With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Sunday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in June 2014.
Throughout this year we’ve been running a series on how to father with intentionality and create a positive family culture.
Whenever we’ve written on this topic, we invariably get comments from some men who have decided to opt out of the marriage and kids route altogether. Often (though not always) the root of these commenters’ decision to steer clear of family life is their own personal experience: they come from families where home was not a haven. Arguing, infidelity, a lack of love, and ultimately divorce are what these men know of family life. Maybe they were even abused as children by one of their parents. Why even get married or start a family if that’s how it’s going to be?
And they have a point. The research strongly suggests that marriage and divorce patterns get passed along from generation to generation. If you come from a family of divorce, your attitude about marriage is less likely to be positive, and if you do get married, the chances your marriage will end in divorce are statistically higher than for folks who come from intact families. Also, research shows that people who were abused by their parents as children are much more likely to abuse their own children. It’s sort of a fulfillment of the biblical idea that curses persist through many generations.
But those studies only tell half the story.
Other research suggests that you’re not destined for the divorce courts and multiple Christmases just because you and/or your spouse come from divorced families.
In fact, the research shows that individuals can consciously choose to break the cycle of unhappy home life by becoming what marriage and family scholar Carlfred Broderick calls a “transitional character.” A transitional character, according to Broderick, is:
A person, who, in a single generation, changes the entire course of a lineage. The changes might be for good or ill, but the most noteworthy examples are those individuals who grow up in an abusive, emotionally destructive environment and who somehow find a way to metabolize the poison and refuse to pass it on to their children. They break the mold. They refute the observation that abused children become abusive parents, that the children of alcoholics become alcoholic adults, that ‘the sins of the fathers are visited upon the heads of children to the third and fourth generation.’ Their contribution to humanity is to filter the destructiveness out of their own lineage so that the generations downstream will have a supportive foundation upon which to build productive lives.
I love the idea of being a transitional character — of forging a new, stronger link in your family lineage. Instead of being tethered to a string of weak links, you can proactively create a new chain and a new story for your family — one that’s much more positive.
I’d argue that being a transitional character applies to more than just family stability. Even if you didn’t come from a family of divorce, maybe you want to be more involved with your own kids than your dad was with you and your siblings. You don’t want your life to mimic the song “Cat’s in the Cradle.”
Or maybe you have a family history filled with overweight and out-of-shape men who’ve keeled over from a heart attack at age 50. You can be a transitional character by leading your family into a life of health and fitness, and sticking around to see your grandkids get married. If debt troubles have plagued your family for generations, be the first person that shifts your family history towards the path of financial responsibility.
Being a transitional character means looking at any vice or problem that’s been a common thread throughout your family history and deciding: “It stops with me.”
With that said, becoming a transitional character is often easier said than done. You’re fighting against the stream of deeply ingrained patterns that you picked up in childhood and throughout your formative years. Becoming a transitional character requires you to completely transform how you see and respond to your world and environment. It’s a difficult task fraught with missteps and backsliding.
But it can be done.
Below we provide some research-backed suggestions on how to forge a new chain in your family history by