Illustration by Lauren You
We are college students: adults who can still occasionally get away with acting like children. We like to think of ourselves as independent from our parents, our homes and even our pasts. We are eager for adventure, unsure about many things and still trying to find our place in life. In other words, we are in an awkward position where we are fighting off the final remains of our adolescence while trying to fully embrace our adulthood. Part of adulthood is forming long-term relationships platonic as well as romantic. Sometimes, during those romantic relationships, we realize that we only imagined ourselves as mature; we are not free from all aspects of childhood. Our parents’ marriage can be a factor we cannot leave behind.
Dysfunctional families and broken marriages are not a rare phenomenon. Tension, violence and lack of understanding between parents can have severe effects on their children's upbringing. Many couples choose to stay together because of cultural or religious reasons. Some may even argue that they do it for the well-being of children, a scenario that rarely has positive outcomes. While separation and divorce are difficult to deal with, I believe it’s much healthier for a child to handle the pain of separation than to live in an environment influenced by constant tensions. Dysfunctionality can distort the idea of home in a child’s mind, making it hard to ever capture the true meaning of home.
Children of divorced parents deal with complex issues. They may feel torn between both parents, especially when it comes to custody battles. When presented with a choice of who to live with, inevitable guilt will find its way into their minds. Children of single parents may not directly deal with the breaking of their parents’ marriage, yet they often feel the absence of that parent and as U.S. American author Audrey Niffenegger puts it, “absence can be present, like a damaged nerve, like a dark bird.” Sometimes children have to switch roles with their parents, helping and caring for them while they grieve their loss and potentially battle depression. They can become the backbone of their single parents, which in severe cases can lead to abnormal attachment on both sides.
But it’s not all so gloomy; broken marriages can teach children a lot about relationships, love, partnership, parenthood and loss. The hideous scars of divorce can become wrinkles of wisdom. Seeing parents at their most vulnerable makes children understand them in a way they couldn’t have before; children of divorce form lifetime friendships within their family.
In what are supposed to be ideal cases, children grow up with parents who love and respect each other, provide them with a stable home and create an example of how a family should function. But even then, those children may not be as lucky as their parents. They may not choose the right partner, their circumstances may differ or another reason could cause their relationships to break.
So, do our parents’ marriages really affect our future relationships? I believe they do, but only to a certain extent. Unless we consciously choose to fight that influence and take charge of our own relationships, we can be affected by our parents’ experiences. Facing the results of a bad marriage can make us reject the idea of commitment and long-term relationships. It may build up a fear of opening up to people, and as we all know, fear is paralyzing. We may refuse to let people in to avoid putting ourselves in the fragile position we once saw our parents in. We hold back and refrain from getting emotionally attached to people, dismiss our feelings for people, push away people we are interested in and cringe at the thought of commitment. We may get over that fear and finally commit to someone, but our pasts will not let go of us that easily. We start seeing shadows of the toxic relationship between our parents in our own ones. Certain traits that our partners have can remind us of one of our parents’ traits, so we run away. But the most terrifying thing is when we find those traits within us and realize that we have become the person we blamed for so long. A vicious cycle begins and giving up becomes the only option.
But why should we give up? We are much more than our biological combinations or past experiences; we are the reflection of our choices. Those choices won’t always be right, but even then, they could lead to something right for us. We do not often assume we will have the same careers as our parents or live in the same places. Then why do we often think of their relationships when we think our own? This is not to say that our parents’ marriage should be of no relevance to our decisions in the future. On the contrary, it’s important to reflect on how their relationship functioned to know what we want and don’t. Yet we cannot live in the shadows of the families we grew up in, especially if we lived through dysfunctional ones. We need to learn to let go of pain and draw the line between past and present. We need to realize that not every flaw in a partner is an echo of our parent’s flaw, that we may never experience that certain kind of love that our parents experienced and that dysfunctionality doesn’t travel in genes nor manifest as curses.
Dana Abu Ali is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]