Psychologists have long said that children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves.
And while some have assumed that’s because growing up with separated parents sours kids’ outlook on relationships and marriage, a new study suggests something radically different: The likelihood of divorce could be genetically influenced — encoded in our DNA, and transmitted generation to generation.
The research is particularly relevant in the United States, where between 40 and 50 percent of married couples end up divorcing, according to the American Psychological Association. And that’s in a culture where more than 90 percent of people get married before they’re 50 years old.
Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University and Lund University in Sweden reached their conclusion by scouring Swedish population registries to figure out to whether the divorce histories of adopted children looked more like their adoptive parents or more like their biological parents.
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By looking at adopted children — whose genetics come from different people than those who raise them — researchers could get a sense of whether divorce rates have more to do with the environments kids are raised in or the DNA they’re born with.
“We were trying to answer the basic question: Why does divorce run in families?” said study author Jessica Salvatore, a psychology professor Virginia Commonwealth University. “Across a series of designs using Swedish national registry data, we found consistent evidence that genetic factors primarily explained the intergenerational transmission of divorce.”
Their research will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, researchers say.
Learning that genetics play a role in making divorce more likely generation after generation is an important development — and it could have major implications for how therapists and marriage counselors handle divorce.
“I see this as a quite significant finding. Nearly all the prior literature emphasized that divorce was transmitted across generations psychologically,” said Kenneth Kendler, a psychiatry professor at VCU who helped conduct the study. “Our results contradict that, suggesting that genetic factors are more important.”
Salvatore adds that the research could help guide therapists seeking to understand how their patients’ histories — both environmental and genetic — influence their views on relationship, and their risk for divorce.
“What we find is strong, consistent evidence that genetic factors account for the intergenerational transmission of divorce,” Salvatore said. “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.”
Regardless of the causes of divorce, though, there has been a bit of good news on the separation front in recent years: The divorce rate has dropped to its lowest in 40 years, after hitting a high in 1980, according to Time magazine.