Come from a Crazy Family? How to Turn Around Your Background

dealing with crazy familyWhen I did online dating a few years ago, there was one sentence that used to make me cringe: “My parents have been married 40 years.”

“Well, that’s nice!” I thought. Mine aren’t. In fact, my parents divorced when I was 18. My mom remarried, but that marriage just went kaput too.

I understand what the profile writer was trying to communicate – that he grew up with good relationship role models. He’s seen what it takes to go the distance and is claiming to be a good bet on the endurance front. In reality, they could bicker like George Costanza’s parents from Seinfeld. But in my mind, he grew up with parents who lovingly made each other coffee in the morning and strolled hand-in-hand around the neighborhood after dinner. Surely, he wanted his future partner to have grown up with that “normal” too.

Of course, I wasn’t impressed if people only boasted about their parents’ relationships and not their own romantic track records. Still, the subject made me feel insecure. I thought of that awful statistic that children of divorced parents have a higher risk of getting divorced themselves. I had yet to tell these parent braggers that I loved bonfires on the beach or hiking in Vermont. I feared I would be placed in their “No, Thanks” box for a family history I had no control in making.

Yet sociologists will tell you that a depressing statistic isn’t always a bad thing. The upside of witnessing your parents’ divorce is that you see them end a relationship that isn’t working. That means you probably have a lower tolerance for sticking around in an unhappy marriage full of long-simmering resentments and alienating silence. In my case, my mom served as a role model; she showed me how to sustain two 20-year-old marriages and how to be brave enough to face the unknown, pick up the pieces and make a new life again and again. Plus, she taught me that you can find love at any age. After dating for a couple years, she has a new boyfriend at age 63. I wish I had sat across the table from those parent braggers and told that story instead of feeling bad about my background.

So what do you do if you have some family stories you’d rather forget? Your dad left your mom when you were little. You have a brother who’s in jail. Your mom is an alcoholic. You got the free lunch at school.

1) Stop being ashamed

It’s easier to explain your own foibles and choices in life because you made them. But it’s important to remember that even though we have been influenced by the unsavory elements in our families, we are not our families or “damaged goods.” We are individuals on our own life paths. Besides, most of us have something in our histories we’re not proud of and are worried how it will sound to our dates.

2) Share when you’re ready

You don’t have to disclose your family drama right away. But don’t hold back as if you’ve got a big dark secret. Bring it up when the topic comes up naturally in conversation. Also, if you can, talk about it nonchalantly. When you say something as if it’s no big deal, the person hearing it will likely adopt the same attitude. On the other hand, if it’s more serious, honesty is always attractive. You can simply say, “I’m not proud of that part of my family history.” It also shows you have some distance from the dysfunction.

3) Find the lesson and own it.

There’s a silver lining in any sad story. In my case, my parents’ divorces have made me more aware of what can go wrong in love and motivated me to learn some relationship skills. Perhaps whatever happened in your family made you more empathetic or inspired you to change your priorities or taught you to cherish the good times. Find the narrative of resilience and share it proudly.

Your ability to reframe the yucky stuff in your life is a skill that makes you stand out to any date. You’ve lived through some bad times, but here you are anyway summoning the strength to make your own happy ending.

Does it make you nervous to think about sharing your family history?

About the Author:

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist and the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Slate and Salon.

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