Single parents can often struggle to find a healthy, happy relationship. After what is often a long internal battle with the decision to get divorced, they might find themselves dating people who remind them of their ex, dating the complete opposite of their ex, or even not dating at all.
They start looking for clues about how to have better relationships. They read books, examine their past relationships, or ask family or friends for advice.
But there’s one thing that many don’t consider when they want to improve their relationships. And it might be one of the most important things to consider.
What’s influencing your relationships?
Your first response might be, “Nothing!” Or maybe you are open to the question but you’re not sure how to answer it.
But the truth is, there are many things that can influence your relationships. These things can be a positive or negative influence, helping you have better relationships or causing you to seek out unhappy ones.
One key to having better relationships is digging in and determining what influences your relationships.
Once you identify those influences, the next step is asking yourself whether it’s a positive or negative influence. Does it help or hinder? Do you want it to be an influence or do you want to let it go? How can you change its influence on your relationships?
So what influences your relationships?
Like it or not, your divorce can play a huge role in influencing future relationships. How long it took you to decide to divorce, whether it was your decision or your ex’s, how long the divorce itself took, and the reasons behind the divorce are all key factors.
Depending on your outlook, you might have seen your divorce as an ending or a new beginning. Regardless of which way you see it, it can still influence your future relationships.
How long it’s been since you got divorced can also influence your future relationships.
Your divorce and your marriage are not necessarily the same thing. For the person who gets totally blindsided by a spouse’s demand for a divorce, the marriage may have been a blissful oasis in the world. Or your marriage might have been a battlefield and divorce brought sweet relief.
So while your divorce can be one influence, your marriage can be another. Regardless of whether it was good or bad, you may still see it as what a relationship should be. Or you may see it as what not to do and put a lot of effort into keeping future relationships from being like your marriage.
This one might surprise you, particularly if you have small children who aren’t old enough to date themselves and aren’t included in your relationships. But your kids can be an influence on your relationships.
With small kids, your desire to protect them from people who aren’t good for them or won’t stick around, to offer them a new parental figure and stable home, and worries about how the divorce and subsequent relationships will impact them, can all cause you to engage in relationships that might not be what you want.
With older kids, you might be concerned about what your kids think. Maybe your teen or adult children are outright sharing their feelings with you about the people you get involved with. Maybe your kids, of any age, don’t want you to date or are trying to set you up with teachers, a friend’s parent, etc.
Your parents’ marriage
The kind of marriage your parents have or had can also be a huge influence on you. Children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves but it goes beyond that. Your parents’ marriage was probably the closest you ever got to another couple’s relationship. This means it’s a huge factor in how you see your own relationships.
If your parents argued frequently (or never argued at all), this shaped how you view conflict in a relationship. If your father was the head of the family and your mother always deferred to him (or vice versa), this could influence your views on whether partners are equal or one is “in charge” in the relationship. If they didn’t respect each other, you may have developed the idea that namecalling and sarcastic putdowns or eyerolling were a normal part of a relationship.
On the other hand, you might have also seen those things, recognized they were unhealthy, and tried to go the opposite way. But that still means it influences you.
When I got divorced, I was only the second person in my family (as far as I could tell) to get divorced. That was a big part of my struggle — my family didn’t get divorced. They stayed together. And I didn’t want to be seen as someone who gave up on my marriage by my family.
Whether your family history is married for life or peppered with divorces, your family can influence your views on relationships. It can cause you to hold on for far too long or let go much too easily. Pressure from relatives you respect and admire can cause you to make decisions about your relationships that are more about your relative than yourself.
Friends and neighbors
I have two friends I’ve known since high school. One is married to the same man she married when we were in high school, for well over 20 years. The other is on her fourth or fifth marriage. While I feel a strong pull to ultimately have a relationship similar to the first friend, I also feel a deep desire not to be like the second friend.
While we never get a full picture of the relationships our friends and neighbors have, we do get some insights. And when we do, those insights can influence how we see our own relationships. They can pull us toward something or repel us from it.
And if you’re surrounded by friends or neighbors who are all very similar (lots of unhealthy relationships or divorces, for example), this can really skew your own views.
What you read
There was a time I read romance novels and pretty much nothing else. I could go through a book or two a day (pre-kids, of course!). I still enjoy a good romance from time to time. But we do have to acknowledge the fact that most romance novels don’t reflect an accurate view of relationships in reality. They often have people starting out disliking each other before falling in love, and some even include what could be seen as abuse or coercion.
But it’s not just romance novels. Any book can portray an unhealthy relationship. Magazines might offer three articles in the same issue about giving better blow jobs, but maybe only one that offers real advice for making your relationship better. Tabloids are filled with stories about celebrities and their relationship exploits (true or not), and let’s be real, those exploits are never a healthy, happy thing.
What you watch
I used to really enjoy The King of Queens. But one day, I realized that Carrie and Doug Heffernan actually have an extremely unhealthy relationship. In fact, in many episodes, Carrie is outright abusive to Doug, both verbally and physically. And while it can still occasionally make for an amusing 30-minute episode, it definitely doesn’t depict the kind of relationship most people would want.
TV sitcoms, soap operas, talk shows, movies, and even the news can all give you glimpses into a variety of relationships. Some are good and some aren’t. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a truly healthy relationship on a soap opera.
Your earliest relationships
When I was 15, I dated a wrestler. After I turned 16, he was already talking about marriage and kids which freaked me out a little and I broke up with him impulsively. A few days later, I realized it was an overreaction. I asked him to get back together and his response was to say no, that he didn’t care about me anymore.
Now, he was absolutely entitled to turn me down — I had broken up with him, so of course he had the right to not want me. But his response, that he no longer cared about me after so recently talking about marrying me and having kids with me, stuck with me for a long time. It made me think that people could turn their feelings about me on and off like a light switch.
Teenage relationships are often brushed off by adults, but they can have a huge influence because they happen during our most formative years. Abusive relationships, casual sex, and being treated like you’re disposable can all lead to unhealthy relationships later in life. On the other hand, solid, happy relationships during your teen years can lead to healthy ones as an adult.
On a side note, this can be helpful for you to remember as your own children begin navigating the dating world. How you treat their excitement over new love or their despondency over a breakup can also influence their future relationships, so please use caution in telling them that they don’t love someone or are overreacting to a breakup.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of the things that can influence your relationships. For example, all of these also apply to your partner, and the mix of your influences and theirs creates a new influence in your relationship.
But this list should be helping you consider the different things that might be influencing your relationships. What do you do with it, though?
Now you look at the things you believe are influencing your relationships. Are they a good influence or a negative one? Do you want them to influence your relationships going forward? Do you want them to be used as a model of a healthy relationship or an example of what not to do? Or do you maybe want to let go of their influence entirely?
You might swap reading romance novels for personal growth books on healthy relationships. You might acknowledge that your parents had an unhealthy dynamic, but your church’s pastor has a healthy marriage so you want to emulate their relationship rather than your parents. You might realize that you’ve got some deep issues from a teenage romance or your parents’ divorce and decide to seek therapy.
The main thing is to be able to acknowledge that your relationships are influenced by others and be willing to take a hard look at what that influence looks like.
This influence can even be as simple as making you think you want to get married. When you’re able to start acknowledging which things are influencing you, that awareness can allow you to take a step back and figure out what you really want. Do you really want to get married or do you want that because it’s what you think you should want? Are you being told by your family, friends, the books you read and TV shows you watch that you need to get married to have a complete life? You might realize that what you really want is a completely different kind of relationship — or even no relationship at all.
Ask yourself what you really want
Shed the layers of influence from everything outside you. Ask yourself what you really want. Not what you should want because of your parents, siblings, friends, or society in general says you should, but what you yourself want.
Whether it’s a traditional marriage, an unconventional marriage, or no relationship at all and just a casual fling instead, when you’re able to uncover what you want without considering others, you stand a much better chance of getting the kind of relationship you really want — the one that brings you satisfaction, happiness, and has a healthy foundation.
Wendy Miller is a freelance relationship writer & meditation teacher. After years of settling for abusive and otherwise toxic relationships, she got fed up. Using meditation and other tools, she got to work on healing herself, setting boundaries, and only engaging in relationships (romantic and otherwise) that bring her joy. She wants to help other single parents find the love they seek, including and going beyond romantic love. She lives in Florida with her two sons, where she homeschools while solo parenting, while surrounded by what feels like a zooful of animals.
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