Numerous studies have shown that children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced when compared to those who grew up with parents who remained married.
But this pattern may not hold true for adopted children, a new study suggests.
According to the research, genetic factors are the primary explanation for the divorce trend, and the new findings could have implications for the advice provided by marriage counselors or therapists.
The new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue Journal Psychological Science, was conducted by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and Lund University in Sweden.
The researchers analyzed Swedish population registries and found that people who were adopted resemble their biological – but not adoptive – parents and siblings in their histories of divorce.
‘We were trying to answer the basic question: Why does divorce run in families?’ said the study’s first author, Dr Jessica Salvatore, assistant professor in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU and a co-author of the study.
‘Across a series of designs using Swedish national registry data, we found consistent evidence that genetic factors primarily explained the intergenerational transmission of divorce.’
According to the researchers, the study’s findings are significant because they diverge from the predominantly found narrative in divorce literature, which suggests that offspring of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves because they see their parents lacking in commitment or struggling to manage conflict.
As such, this literature suggests that children grow up to internalize that behavior and exhibit it in their own relationships.
‘I see this as a quite significant finding,’ said Dr Kenneth Kendler, a professor of psychiatry and human and molecular genetics at VCU and a co-author of the research.
‘Nearly all the prior literature emphasized that divorce was transmitted across generations psychologically.
‘Our results contradict that, suggesting that genetic factors are more important.’
Dr Salvatore says that by recognizing the role that genetics can play in the transmission of divorce, therapists may be able to better identify targets to help couples who are struggling.
‘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 Dr Salvatore.
‘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.’
However, Dr Salvatore says that these previous divorce studies did not adequately control for or examine the genetic factors that divorcing parents transmit to their children.
‘Our study is, at present, the largest to do this,’ said Dr Salvatore.
‘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 study’s findings suggest that, instead, it might be useful for therapists to target some of the more basic personality traits that previous research has suggested are genetically linked to divorce – for example, traits such as high levels of negative emotionality and low levels of constraint.
‘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],’ Dr Salvatore said.
‘So, addressing these underlying, personality-driven cognitive distortions through cognitive-behavioral approaches may be a better strategy than trying to foster commitment.’