Personal Story

How Childhood Divorce Shaped My Marriage and Parenting

written by Kathy Sisson

Tears streamed down the cheeks of every wedding guest as my husband twirled his youngest sister around the dance floor during what should have been the daddy-daughter dance at her wedding. He whispered something in her ear as she smiled, nodded, and tears welled up in her eyes too. But it’s not what you might be thinking. My father-in-law, their dad, was alive and well, but a searing divorce had reshaped their family forever and he wasn’t invited to the wedding.

As my husband sat down next to me after the dance, I asked him what he whispered to his sister to cause the tears. He casually responded, “I just said, ‘Now it’s up to us. We have to get this marriage thing right.’”

According to a recent study, millennials are credited with sending the divorce rate plummeting by “being pickier about who they marry, and tying the knot at older ages when education, careers, and finances are on track.”

Cohabitation before marriage is normative now, as is premarital sex, unearthing any surprises our boomer parents might have more easily avoided. Plus, women are more educated and self-reliant, so needing to tie the knot for financial stability has decreased. The study goes much deeper into the societal ramifications, but a fellow millennial friend of mine predicted this swing many years ago. Much like my husband, she told me the trauma brought on by her own parents’ separation and divorce made her more committed to the health of her marriage.

I’m on the other end of the spectrum as the lucky child of parents married 40+ years who still love and like each other. But meeting and falling in love with my husband helped me recognize my own childhood privilege and also opened my eyes to real work of marriage I took for granted. I’ve learned how important it is to invest in our relationship because it is possible for it all to fade away.

Soon after we were married, we decided to further test the strength of our own union by having kids. Knowing our love for each other would be the greatest gift we could give our children, we made our relationship a priority as we navigated these new challenges together.

But it’s not easy, and we are certainly still learning. Here is what I’ve picked up along the way.


Anger is Easy, Empathy Takes Practice

When you’re sleep deprived, overworked, and dealing with the everyday stresses of life as parents, it’s easy to stay angry — and pile on new reasons to be angry. It’s much more difficult to take a pause, honor the feeling, and try to understand why you or your partner is feeling that way. Seeing things from the other person’s perspective, knowing when to give them space, and knowing when to apologize is not something that always comes naturally. Sometimes I can feel the words I want to spit out rising in my throat, and I have to struggle consciously to push them back down.

It doesn’t always work, but practice helps.



We Kiss and Make Up — In Front of The Kids

While I will be forever grateful for my parents’ marriage, I didn’t see them actually fight until I was in my 20s, which now seems like a completely unrealistic portrayal of the average relationship. My mom has since confessed that she secretly journaled about my dad rather than blow up at him (I have to confess I have done both the blowing up and the journaling in my marriage).

I do think showing a civil disagreement, resolution, and forgiveness is important for our kids to witness, but I know blowups should be avoided. Marriage and parenting expert Dr. John Gottman — of the Gottman Institute — asserts we should never fight in front of our children. If it happens, he also cites research from Notre Dame University psychologist E. Mark Cummings that stresses the importance of showing young children a hug and a kiss between parents since they do not understand a verbal resolution until they are much older.

Again, we are still working on this every day.


Longevity is Not About Romance

On my parent’s wedding anniversary this year, I put my mom on the spot and asked her the secret to 44 years of marriage. She thought for a minute and said “faith and common interest.”

I felt underwhelmed by the matter-of-fact, non-romantic response. However, I have since been reflecting on the practical wisdom she bestowed on me. Of course, I believe our deep love for our children will always bind us together, but we better have something else in common or our life is going to get pretty uncomfortable when the kiddos flee the nest.

Today, life as parents of young kids means finding time for common interests usually amounts to watching a new Netflix series together. But many of the streaming shows have been good conversation starters for some deep late-night discussions.

Partnering in shared goals — financially, professionally and personally — has given us common milestones to get excited about. Partnering in parenting techniques, discipline, and strategies together has been harder to learn, but everything seems to work better when we’re making decisions together.



But You Still Need Romance

I’ve heard the advice never stop dating your spouse, which is 100 times harder when you have kids. You have to make time for each other.

I repeat, you HAVE TO make time for each other — schedule sex, schedule date nights, and find the aforementioned Netflix-and-chill show you can enjoy together.

In the stress of the early years of becoming parents, my husband and I were just surviving. A date night six months into our second baby was a serious turning point in our relationship. I often wonder how long we would have let the misery go on without taking a pause to come back to each other.

I won’t say it was a cure-all — we’ve needed plenty more moments to come together since — but putting our relationship first, if only for a few hours, helped re-ignite our spark.


Do the Small Things

Make eye contact, give warm hellos and goodbyes, and do the thing you know makes them happy. Say “thank you,” “I see what you do,” and “I appreciate you.” Those little things compound.

None of us can control the family we were born into, but we can control the family we’re building. I’m lucky to have parents who’ve made it work, and also lucky to have in-laws who didn’t. Since people often learn more from failures than from successes, maybe our generation of relationships might just be more likely to get this whole marriage thing right.


How does your parents’ relationship affect your partnership and your parenting? Tell us in the comments.