Humans logo

How to Prevent Your Parents’ Marriage From Ruining Yours

Learn from their mistakes so you don't repeat them

By Denise SheltonPublished 3 years ago 6 min read
How to Prevent Your Parents’ Marriage From Ruining Yours
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

My husband and I have been married for over 36 years. We’ve had our ups, downs, and down and outs, but we’re still together. Why? Is it just because we never got divorced?

That could be part of it. But I think the critical factor in the longevity of our union is that we learned how to make a marriage work from watching our parents. Both his and mine enjoyed long and happy ones. You may not have been so fortunate.

The shadow a couple’s relationship casts upon their children is long. If their relationship is good, there’s an excellent chance their children will follow in their footsteps.

According to Nicholas Wolfinger in Understanding the Divorce Cycle, the risk of divorce is 50 percent higher when one spouse comes from a divorced home and 200 percent higher when both partners do. If people grow up in an unhappy home, their parents’ example might be the road map that sends their relationships off a cliff.

Here are some things you and your partner should ask yourselves that may help you stay firmly on the road to happily ever after.

Did your parents appear to be equals?

A study of divorced couples done by family law firm Wilkinson & Finkbeiner found that 44% of those surveyed cited a lack of equality in the relationship as the reason for their divorce.

My father was fond of saying that he and my mother had “a 50/50 partnership,” and they did. They assigned work according to their strengths: in our family business, my mother handled bookkeeping and customer service while my father focused on production. At home, my father did the grocery shopping, my mother did the cooking, and they shared the tasks related to child-rearing. They made all their big decisions together.

Years ago, people would say, “Who wears the pants in the family?” meaning, “Which partner is in charge?” Whoever had the final say on important decisions like where the family would live or how they would handle money was the one with the power. This arrangement may work for some people, but often it breeds anger and resentment in the person who doesn’t “wear the pants.”

Ideally, couples make these decisions together. If they disagree, they keep talking until they reach a consensus. A power imbalance in marriage nearly always leads to trouble.

There’s a scene in the film Melvin and Howard, where Melvin’s wife Linda is thrilled because she’s just figured out how to balance the budget to afford their daughter’s girl scout uniform. Her happiness evaporates when Melvin pulls into the driveway in a Cadillac pulling a trailer with a boat on it. The next scene is Linda packing her bags.

Were your parents kind to each other?

Couples who get along well make it a habit to do little things to make the other person’s life more comfortable or better. Sometimes, it’s something as simple as making coffee in the morning or clearing the snow off the car. Other times, it’s a big thing like moving to a new house so the other person can have a vegetable garden or agreeing to allow their partner to raise their children in a religion different from their own. If these tender mercies were not part of your parents’ marriage, be sure to include them in yours.

How did your parents talk about each other?

Respect is essential for any relationship to thrive. When we respect someone, it shows in the way we talk about them to other people. Saying things like, “My husband is the worst driver” or “My partner is such a slob” is disrespectful. Exposing your partner’s weaknesses to others is disloyal. When you do it in front of them, it’s humiliating.

“Severe humiliation is a fate worse even than death, in that it destroys our standing as well as our life, whereas death merely destroys our life,” writes psychiatrist Neel Burton.

When you’re with other people, try to focus on the positive aspects of your partner’s character and abilities. Go ahead and tell that funny story, but make sure it doesn’t leave your audience with a negative impression of your significant other. It doesn’t hurt to brag about them a little, either.

Did you feel safe around your parents?

Conventional wisdom has been that people who suffer abuse as children are more likely to become abusers themselves. The good news is that a recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health has concluded that this is not true. People abused as children are no more likely to become abusers than those who were not.

In the Wilkinson & Finkbeiner study, 25% of respondents cited domestic violence or abuse as a factor in their divorce. Researchers in Sweden found that men who have mental illness were more likely to become violent with their imitate partners. They also found that substance abusers were also more likely to inflict violence, the highest risk being from those with mental disorders who also abused substances.

If either substance abuse or mental illness is a factor in your relationship, get help. You might not just be saving a marriage; you may be saving a life: yours, your partner's, or someone else's.

What did they do right?

Even the most tumultuous relationships can have some bright spots. What happened on the good days? Think about the times when you felt happy to be a part of your family. What did your parents do that made you feel like you belonged together?

The happiest times might have been when you went someplace as a family: on vacation, hiking in the woods, camping, visiting a museum, going to the movies. You may also remember happy times at home doing things like fixing Thanksgiving dinner, playing board games, or watching a favorite show on TV together.

Focus on what was happening when things were going well while you were growing up, and do similar things with your partner and children today. If those happy times were few and far between, make sure you do the kinds of things that spark them more frequently.

Hang in there

The most significant factor leading to divorce for 73% of the people surveyed by Wilkinson & Finkbeiner was lack of commitment. Some people think just getting married is evidence of commitment, but clearly, it’s not. Everyone who gets divorced had to get married first.

“You think you’re having a bad week, but stay on the bus because one of these days you’ll look out the window and it’ll be beautiful.”--Jamie Lee Curtis

In an interview with Country Living Magazine, actress Jamie Lee Curtis said the secret to her long marriage to Christopher Guest is hanging in there even when things aren’t going well. The actress expressed her philosophy like this, “You think you’re having a bad week, but stay on the bus because one of these days you’ll look out the window and it’ll be beautiful.”

My husband and I have been married a year longer than Jamie Lee and Christopher, but our philosophy is pretty much the same. We’ve made our bed, and we’re lying in it until death do us part.

A long and successful marriage isn’t in the cards for everyone, and it shouldn’t be if you discover you married the wrong person. How do you find the right one? That’s a story for another day.

Please note: Denise Shelton is not a licensed family therapist. The opinions and advice in this article are based solely on reading, observation, and personal experience. Sources to support her opinions have been cited where appropriate.


About the Creator

Denise Shelton

Denise Shelton writes on a variety of topics and in several different genres. Frequent subjects include history, politics, and opinion. She gleefully writes poetry The New Yorker wouldn't dare publish.

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights


There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2024 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.