause a person great anxiety when considering commitment. As a result, they may stay away from, or struggle with, commitment altogether.
This isn’t the case for every child of divorce, and it’s not exclusive to them, either. Commitment phobia can happen to anyone—sudden breakups and unhealthy previous relationships are some non-divorce-related causes, wrote John M. Grohol, Psy.D, for PsychCentral.
Trying to stay together for the kids is a noble concept, but this type of relationship will likely be the kind your child enters into, says HuffPost. Children tend to mirror what they see in their parents’ relationship in their own, which can be good or bad.
You can’t find love without risking getting hurt, even in the best of relationships…
Couples who are in loveless, toxic relationships often make home life stressful. They are typically also unable to show their children what a healthy and safe relationship looks like. The result is a child who thinks this type of relationship is normal and expected, and enters one of their own.
However, even children of happily married couples can still enter unhealthy relationships because of the other issues they have dealt with.
“Regardless of your family background, we all have childhood wounds and can easily fall into traps of choosing unhealthy relationships because that pain is familiar to us,” says Besinger. “You can’t find love without risking getting hurt, even in the best of relationships, but new pain seems scarier than familiar pain.”
Children are more likely to form relationships like those they are familiar with, whether they are healthy or not. When they aren’t exposed to what a genuine and loving relationship looks like, they aren’t able to detect when they aren’t receiving the treatment they deserve. The result is often a marriage that isn’t fulfilling.
Although you probably already know that many mental illnesses are genetic in nature, you may not have known that children of divorce have higher chances of developing them.
Children who come from “broken homes” are five times more likely to suffer damaging mental troubles than those whose parents are in healthy relationships, says a 2008 study conducted by the United Kingdom’s Department of Health for the Office of National Statistics.
These children are more likely to do badly in school, suffer poor health, and endure poverty, crime, and addiction as adults. They also have high chances of developing conduct disorders which result in violence, aggression, or anti-social behavior.
“Children from broken homes experience anxiety as a result of the trauma,” says Tessina. “They often grow into anxious adults, who frequently feel insecure. Because they don’t trust that relationships can last, they may test their partners until the partners are frustrated and discouraged. They may lack cooperation and negotiation skills. They may have mood problems, depression, sleep issues and other results of the trauma.”
There are other triggers for mental illness, however—genetics, ongoing medical issues, head injuries, and traumatic experiences (assault, military combat, etc.) are a some of the other risk factors listed on Mayo Clinic.
Children of Divorce Could Value Marriage More Because of It
Not everything that comes out of a divorce is bad. Each parent may find happiness once the relationship is over, which can make the child’s home life better and give them an example of a healthy relationship.
A grown child of divorce can work through the issues and learn not to behave as their parents did.
Children also learn what happens when a couple isn’t able to make things work. Seeing unhappiness, anger, and other unsavory behaviors might steer away from such relationship traits in the future. It may, too, cause them to work harder because they know what happens when things fall apart.
Before they can do this, however, they may benefit from seeing someone who can understand what they’ve endured as children.
In addition to recommending they express their feelings through journaling, Derichs recommends that people with divorced parents see a certified counsellor. “Self-exploration and self-awareness are key components to understanding the effects your parents’ divorce had on you. Understand that you have to learn healthy relationship skills, because what comes naturally from your learned experience may not lead to a relationship that feels safe, secure, and stable.”
Using other examples of couples from your life besides your parents can also help you learn what a stable relationship looks like, Tessina says.
“A grown child of divorce can work through the issues and learn not to behave as their parents did,” says Tessina. “Searching out other role models, such as other relatives who did not divorce, and emulating their behavior, can help.
Tessina, too, urges them to see a mental health professional.
“Therapy is very good for correcting mistaken beliefs and destructive habits which may result from the family example,” she says.
Keep in mind that divorce isn’t always a horrible thing.
Sometimes, it’s what is best for the entire family and a way for parents to show their children they’re looking out for them.
“I believe if a spouse is being mistreated and modeling a toxic relationship to their children, when a parent decides to get out, they are showing their children self-love, boundaries, and resilience,” says Besinger.
“Remember, you can have a set of siblings from the same intact family or divorced family, and all of the children will feel differently and subsequently have different behaviors following,” she continues. “It’s best we all see each other as individuals and joyfully get to know both the strength and struggles of a new partner.”