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Effects of Divorce on Adult Commitment

QUESTION: I have a real problem, I can't keep a relationship for more than six months. For the past six years of my dating life the most serious relationships have ended by my choice. I feel as if I suddenly don't care about the other person in the same way. Someone asked me if I thought that it was because of my parents. My father left us (my mother, sister and I) three times before they finally got divorced. I don't know what to do but I am now in the process of looking for a therapist to try to help me. Could my parent's divorce still be affecting me years later?

ANSWER: Your sudden "change of heart" is becoming a pattern of abandonment in your relationships. It is certainly possible that you are repeating the conflicts of attachment that you experienced with your father. It is also likely that you learned ineffective patterns of relating that abort instead of sustain relationship.

Therapy focused on what happens to your feelings six months into a relationship could prove enlightening. There are developmental challenges in any relationship which have to do with accepting your partner as a real person and not a "perfect" romantic figure. But seeing a lover's imperfections and weaknesses should not obstruct your view of the true nature of his worth and value. Nor should disappointment completely and irreversibly turn your good feelings off! Six months is about the period of time that is required in a relationship before considering more serious commitment. Your "turn-off" at this time may indeed be a defense against hurt.

It may be the case that when you get to the phase in a relationship that requires that you depend on your partner, you shut down. It is possible that you become overly critical in order to protect yourself from needing him. Opening up to let someone in deep enough to care for you could be frightening, as you may have experienced your parents unresponsive to your needs, due to their involvement in their own turmoil and instability. It is likely that all of the marital discord did siphon off energy that would have been available to answer the needs of developing children in the family. You may have learned to distrust those you depended upon and even to disavow some of your own needs to depend upon others. You may find yourself "quitting" relationships when you feel dependent to avoid potential loss or disappointment projected from your past experience.

You may also find yourself ready to leave when differences arise because you do not believe they can be successfully resolved in a relationship. Working through differences and maintaining a positive connection to a partner through disappointment are phases all relationships must evolve through to maintain long-term. But believing in stability and happiness may be difficult for you. Sudden cynicism or an abrupt desire to flee relationships is understandable given your vulnerability to the ongoing disruption and fall-out in your parents' prolonged and unresolved marital conflict.

The good news is that you seem to very much want to be in relationship. You are not shunning potential lovers or withdrawing from relationship due to disappointments in the past. Despite disappointment, you continue to reach out and are open to seeking help. Your capacity to turn inwards to find answers to your own behavior at this time is a sign of health.

The bad news is not so terrible. You may have learned patterns of hot/cold relating from your parents' on-again/off-again relationship. And you may have been afraid of commitment and getting trapped in a painful marriage, like the one you saw your parents experience. At least you are clear that you can cut things off. Perhaps "calling it quits" was what you wished your own parents had been better at doing.

Use your therapy to identify your needs and develop realistic expectations for what a good relationship can offer you. Develop insight into the past and skills to evolve and sustain a good relationship. Now that you know you can walk away, it is likely you can learn what you need in order to stay!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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