In February 2020, I decided on a future for myself I hadn’t thought possible since I was a child. Under the starless winter sky, lit up by the reflective brightness of colorful lasers entrenched within the intricately carved foundations of the New Hampshire Ice Castles, I overwhelmingly accepted my partner’s heartfelt proposal despite my adolescent oath against marriage because of my parents’ bitter and somewhat traumatic divorce. Almost as instantly as I felt my heart fill up with a hopeful happiness, intrusive thoughts of self-doubt and worst-case-scenarios crept quickly into my mind. I thought: Will this just be another relationship in my life doomed for divorce? What if we grow to hate each other like both of our parents did?
As I struggled with building anxieties about my impending marriage, I was gifted with the opportunity during the writing-intensive narrative course taught by Barbara Jago, Social Science Division Chair and an associate professor of communication arts, to explore these discordant perceptions and experiences as well as their conventionality amongst people with similar backgrounds to mine. With the CDC reporting a divorce rate of 2.3 per 1,000 population, divorced families are still a prevalent system in our society. This prevalence prompts the question of how the new and future generations, myself included, are making sense of marriage, divorce, and adult romantic relationships (Marriage and Divorce, 2022). And is the canonical story of divorce, the accepted narrative that children from divorced families will ultimately succumb to divorce in their own adult relationships, an absolute narrative or a story that can be rewritten?
In my autoethnography, which Ellis (2004) and Holman Jones (2005) assert is a qualitative approach to research and writing that describes and systematically analyzes personal experience to understand cultural experience, I address the research question: How did my experience with parental divorce as an adolescent frame my perception of romantic relationships and marriage? Through exploring personal stories and reviewing secondary research, I was able to create connections to my own experience, and piece together my memories and research findings to offer insight into how children of divorce can perceive and navigate adult romantic relationships.
As humans we are natural storytellers, or “homonarrans” (Fisher, 1985), placing narrative and storytelling at the forefront of human existence. Narrative theory proposes that throughout the entirety of our lives, we rely on narrative process to make sense of and organize meanings for our experience (Bruner, 2002). Thus, the narratives we have of ourselves and the world define our social realities, relationships, and identities, and much like the narrative of divorce, can be inherited by us from our families (Goodall, 2005). Experiences of unsettling parental marriage and subsequently troubling divorce provide the narrative framework for understanding marriage as temporary and divorce as inevitable. While our narrative inheritance frames our identities, experiences, and worldview, I have found through my autoethnographic research that it is possible to re-story my experience and inherited narrative through narrative reframing (Ricks et al., 2014). In my autoethnography, I communicate how reframing, as Ricks et al. (2014) indicates, “facilitates a revised narrative perspective” that allowed me to contextualize my experiences and rewrite my story.
Mining Memories and Research Method
Approaching narrative theory research for my autoethnography was quite different than any other research project I had undertaken. While there were some familiar methods of research involved, such as compiling secondary research through databases, there was also an introspective research component. Through an introspective method of inquiry and self-examination which Poulos (2021) refers to as “mining memories,” involving the recollection of past events and dusting off old photographs from my childhood and adolescence that have been dormant in my basement and my subconscious mind for years, I was able to craft narrative material uncovering my past and present. My introspective research uncovered the personal stories conveying the effects of my parents’ divorce on the narratives of my past, present and future that are featured in my autoethnographic research. From there, I was able to specify my secondary research, finding resources connecting adolescents’ experience of divorce to their narratives of romantic relationships as adults, but not without some additional assistance. The efficacy and efficiency of my database research cultivation for this autoethnography was maximized through the help of a librarian at the UNH Manchester Center for Academic Enrichment, where they advised me on specific keyword searches and guided me to several qualitative research journals such as Journal of Marriage and Family, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, and Journal of Family Communication, which provided a surplus of research articles supporting my assertion of divorce as an inherited narrative that can be reframed.
Through this introspective and secondary research, I connected the common themes of relationship skepticism, negative conflict communication patterns, and maladaptive relationship perceptions in the secondary research materials and in my own stories. By doing so, I was able to see how these negative narratives of divorce can be reframed in a more positive way, breaking the cycle of a negative narrative inheritance through a recontextualization of my experience. These inquiries reported in my final autoethnography are presented as passages of research discussion intertwined with personal stories in a “layered account,” which is an ethnographic writing technique that blurs the boundaries of social research and a theory of consciousness, allowing readers to construct an interpretation of my narrative (Ronai, 1995). In my autoethnography, I share an experience of a story my grandmother shared with me as a child in which she framed my narrative of my parents’ relationship when they were still married.
“Anyway,” Nana continues, “your mama and daddy worked closely together at the restaurant, and sparks must have flown all over the place, because just a few months later your daddy scooped her right off the market, and they were inseparable. After they got engaged, he even moved all the way from Tulsa to Boston for your mama when she finished school and wanted to start her business.”
“Then they got married and had me, right Nana?!” I interject excitedly, knowing that the ‘happily ever after’ part of the story was just on the horizon.
“They sure did dear. Then they had your baby sister too.” With the largest grin on my face, I anticipate the ending to Nana’s story, “And they lived happily ever after?” Nana turns to me and smiles faintly, “Yes dear, you girls are their happily ever after.”
I also share the story of my mother’s account of the same marriage, in her own perspective, several years after my parents’ divorce. It is one completely contradictory to the true love narrative my grandmother framed all those years ago, enforcing the importance that how we are told a story influences how we create our own narratives, or narrative framing.
"My mother’s face drops, her eyes, lips and brow furrowing with seriousness, “Two weeks Taylor. Two weeks. There were ants and bugs and... ugh!Iit was just gross.” Her face twinges with disgust as she recalls the scene.
“And this all started because you were sick of nagging him to help out around the house?” I inquire, already knowing the answer.
“I wasn’t sick of nagging him, he MADE me nag him by not having any initiative to help with anything! You know! How often do you see him do chores when you stay at his place? Ashley and Zoe always tell me it’s that wife of his doing all the cleaning.”
Mom did have a point. I can’t recall my dad being the one to tidy up or clean anything, but then again, he’s always lived with someone to clean up his messes for him. “So, who did the dishes in the end?” I navigate the conversation back to the climax of the story, eager to hear the outcome. Her scowl softens and her gaze travels to the lukewarm latte cupped between her hands on the table.
“I did, of course. I couldn’t take it anymore and realized that if I wanted something done, I’d have to do it myself. That kind of became the theme in my life, only trusting me, myself, and I to get things done.” We simultaneously sip our drinks in silence, unsure of how to respond. I imagine my mother’s thoughts mimic mine, drifting to the same idea that a sink full of dishes ignited the fuse leading to the explosion of my parents marriage."
My autoethnography communicates my struggle with positive perceptions of marriage and commitment and exposes my experience with a canonical divorce narrative of intense interparental conflict and hostility. But it also gave me the opportunity to reframe my perceptions of love and longevity in relationships and communicate how I navigate my own experience in a way that breaks the inherited narrative of divorce.
Narrative of Divorce: Relationship Uncertainty
In my autoethnography, I suggest that the uncertainty and skepticism I have about my relationship with my fiancée is founded from the hostile and conflict-riddled familial communication in my divorced family structure during my adolescence. I express this narrative of uncertainty, sharing my memory of a day after my engagement.
"As I return my gaze to the window, my excitement begins to turn into anxiety, the pleasant fluttering in my stomach now a fierce quivering. Intrusive thoughts of self-doubt and worst-case-scenarios creep quickly into my mind. I think of the five years it took for this engagement to happen, thinking what if this proposal was simply because he’s invested too much time to leave now, and that this is the logical next step? I mean, 25 isn’t old, but it isn’t young either, so is this now or never? Is he really in love with me, ready to start our own life, and a family together? Am I ready to start a family together? Will this just be another relationship in my life doomed for divorce? What will happen to the dogs and the cats if we divorce? What if we have kids then divorce, growing to hate each other like both of our parents did?"
My narrative of relationship uncertainty is supported by research that asserts experiences with high-conflict divorce create a framework for a negative view of marriage and an acceptance of the inevitability of divorce (Schrodt & Afifi, 2019; Whiteside 1998). My relational uncertainty, or the degree of confidence in my relationship, is found to be heightened in adults who come from backgrounds of divorce (Mikucki-Enyart, Petitte, & Wilder, 2018). I also suggest in my research that individuals with heightened relationship doubts, such as constant questioning of commitment, doubting their perception of whether the relationship is requited, and other relational skepticism, can stem from experiences of parental divorce (Mikucki-Enyart, Petitte, & Wilder, 2018). High levels of hostility, tension, and unresolved conflict between parents lead to the development of emotional, interpersonal, and behavioral issues in the adolescent children that can carry into adulthood, as I write in my autoethnography.
"The passive-aggressive tactics and communication avoidance employed by my mother coupled with the lack of active listening and empathy from my father continue past this isolated event to create insurmountable problems no marriage could overcome. And in witnessing antagonistic co-parenting communication even after divorce, my understanding of the divorce and marriage narrative was negatively influenced. I came to recognize marriage as affectionless and tense, like a business partnership, and divorce as a traumatic, high-conflict event where everyone gets hurt, because that’s what I was exposed to in my parents’ relationship. It made me want nothing to do with commitment or marriage, and my childhood dreams of wedding bells and a white dress were replaced with nightmares of loneliness and resentment."
My experience with high-conflict divorce and subsequent relationship uncertainty is also supported by research that has found individuals from divorced homes are less likely to view marriage as permanent and less likely to view it as a lifelong commitment (Amato & DeBoer, 2001; Weigel, 2007). It is this cyclical nature of divorce in adult children from divorced families which causes me to have anxieties about the longevity of my own impending marriage.
Narrative Reframing—Reversing the Curse
Recognizing my inherited narrative of negative relationship perspectives as a result of my experiences of parental divorce as an adolescent allowed me to identify the framework of relationship uncertainty for my narrative. But it was the narrative reframing process, interpreting these narratives and my experiences in a different, more positive way, that allowed me to begin to rewrite my narrative, breaking the cycle of this negative narrative of divorce. Though my inherited narrative of divorce implies the inevitability my own relationship will end up like my parents’, I am attempting to reframe this narrative to align more with the canonical perceptions of marriage as permanent and cooperative as I embark on my own marriage journey. Despite the self-doubt in my ability to reframe my narrative of divorce, I find in my autoethnography that although the interpersonal behaviors’ hypothesis states children learn their relationship styles from their parents and often imitate their parents’ marital and/or divorce behaviors, my experience with parental divorce may have also created a resilience to familiar relationships, pushing against the inherent narrative of an unhappy marriage and high-conflict divorce (Shimkowski et al., 2018). I detail in my autoethnography this experience of reframing and creating a resilience to inherited narratives.
"Corey is nose to nose with me, his long lashes able to brush my skin as he blinks. “Good morning,” I mumble back with a tone of irritation, remembering the late-night mess he left for me to deal with. Corey must have noticed the twinge of aggravation in my greeting, “I’m sorry you had to clean up that mess last night, I know I should have cleaned up before you got home, I just fell asleep and figured I would get to it today. But I should have told you that. I’ll do better, I love you.” I sit up from the bed, grab Corey’s face pulling it into mine, and kiss him until he feels the relief fall from my lips into his. Maybe we aren’t doomed for collapse like I am so used to. Maybe, despite my experiences, dirty dishes will not be the catalyst for the demise of our relationship."
Through reframing my experience with divorce, adapting my story from a damning event that set the stage for my own relationship failures, to an event that increased my resiliency and determination for a happy, healthy, long-lasting relationship, I am able to reverse the curse on my relational future, opening up the possibilities, and the hope, that I am not limited to repeat the actions or history of my parents. Recontextualizing our experiences provides the framework for readapting new narratives that can be rewritten and internalized in a different, potentially more productive, perspective (Ricks et al., 2014).
By engaging with autoethnographic narratives like mine, readers are confronted with intimate and emotional contact with family communication issues aiming to show ways in which cultural discourses inform private experiences (Berry and Patti, 2015). My account of relational skepticism and uncertainty associated with experiencing high-conflict parental divorce and the reframing of that inherited narrative can help explain the societal perceptions of romantic relationships for children of divorce and the potential to transform their narratives.
Writing this autoethnographic narrative was an experience I will remember forever. After being trained through most of my educational career to approach research writing in a primarily academic, quantitative, and linear method, the autoethnographic approach to research writing certainly caused me to panic at first. It was like my brain had been forced to think of research writing in a singular way and became resistant to alternative methods. I was confident in my academic research writing skills, and my creative writing skills, but self-conscious about trying to merge the two styles together in the appropriate balance.
Once I was able to wrap my brain around this foreign method of qualitative research, I reached another obstacle in this autoethnography. I found employing a narrative perspective of social learning, as well as introspective techniques to uncover and interpret the memories of my experiences, was a painfully rewarding experience. Revisiting uncomfortable memories and transcribing them with the intention of communicating these private recollections of my past was nerve-wracking to say the least. As our stories are the medium through which we construct our identities and realities, there is a potential risk of my narrative being rejected by others and deemed abnormal, but the potential benefits of sharing my story with others who can reframe their own narratives, whatever they may be, far outweighs the risk in my eyes.
Nonetheless, as the stories started flowing onto the page, memories flooding from my temporal lobe to my fingertips typing fervently into the keyboard, I felt a cathartic release. It felt therapeutic, being able to let go and share stories I have kept mostly within the confines of my own memory. It was almost empowering returning to some of my most vulnerable moments and reflecting on them with a different perspective. The process of connecting my thoughts, feelings, and experiences with research that explains behaviors and perceptions of myself and others in similar situations gave me a sense of purpose with this autoethnography. My previous anxieties and self-doubts about writing and sharing an autoethnography about an experience in my life became overshadowed with confidence and tenacity to share my research with countless others who felt affected by divorce like me. I can only hope that my story will have as much of an impact on my audience as it did on me.
I would like to extend a huge thank you to my mentor, Dr. Barbara Jago, for her support, encouragement, and guidance in this research and writing process. She has been an influential part of my success in the Communication Arts program and in pursuing my passion for writing. I am truly grateful to have been able to spend much of my time at UNH Manchester under her tutelage. A special thanks to my family for their unconditional love and support throughout my undergraduate journey, and for the friends, professors, and peers that have also played a part in the success of this research writing. I would especially like to thank my fiancée, Corey, for not only inspiring this research but also making me feel supported and encouraged through the ups and downs of this research process, and my undergraduate program. I love you and am excited to embark on this next chapter of life with you as my husband.
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Author and Mentor Bios
Originally from Derry, New Hampshire, Taylor Harper will graduate in spring 2023 with a bachelor of arts in communication arts. Taylor’s experience in Barbara Jago’s capstone narrative course laid the foundation for her Inquiry article, which utilizes the qualitative research method of autoethnography to reframe her personal narratives around marriage and divorce. In Taylor’s experience, this autoethnographic research is not only creating knowledge about ourselves in relation to society or culture but is also therapeutic for the researcher. Throughout the project, Taylor experienced a sense of catharsis in putting words to these personal, vulnerable, and sometimes painful moments in her life. She plans to continue writing works of fiction and creative nonfiction, and will marry her partner Corey, mentioned in her article, on November 4, 2023.
Barbara Jago is the chair and an associate professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences as well as a core faculty in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies. In her 24 years at UNH Manchester, Dr. Jago has mentored multiple undergraduate qualitative researchers. Her relational communication research and teaching focus on family, cohabitation, mental illness, aging, and grief, among other topics. Dr. Jago began working with Taylor during her capstone course, CA 612: Narrative, in the spring of 2022 and continued mentoring Taylor throughout the writing process. In Dr. Jago’s words, “Taylor is a joy to work with! She is a talented storyteller with excellent research skills who did a wonderful job synthesizing the research and bringing her experience to life for readers.” The mentorship process led to many illuminating conversations about writing, and she hopes Taylor will continue to develop her writing talents after graduation.
Copyright 2023, Taylor Harper