Editor’s note: In his book, Breaking the Cycle of Divorce, John Trent shows adult children of divorce (ACODs) how to break free from their past and start a new legacy. Trent, who is an ACOD himself, says his life was profoundly shaped by two people: his mother, who was committed to godliness since coming to Christ after a second divorce; and his college mentor, Doug Barram, who modeled for him what a godly father and husband should look like. In this excerpt he focuses on the impact of his mother.

As human beings caught up in the daily routines of life, we tend to wonder sometimes if what we’re doing really makes much difference. In the working world, are we just cogs in the business machine? If we have children, do they recognize all that we do for them, much less appreciate it? Will all of our hopes and efforts have any lasting impact?

Well, I’m living proof that: a) divorce is a generational curse and, therefore, b) if you can break the cycle of divorce, you do so not only for yourself, but also for your children, your grandchildren, and generations even in the distant future.

How’s that for lasting impact?

The reason I’m evidence of both a and b is that I had a terrific mom who broke the cycle of divorce for my brothers and me. By all accounts, our marriages and our lives generally should have been deeply troubled. That we’ve fared so well is tribute to the fact that our mother chose life and blessing and passed these on to us.

Let me remind you, through the words of Elizabeth Marquardt (herself an ACOD) in her book Between Two Worlds, of the common experience of many of our fellow ACODs: “Our parents’ divorce is linked to our higher rates of depression, suicidal attempts and thoughts, health problems, childhood sexual abuse, school dropout, failure to attend college, arrests, addiction, teen pregnancy, and more. … Some of us continue to struggle with the scars left from our parents’ divorce: We have a harder time finishing school, getting and keeping jobs, maintaining relationships, and having lasting marriages.”

Again, the fact that my brothers and I avoided most of that heartache is a credit to our mom. Let me tell you more about her.

A single mom’s legacy

My mom was divorced twice before she discovered and embraced God’s love for her. After that, as she read the Bible and learned more of His principles for living, she not only applied them to her own life but also taught them to her sons. And one of those was that marriage is supposed to be a permanent, lifetime commitment.

It might have sounded strange to hear a twice-divorced woman teaching the permanence of marriage. But her commitment to us was so rock-solid, so clearly unconditional, that we never doubted the truth of what she was saying or the fact that such a relationship was possible. After all, she modeled that kind of love every day.

She went to all our football games, baseball games, and wrestling matches. She washed sweat, blood, and grass stains out of our uniforms, even with severely arthritic hands. She took us to the library, where we roamed free while she looked for books to help her in forging a career and fighting a crippling illness. She prayed for us every day, often with tears in her eyes during Jeff’s and my turbulent teen years.

She taught us how to be men, and not just men but gentlemen. She always expected the best of us and forgave us the worst. She couldn’t tie a necktie or button a coat—she couldn’t even spank us when we misbehaved. But when she put her hand gently on mine and spoke her concern for my conduct, her eyes pierced my soul and I wanted desperately never to disappoint her again. (Of course, I often did.)

She never spoke negatively of our father, either. She never blamed him for deserting us, never bad-mouthed him for our financial struggles.

Do you begin to see how we beat the odds?

The impact we can have

When we break the cycle of divorce and build strong and stable marriages, we spare our own children from the heartache and pain of divorce, and we greatly improve the chances that their children will likewise be spared. We pass on blessings rather than a curse. We help them to be much more healthy and happy than children of divorce.

As ACODs, because we’ve experienced the curse and are choosing every day to reverse it, we can also give our children the benefit of our own painful past. We’ve seen the kinds of attitudes, words, and behaviors that destroy a marriage. We’re struggling even now to overcome those same tendencies. With age-appropriate, loving candor, we can guide our children in building healthy relationships and avoiding destructive habits.

By the way we treat our spouses and children, we can show them:

  • how to communicate openly and honestly.
  • how to be proactive and take initiative.
  • how to make good choices.
  • how to put the needs of others before our own.
  • how to make and keep commitments.
  • how to ask for and offer forgiveness.
  • and how to relate to, and draw strength from, a loving God.

Besides providing this kind of example to our own children and other family members (e.g., nieces and nephews), we might also look for other children of divorce who would benefit from such a living illustration of healthy adulthood. These might be friends of our children, children on the same sports teams as our children, or children in our places of worship.

Elizabeth Marquardt captures the goal well here: “Many of us dream of a whole family, unbroken by divorce—a family where our children never even think about the concept of home because they blessedly take it for granted. … In my early twenties I wasn’t able to imagine a future for myself, but now I see a future bright with hope.

“[I]t’s not enough to love our children. As hard as I know it can be, we parents must also do our best to love and forgive each other, every day. … We do this so that we can sustain unbroken families that last a lifetime, not just for the sake of our own happiness, but for theirs.”

To that perspective I would only add that our own power to love and forgive is limited; the real power comes from God. But the well-being of our children and of theirs is the ultimate goal.

Let me encourage you, then, to ask yourself every day, “What kind of legacy am I leaving to my children?” Or, if you don’t have children, “Based on how I’m currently dealing with the effects of being an adult child of divorce, what impact am I having on those around me? If nieces, nephews, or other young people are observing me, what lessons are they learning from my example?”

When you think about it, this is another form of accountability. Children may not ask you tough questions about how you’re living (but then again, they might), but never forget that they’re watching you, listening to you, and learning from your every move, every day.

In short, your life and how you handle the tough realities of being an ACOD will have an impact on future generations. The only question is what kind of impact it will be.

And the answer to that is up to you.

Excerpted and adapted from John Trent’s book Breaking the Cycle of Divorce, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2006, John Trent, Ph.D. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.