Is Divorce Genetic?

Are children of divorced parents more likely to get divorced than those who grew up in two-parent families? University researchers in Virginia and in Sweden are looking into the question of whether divorce is genetic or psychological. The results are surprising.

New Study

According to the report: people who were adopted resembled their biological — but not adoptive — parents and siblings in their histories of divorce.

The report also found consistent evidence that genetic factors primarily explained the “intergenerational transmission of divorce.”

The study’s findings about genes and divorce are notable because they diverge from the predominant narrative in divorce, that the offspring of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced because they see their parents struggling to manage conflict or lacking the necessary commitment, and they grow up to internalize that behavior.

Serotonin and Divorce

I’ve written about genes and divorce before. Other scientists are finding that the fault for divorce may reside in our genetic code. One gene involved in the regulation of serotonin can predict how much our emotions affect our relationships.

Researchers found a link between relationship fulfillment and a gene variant, or “allele,” known as 5-HTTLPR. All humans inherit a copy of this gene variant from each parent.

Study participants with two short 5-HTTLPR alleles were found to be most unhappy in their marriages when there was anger and contempt. They were most happy when there was humor and affection.

By contrast, those with one or two long alleles were far less bothered by the emotional tenor of their marriages.

The new findings don’t mean that couples with different variations of 5-HTTLPR are incompatible, but couples with two short alleles are likelier to thrive in a good relationship and suffer in a bad one.

What Causes Divorce?

Nearly all the prior literature emphasized that divorce was transmitted across generations psychologically, and the recent results about genes contradict that, suggesting that genetic factors are more important.

By recognizing the role that genetics plays in the transmission of divorce, therapists may be able to better identify more appropriate targets when helping distressed couples.

Previous studies haven’t adequately controlled for or examined something else in addition to the environment that divorcing parents transmit to their children: namely genes!

The study’s findings suggest new areas might be useful for therapists to target. For example, addressing underlying, personality-driven cognitive distortions through cognitive-behavioral approaches may be a better strategy.

The article from Virginia Commonwealth University is here.