Is Divorce Hereditary?

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An unfair reality –children of divorce are more likely to divorce as adults. Until recently, it was believed this was due completely to nurture, not nature.

The case for nurture: Children of divorce learn relationship skills and conflict management skills from their parents. Children who grow up with parents who do not handle conflict well are more likely to repeat that same behavior as adults. Divorcing parents also affect how their children feel about commitment. Even in early relationships, these children tend to have less positive views on marriage, a lower level of commitment to their partner and a much more pessimistic view about their relationship compared to a child in a two-parent home.

This all makes sense. But according to a study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and Lund University in Sweden, genetic factors, not environmental factors, are the primary explanation for why children of divorce are more likely to divorce as adults.

The study analyzed data from almost 20,000 Swedish adults who had been adopted as children. Surprisingly, they found it to be more likely that the adoptees had divorce histories resembling their biological parents and siblings, instead of their adoptive parents.

According to Jessica Salvatore, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, it goes against a lot of what a lot of studies have found in the past. “…those studies haven’t controlled for the fact that those parents are also contributing genes to their children. By looking at adopted children, we’re able to separate out the genetic factors and environmental ones.”

The passing of certain personality traits, like neuroticism and impulsiveness, from parent to child is most likely the cause. Studies have shown that certain personality factors make it more difficult for someone to stay in a relationship, or for that matter, another person to want to stay in a relationship with them.

That is not to say environmental factors still do not play a large part in the likelihood of divorce as adults.

Salvatore suggests these findings will be able to help therapists and counselors more effectively help children from divorce. “Other research has suggested that children of divorced parents lack commitment in their relationship…but our findings really suggest that it may have more to do with certain personality factors, and that we may have to take a different approach in working with them.”

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