Genetics Could Explain Why Divorce Runs In Families

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There’s an old saying that says divorce runs in families. But is there any truth behind this and, if so, is it a matter of nature or nurture?

To find out, scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and the Lund University in Sweden analyzed the marital habits of people who had been adopted. They discovered that people tended to follow the history of divorce from their biological, not adoptive, parents.

In a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, the researchers conclude that this shows genes play a role in some divorces.

Previous studies have found that spouses who are both children of divorced parents are three times more likely to divorce as couples who parents are both still together. The most common explanation of this phenomenon, sometimes known as the divorce cycle, is nurture. The theory goes a child with divorced parents will grow up watching their parents struggle to manage conflict or lack the necessary commitment, they will learn from this, and eventually replicate the behavior in their own relationships.

"However, these previous studies haven't adequately controlled for or examined something else in addition to the environment that divorcing parents transmit to their children: genes," said first author Jessica Salvatore, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at VCU.

"...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."

"I see this as a quite significant finding," she added. "Nearly all the prior literature emphasized that divorce was transmitted across generations psychologically."

Of course, this is not strictly saying that one’s divorces are fatalistically predetermined by our genes. The researchers are highlighting that genetic factors play a role, perhaps a significant role, within the complex matrix of factors that determine our relationships with others. Through appreciating this, they argue it could even help people overcome their relationship problems.

"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."

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