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How Having Divorced Parents Can Affect Your Attachment Style

Abby Moore
Assistant Managing Editor By Abby Moore
Assistant Managing Editor
Abby Moore is an assistant managing editor at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Happy Child Smiling Up At Mother

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Nearly 40 to 50% of marriages in the United States end in divorce, according to the American Psychological Association. Like any form of parental structure, being a child of divorce could affect the child's relationship patterns as an adult, aka their attachment style.

What attachment style could a child of divorce develop? 

Having a secure relationship with caregivers in early childhood is what creates a secure attachment style, wherein a person is able to rely on others, allow others to rely on them, and generally form healthy relationships. But divorce in and of itself does not create an insecure attachment style.

"Attachment style is related to what the child experienced before, during, and after the divorce," therapist Chamin Ajjan, M.S., LCSW, A-CBT, tells mbg.

That means the effects of a divorce on a child's attachment style depends on whether it's amicable or fraught with tension. If parents openly communicate with the child throughout the divorce process, provide reassurance, stability, and are kind to one another, Ajjan says the child will probably grow up with a secure attachment style. In fact, they may even feel healthier once their parents are separated and a new normal is established, she adds. 

On the flip side, high-conflict divorce, where a child experiences constant fighting, bad-mouthing, high levels of stress, and mixed messages about their parents, can lead to a range of insecure attachment styles including:

  • Avoidant attachment: When a parent becomes less involved due to changes in living situations or custody battles, the child may feel abandoned and to blame. "These children may develop an ambivalent attachment style where they become extremely independent and uncomfortable when relationships become too serious," Ajjan says. This is known as avoidant attachment.
  • Disorganized attachment: Chaotic, neglectful, or abusive divorce situations can cause the child to develop a disorganized attachment style. According to marriage and family therapist Maria Sosa, M.S., MFT, this attachment style can lead to a need for intimacy, with a deep fear of getting too close and letting others in. "There is an incongruence and what could be categorized as a push-and-pull in terms of approach and avoid," she says. "They may terminate relationships as a way to avoid being rejected by their partner in the future."

How this can affect relationships. 

People who were negatively affected by their parents' divorce and develop an insecure attachment style may become stuck in a cycle of one chaotic relationship after another, Ajjan says. Other outcomes could include avoiding intimate relationships altogether, leaving relationships as soon as they become serious or becoming clingy and mistrustful.  

In some cases, Sosa says people will cope well with their parents' divorce in childhood but then become more affected in adulthood. This is called the divorce sleeper effect. "This sleeper effect comes from a 25-year-old research study from Judith Wallerstein, which suggests that children of divorce, who may have previously shown adaptive and positive coping, may later exhibit adjustment difficulties in romantic relationships," Sosa explains. 

Difficulties include:

  • Concerns about not being loved
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships
  • Fears of abandonment and betrayal

"However, insecure attachment is not our destiny," Sosa says. "While our childhood may have wired us a certain way, we are able to rewire."

The takeaway.

Some children of divorce experience a radically positive breakup and maintain healthy relationships with their parents, resulting in a healthy and secure attachment style as adults. Other kids may see their parents go through a more chaotic split and develop an insecure attachment style as a result.

Tuning into your behaviors and your relationship patterns may help you identify your attachment style and then begin a healing process if needed. "A therapist can help you to identify these behaviors and come up with strategies to heal from past traumas and create new ways to engage in your relationships," Ajjan advises.

Healing won't happen overnight, but it's certainly possible.

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