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Genetics may play a role in divorce risk

It's long been known that the children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves, but researchers have only recently discovered that this tendency may be inherited. For example, in a study from Virginia Commonwealth University and Lund University in Sweden, researchers set out to investigate the genetic factors behind intergenerational divorce.

Interestingly, for children who were adopted, their divorce histories tended to resemble those of their biological -- rather than adoptive -- parents and siblings. The study's authors concluded that genetic factors contribute to the "intergenerational transmission" of divorce.

What genetics can tell us about divorce

This study is especially significant because it contradicts the widely-held belief that psychological -- rather than genetic -- influences mostly contribute to the likelihood of divorced parents' offspring getting divorced themselves. Most current literature on intergenerational divorce attributes this pattern to children observing parental conflict and struggles with commitment. Most schools of thought hold that children internalize these behaviors, making them more likely to continue the cycle when they grow up. 

New approaches for helping distressed couples

As more is learned about the role of genetics in divorce, therapists may approach couples counseling differently. Current interventions emphasize improving couples' interpersonal skills and strengthening their sense of commitment.

In light of new research, however, it may be more effective to focus on the personality traits -- such as low levels of constraint and a high inclination toward negative emotions -- that appear to be genetically linked to divorce. Therapists can work to minimize the detrimental impact of these characteristics to help couples weather difficult seasons in their marriages.

Other research supports this type of intervention. Some studies, for instance, suggest that highly-neurotic people tend to see their partners' behavior as more negative than it actually is, making conflict and marital dissatisfaction more likely. Therefore, addressing underlying cognitive factors could be more effective than trying to bolster commitment.

Genetics aren't everything

Of course, having the traits for divorce in your genetic code isn't an automatic recipe for a failed marriage. Nor does being the only person in your immediate family to divorce mean you have somehow personally failed. A single large study such as this can provide new insight. However, every situation is unique, and what is right for you and your situation cannot be deduced from your genetic code.

The full text of the study can be found in Psychological Science.

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