Divorce really does 'run in families,' study finds

Recent findings say about one in four U.S. marriages are likely to end in divorce. (Photo: BBC)

Divorce runs in families, as children of divorced parents are more likely to split up — but it’s not because young people are “copying” a previous generation.

Instead, genetics is the main factor, according to researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and Lund University in Sweden, whose findings will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Researchers analyzed Swedish population registries and found that children of divorced biological parents who had then been adopted were more likely to be divorced.

In other words, they did not “follow the pattern” of their adoptive parents, but instead of their genetic parents, the researchers say.

Jessica Salvatore of VCU, the lead author on the paper, said in a press release,”We were trying to answer the basic question: Why does divorce run in families? Across a series of designs using Swedish national registry data, we found consistent evidence that genetic factors primarily explained the intergenerational transmission of divorce.”

Kenneth S. Kendler of VCU added, “I see this as a quite significant finding. Nearly all the prior literature emphasized that divorce was transmitted across generations psychologically. Our results contradict that, suggesting that genetic factors are more important.”

Salvatore hopes it will help when it comes to approaches to marriage counseling. “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,” she said. “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, 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,” she continued. “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.”

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