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marriage and divorce

Divorce Might Be Written in Our DNA

Divorce has long been viewed as a weakening of social fabric (even though there’s a strong counterpoint to that); in the West, where divorce is more common, articles on the “divorce epidemic” bemoan the spread of the state of disunion. But a new study might just change the narrative with its findings that heritable personality traits might have more influence on a person’s decision to divorce than exposure to a so-called broken home. In other words — divorce might just be genetic.

Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University in the US and Lund University in Sweden analyzed Swedish population registries, data sets that ranged from 8,523 to 82,698, and found that people who were adopted resembled their biological — but not adoptive — parents and siblings in their histories of marriage and divorce. Their findings are set to publish shortly in the journal Psychological Science.

Previous research has established an increased likelihood of divorce among adult children of divorced parents, but the widely accepted theory behind this trend has been that children who see their parents struggling to manage conflict or lacking the necessary commitment to a marriage, grow up to internalize that behavior and replicate it in their own marriage — a case of nurture, rather than nature. Salvatore’s findings, however, suggest the opposite is true.

“We were trying to answer the basic question: Why does divorce run in families?” said the study’s lead author, Jessica Salvatore, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at VCU. “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. 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.”

Decades of research has established that personality is, at least in part, inherited through genes. To what degree, however, is less well known; some research suggests that as much as 40% of our personality is influenced by genetic factors, while other studies put the figure much lower. (And in what way genes determine personality is almost completely unknown; we just know that they do.)

What experts are clear on, however, is what these personality traits are:

  • extroversion, that is, the degree to which we engage with and are affected by others
  • agreeableness, or, how we deal with others
  • openness, or, the degree to which we are open or resistant to new ideas and experiences
  • conscientiousness, or, our degree of (dis)organization and (in)attention
  • and neuroticism, or, the degree to which we are emotionally stable or volatile

(Some experts prefer a more nuanced breakdown of 11 traits, but they stem from this group of five. We’re all a cocktail, falling somewhere on the spectrum of low to high for each of these traits, and scores on certain traits are associated with various life and health outcomes; for instance compassion, a specific attribute associated with a high degree of agreeableness, is one of several traits predictive of high overall well-being, while some findings suggest highly neurotic people may have better long-term health. If your’re curious about how your own personality breaks down across the Big Five, you can take this quiz.)

The last trait, neuroticism, is the one that likely has the most relevance to Salvatore’s findings. Neuroticism “is one example of a heritable personality trait that is a strong predictor of marital instability,” she said. “For example, people who are high in neuroticism, compared to objective observers, tend to perceive a partner’s behavior as more negative. This type of cognitive distortion can increase stress in this relationship for both partners.”

That doesn’t mean if you’re best described as anxious, inhibited, moody and less self-assured (descriptors of a high degree of neuroticism) your marriage is doomed to divorce. Salvatore described the influence of genetic traits as a risk factor, much like having a family history of heart disease; just because a person has higher chances of divorce (or heart disease) doesn’t mean that fate is sealed.

“No, this is definitely not the case!” Salvatore said when asked if a lasting marriage is just contrary to some people’s nature. “Our study suggests that genetic factors were the primary explanation for why divorce runs in families (from parents to children); however, this does not suggest that people who have a history of divorce in their families are somehow doomed from the start. In short, a genetic predisposition towards divorce does not mean that someone is destined to become divorced.”

Evidence of this potential to escape higher personal odds of divorce is found, perhaps, in the wide variance of divorce rates around the world. While some people might be more prone to relationship trouble, they are still products of their environment.

“Any study of genetic influences on behavior must be considered in terms of that study’s cultural context. In regions/cultures where the divorce rate is relatively low, one might speculate that the degree to which genetic factors influence divorce might also be lower,” Salvatore said.

Salvatore said she hopes her findings can find practical application in marriage counselling. Couples therapy typically focuses on building communication and interpersonal skills, but given the role heritable personality traits may play, those efforts might be better directed toward targeting some of the more basic personality traits that previous research has suggested are genetically linked to divorce, such as high levels of negative emotionality and low levels of constraint, to mitigate their negative impact on close relationships.

“Addressing these underlying, personality-driven cognitive distortions through cognitive-behavioral approaches may be a better strategy than trying to foster commitment,” she said.

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