Why Does Divorce Run in Families?

Divorce is a pattern often repeated by children whose parents didn't stay together, but researchers thought there was more to the story than simple psychology. (Photo: Photographee.u/Shutterstock)

Nature vs. nurture. Which aspect has the most influence on the likelihood of divorce?

Children of divorced parents are more than twice as likely to get divorced than their peers. Until recently, relationship experts assumed that "nurture" was the primarily link connecting parents who got divorced with children who followed the same marital path. But a new study shows that "nature" may play more of a role than previously thought and that genetics may strongly influence a person's likelihood for marital troubles.

Relationship books are filled with narratives detailing how the children of divorced parents learn from the relationship patterns of their parents and thus are more likely to have their own relationship struggles. But in a new study to be published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University and Sweden's Lund University put this theory to the test.

For the study, researchers looked at relationship data from nearly 20,000 Swedish adults who had been adopted as children. "We were trying to answer the basic question: Why does divorce run in families?" said lead researcher Jessica Salvatore, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU in a press release.

They found that the children in their study were more likely to model the relationship patterns of their biological parents than those of their adoptive parents. This could make a big difference in the way that couples' therapists treat their patients. For instance, instead of focusing on a lack of communication skills as a contributing factor toward divorce, a therapist might instead choose to look at the genetically-inherited personality traits, such as neuroticism or impulsiveness, that might lead to relationship issues.

That's not to say it's all nature and no nurture. In fact, when the same researchers looked at the marital data for 80,000 children who were raised in homes with their biological mother and a step-father, they found a correlation between the child's relationship status as an adult and the relationship status of their biological father, but they found a greater correlation between that child's divorce rate as an adult and the biological mother's marital status (with their step-dad). While nature might have increased the likelihood of divorce, it was nurture that helped them counteract that predisposition.

Of course, there are a number of factors that affect a marriage. Both nature and nurture play a role, and this study may help deepen the understanding of the factors that drive married couples apart.