Genetic Factors May Impact Multigenerational Divorce Patterns

Children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves compared to those who grew up in two-parent families — and genetic factors may be the primary reason for this, according to a new study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and Lund University in Sweden.

In fact, the research shows that adopted children tend to resemble their biological parents and siblings in their histories of divorce, rather than their adoptive families.

The new findings counter the prevailing theory in divorce literature which suggests that children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves because they see their parents unable to handle conflict or commitment, and they grow up to internalize that behavior and copy it in their own relationships.

“I see this as a quite significant finding. Nearly all the prior literature emphasized that divorce was transmitted across generations psychologically,” said Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D., professor of psychiatry and human and molecular genetics in the Department of Psychiatry at VCU’s School of Medicine. “Our results contradict that, suggesting that genetic factors are more important.”

For the study, the researchers analyzed Swedish population registries and found that people who were adopted tend to mirror their biological — but not adoptive — parents and siblings in their histories of divorce.

By recognizing the role that genetics plays in intergenerational divorce, therapists may be able to better identify more appropriate targets when helping distressed couples.

“At present, the bulk of evidence on why divorce runs in families points to the idea that growing up with divorced parents weakens your commitment to and the interpersonal skills needed for marriage,” said Jessica Salvatore, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU.

“So, if a distressed couple shows up in a therapist’s office and finds, as part of learning about the partners’ family histories, that one partner comes from a divorced family, then the therapist may make boosting commitment or strengthening interpersonal skills a focus of their clinical efforts.”

Salvatore adds that previous studies haven’t adequately controlled for or examined genetic factors in addition to the family environment.

“And our study is, at present, the largest to do this. And what we find is strong, consistent evidence that genetic factors account for the intergenerational transmission of divorce. For this reason, focusing on increasing commitment or strengthening interpersonal skills may not be a particularly good use of time for a therapist working with a distressed couple.”

The findings suggest that therapists target some of the more basic personality traits that research has shown are genetically linked to divorce, such as extreme negative emotions and low levels of constraint, to help buffer their harmful effects on close relationships.

“For example, other research shows that people who are highly neurotic tend to perceive their partners as behaving more negatively than they objectively are [as rated by independent observers],” Salvatore said.

“So, addressing these underlying, personality-driven cognitive distortions through cognitive-behavioral approaches may be a better strategy than trying to foster commitment.”

The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.

Source: Virginia Commonwealth University