Are Genetics Responsible for Divorce?
Romantic relationships are important to our health and can help provide meaning and stability to our lives. People in healthy relationships tend to experience less stress and live longer. While marriage rates overall are decreasing, marriage is still seen as an important rite of passage for most individuals in Western culture. Unfortunately, an estimated 30 to 50% of marriages end in divorce (apparently the actual figure is a contentious subject and you will get different answers depending on where you look for the information). These divorces can have significant long term impacts on individuals, including increasing the risk of depression and chronic health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. This is in addition to the significant financial cost divorce places on individuals. As such, it is critically important that we understand the causes of divorce to better identify those at risk for these negative outcomes.
We know already know that there are some factors that predict later divorce. One of these factors is whether the individual comes from a family that has divorced. The thought behind this risk factor is that individuals learn negative interaction patterns from their family and then go on to interact in a similarly negative way in their own romantic relationships, leading eventually to divorce if they are married. However, newer research is calling this assumption somewhat into question.
A study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University and Lund University of Swedish families examined patterns of divorce for adoptive and biological children. What the study found was that people who were adopted more closely resembled their biological families and not their adoptive families in terms of their history of divorce.
This is a radical shift from the previous mentality of divorce being due to learned family behaviors. The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Psychological Science journal so it is not available for review yet, but there are a lot of questions that obviously remain. The most significant is, if divorce is largely due to genetics, what are the mechanisms that explain this association? Genetics by themselves do not magically explain divorce, they must be related to something, whether it is a genetic predisposition to a mental health problem, difficulty regulating emotions, etc. that in turn increases the risk for divorce.
It will be interesting to see what other researchers say about this study and it is unlikely that learned family behaviors are unrelated to divorce. However, this large Swedish study does indicate that genetics are an important part of the divorce puzzle. Clearly more understanding is needed regarding how genetics influence divorce rates, but it is a very interesting new area of research.
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