Divorce & Relationships – Chaos To Calm Interview with Terry Gaspard

Have you ever wondered if you are destined to just have bad relationships?  Or maybe felt as though you, in some way have inherited your parents dysfunctional relationship dynamics.  Are you the type of person who tries to “see the good” in everyone and therefore you tend end up in destructive relationships?

Through the Empowered Divorce Summit series, I have been fortunate enough to meet and becomes friends with some of the best experts in the world.  Terry Gaspard is someone who has done tireless work and research into the lasting effects of divorce on women.

While I have interviewed Terry as part of the summit series, the release of her research via her book Daughters of Divorce” led me to do a little soul searching of my own about my previous relationship choices.  As a result, I wanted to interview her separately so that she could share her insights into the role that family history plays into our sometimes disastrous relationship choices.

In addition, because this interview was done via email, Terry used the opportunity to provide some remarkably detailed answers to my questions!

Is it possible to get past a dysfunctional family history?

We can get beyond our past with self-awareness and a willingness to examine our past and current thoughts and behavior. However, we tend to gravitate toward relationships that resemble our parents’ marriage, or the way one or both of our parents treated us. We all have a composite picture of the people who influenced us in the past – their looks, personality, tone of voice, behavior and so many other factors we see and experience in childhood. For instance, we might select a partner who is emotionally detached because our father was that way and that is what we know. Freud called this a “repetition compulsion” – an unconscious tendency to want to fix the past, to recreate it, to make it better.

My book “Daughters of Divorce” gives a detailed description of how to overcome your past.

Here is a summary:

  • Understand yourself and your own past. Talk to your parents or siblings about your childhood. This isn’t easy. Be prepared to show vulnerability and hear things that might make you uncomfortable. Facing your past will help you heal and be less likely to repeat patterns of behavior from your family of origin.
  • Look at how your parents and/or stepparents resolved conflict. Difficulties resolving conflicts is one of the main causes of divorce. Many adult children of divorce have difficulty with communication, intimacy, and trust which make it hard to be vulnerable and present his or her authentic self to a partner. They might hide their true feelings which can build resentment. ACOD’s (adult children of divorce) also tend to have unrealistic expectations because we didn’t have a healthy template for intimate relationships. We might think that conflict is bad but it’s really a matter of how we repair disputes, according Dr. John Gottman the leading expert on this topic. Some conflict keeps romance and intimacy alive and can be good for a couple over the long run.
  • Resolve trust issues. If you go into a relationship with unresolved trust issues, you might end up being suspicious, constantly looking for the worst in your partner, or emotionally dependent (clingy). Some differentiation from your partner is healthy along with assuming the best in them and promoting good will in your relationship.
  • Go to counseling. If you had a lot of conflict in your childhood, if there was abuse, addiction or divorce (or more than one of these), counseling can help you assess how much your past you might be bringing into your present relationship.

How can our readers learn how to recognize potentially destructive dynamics in their intimate relationships?

While experiencing parental divorce can have life-long consequences, self-awareness and a willingness to work on self-feating relationships patterns can help people break the cycle of destructive relationships. However, you can learn to recognize destructive dynamics that exist between you and your partner, and you can take simple steps to change. The first step is being willing to follow steps 1 and 2 outlined above and facing your fears. If you are afraid of being alone, we might overlook red flags such as someone who triggers your trust issues. Counseling can help people be more aware of why they stay in toxic relationships.

Here are 5 ways:

  • Raise Your Self-awareness. Do you seek a partner who you feel comfortable with and is easy to be close to? In other words, who you feel you can be yourself and don’t have to walk on eggshells. In a healthy relationship, you will feel safe and free to express your thoughts, feelings, and desires openly and honestly without fear of rejection.
  • Set an expectation of healthy communication and mutual respect. To have a successful relationship, you need to accept, admire, and respect each other for who you are. If you don’t have mutual respect with your partner, it will eat away at chemistry until you have nothing left.
  • Notice if your partner keeps his or her agreements.  Does he/she call when they say they say they’re going to?  Does he or she take you out when they say they’re going to? When someone is interested in a romantic partner, they keep their agreements.
  • Makes sure your partner carves out time for you on a regular basis. Does he or she make you a priority because they value your relationship? This includes regular text messages or phone calls to show they’re thinking of you.
  • Don’t settle for less than you deserve.  Listen to your inner voice and ask yourself: Does my partner ask me questions about my day, work, hobbies, friends, and family?

What are the steps to create a strong partnership and a successful relationship after divorce?

The 7 steps below will help you build a healthy, successful, and long-lasting relationship:

  • Revisit your parents’ divorce as an adult and attempt to see yourself as capable of learning from the past, rather than repeating it. Gather accurate information about your parents’ breakup so you can heal from it. Stop comparing your own romantic relationships to your parents’ marriage and attempt to gain a more realistic perspective on their divorce.
  • Attempt to forgive yourself and others and let go of the past. Forgiving others doesn’t mean you condone their behavior. You are simply free to love fully and heal wounds from the past.
  • Repair broken relationships with your parents. Heal damage from the past by being willing to take a risk and examine any issues that prevent you from having a positive bond with one or both of your parents.
  • Build self-esteem by cultivating relationships with people who help you grow. Practice positive intentions such as “I am capable of creating loving, trusting relationships.” Recognize that you are responsible for your own happiness.
  • Learn to trust yourself and others. Challenge mistrustful thoughts. Ask yourself: Is my lack of trust due to my partner’s actions, my own, or both? Take responsibility for your actions and focus on extending trust to individuals who demonstrate consistency between their words and actions. Trust is a skill that can be nurtured over time with courage and persistence.
  • Allow yourself to be vulnerable and take risks in small steps. Remember that life can be more rewarding when you take risks and make a commitment to a partner who seems to be a good match for you.  There are no guarantees in intimate relationships.  But if you take a risk and are more vulnerable with a partner, you can expand your capacity for both giving and receiving love.
  • Face your fear of commitment and embrace the notion that a life-long commitment has to be made when there is some degree of uncertainty. If you wait to make a commitment when you are free of doubts, it will never happen. Take your time dating someone and make sure you’ve known them for at least two years before making a commitment in order to reduce your risk of divorce. Consider couples or premarital counseling to discuss your expectations and goals. Select partners with common values in order to reduce your risk of divorce.

For readers like me who come from a family with a long and deeply rooted legacy of divorce, is there a way to break that cycle once and for all?

The truth is that it’s hard to get out from under the shadow of divorce when at times you feel wired to re-create the past. Studies show that adults who have experienced their parents’ split might fear commitment due to concern about repeating past relationship patterns.  Because many ACODs didn’t necessarily grow up with a healthy template for marriage, they might enter into relationships with a nagging sense that things aren’t going to work out. This pessimism might cause them to avoid commitment or postpone making a vow to a partner because they think that their relationships will end up like their parents’.

For many daughters of divorce, it’s a weird dynamic that might mean you are fearful of rejection and are waiting for the other shoe to drop. This anxiety about intimate relationships can cause you to pick partners who are wrong for you or avoid someone who might be a good match for you. It can be changed with self-awareness and the willingness to get to the root of your issues with a partner who is reassuring and trustworthy.

Once you are aware of the root of your issues, you have the power to change your outlook about love and intimacy – letting go of fear of rejection and past hurt. Instead of being paralyzed by fear and shame, you can risk being vulnerable and open with your partner. In doing so, you may find that it allows you to build trust with him or her, and increases your sense of worthiness and authenticity. In the long run, vulnerability is the glue that holds a relationship together and will allow you to give and receive love fully.

Why is it so important for children of divorce, especially daughters, to be allowed to form healthy relationships with their fathers?

A girl stands a better chance of becoming a self-confident woman if she has a close connection with her father.  A dad’s presence (or lack of presence) in his daughter’s life will affect how she will relate to all men who come after him. I know firsthand because I had a close bond with my father before my parents’ divorce but our relationship suffered drastically after he remarried when I was eight years old.  Fortunately, I was able to reconnect with him as a young adult and heal our relationship.

My research for my book, Daughters of Divorce, spanned over three years and comprised of over 300 interviews of women who reflected upon their parents’ divorce. The most common themes that emerged from these interviews and surveys were trust, self-esteem issues, and a wound in the father-daughter relationship.  

In a divorced family, there are many ways that a father-daughter relationship can suffer. According to researcher Linda Nielsen, after a divorce, only 10-15% of fathers get to enjoy the benefits of shared parenting. All girls need a loving, predictable father figure to establish a positive identity as a female and feelings of self-worth.  Many remarried dads become preoccupied with their new lives or may lack the financial resources to support two families. Consequently, most daughters of divorce have damaged relationships with their fathers. If the damage is severe, a girl can grow into adulthood with low self-esteem and troubled relationships with men.

First of all, it’s important to realize that you are not alone. Many daughters of divorce have trust and abandonment issues that surface as they emerge into young adulthood. Hopefully, your feelings of mistrust will lessen if you find ways to mend it – such as extending trust to partners who show you in word and deed that they are trustworthy. Establishing a healthy level of trust is possible but takes time and effort.

Based on my research, if your father fits the description of a distant, unavailable or absent dad – you are likely to suffer from some degree of “Daddy Hunger.” One type of distant father is passive — he seems to lack confidence in parenting and avoids conflicts at all costs.  On the other hand, absent dads tend to be lack the maturity, interest, or ability to nurture a relationship with a child who may put demands on them.  In my experience, daughters of divorce who grow up with a distant, unavailable, or absent father tend to grow into adulthood with a diminished sense of trust in men and faith that relationships will last.  


Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW is a therapist, author, and college instructor. Two of Terry’s research studies have been published in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, TheGoodMenProject.com, The Gottman Institute Blog, and DivorcedMoms.com. Follow Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s new award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy A Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship was published in January of 2016 by Sourcebooks.


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Note:  This or any advice given by Heather Debreceni or her guests is not meant to replace or superseded the advice of your attorney or the acting family therapist involved in your case and does not constitute legal or psychological counseling.

About The Author

Heather Debreceni

In 2004, after getting a job in Law Enforcement, Heather left her husband and started the divorce process. Like many mothers in her situation, she naively thought that getting divorced would be the end of the chaos that her failing marriage had created in her and her children’s lives. She now uses her divorce experience to create strategic divorce coaching programs which help mothers turn the chaos of divorce into confident, calm and respect filled lives. Heather is the Founder and Host of the Empowered Divorce Summit which empowers individuals as they navigate through the divorce process. Now a podcast, it provides listeners with access to insightful interviews with experts on divorce, relationships and parenting. She is also an Ordained Non-Denomination Christian Reverend as well as a student of the Buddhist & First Nationals faith and spirituality. Heather supports her clients as they walk through the spiritual rebirth that occurs for many women after divorce. Heather also tours around the country with her family giving talks about Divorce, Ethics, Parenting, Personal Responsibility, Spirituality and Women's Empowerment as well as teaching about Leadership, Business and Entrepreneurship.

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