According to a number of sociological studies the children of divorced parents are more likely than their peers to get divorced themselves in later life – and that’s really no surprise. We learn a lot from our mothers and fathers – more than we’re consciously aware of – and that can include negatives: how not to make a marriage work, for example. If our parents split up, we may also absorb the idea that getting divorced is easier than working on your relationship – another negative lesson. Divorce may simply seem more feasible, more of an option, if we’ve already experienced the process, albeit at second hand, while growing up.
Of course, the needle can jump right to the other end of the dial if your parents’ divorce was especially rancorous and left you with seriously bad memories. In those circumstances you may be especially determined to avoid it, at almost any cost, burdening your marriage with unrealistic expectations. Or you may simply decide never to get married at all.
But could there be even more to this link than the emotional legacy left us by our parents? New research suggests there may be. A team from Virginia Commonwealth University in the United States and Lund University in Sweden recently studied the adult experiences of people who had been adopted as children in the latter country.
Lead researcher Professor Jessica Salvatore explained the advantages of focusing on adopted children.
“The basic idea with … adoption … is that it gives you a lot of traction on the question of whether something (like divorce) runs in families due to genetic and environmental factors.”
The team compared adopted children whose biological parents divorced with those whose adopted parents divorced, in order to determine any genetic links.
“If adoptees resemble their biological parents, we know that it’s genetic factors that contribute to this resemblance because biological parents only give genes to their offspring,” Salvatore explained.
The surprising conclusion?
“Across a series of designs [data analyses] using Swedish national registry data, we found consistent evidence that genetic factors primarily explained the intergenerational transmission of divorce.”
In other words: the majority of the subjects had a pattern of divorce which resembled their biological rather than adopted parents. Professor Salvatore admitted that:
“We were surprised by the findings.”
The researchers suggest that the link may lie in personality traits which can be inherited from biological parents: a greater tendency, for example, to react with negative emotions to everyday stresses and strains, or lower impulse control.
Further research will no doubt follow. But where does this remarkable finding leave us in the meantime? It certainly provides still more clear evidence that, whatever our relationship with them may be like, our parents have a huge influence on our lives – even if we don’t know them or have no idea they are doing so. But equally, we must remember that biology is not destiny. We are all our own people and we all make our choices and forge our own destinies.
The study is due for publication in the journal Psychological Science. Meanwhile, you can read more here.