While scientists agree that, technically, there is no such thing as a divorce gene, researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in the USA and Lund University in Sweden have found that the reason children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves has less to do with the fact that they weren’t exposed to a happily married couple growing up.

Rather, they say it has more to do with the children inheriting personality traits – like extreme negativity and a lack of self-restraint – from their parents that lead to the breakdown of a marriage.

“At present, the bulk of evidence on why divorce runs in families points to the idea that growing up with divorced parents weakens your commitment to and the interpersonal skills needed for marriage,” says Dr Jessica Salvatore, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at VCU.

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“So, if a distressed couple shows up in a therapist’s office and finds, as part of learning about the partners’ family histories, that one partner comes from a divorced family then the therapist may make boosting commitment or strengthening interpersonal skills a focus of their clinical efforts.”

The study, which was published in the journal Psychological Science, analysed the marital histories of over 20 000 adopted children in Sweden and found that the adopted children resembled their biological parents and not their adoptive parents and siblings in their histories of divorce.

Taking their research further, the scientists also analysed 82 698 people who were brought up by their biological mothers, but in a single-parent household, were also influenced by their absent father’s divorce history.

Salvatore describes the research as significant because it has the potential to save marriages because it gives therapists more insights to better identify effective targets for couples they are treating.

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“Previous studies haven’t adequately controlled for or examined something else in addition to the environment that divorcing parents transmit to their children – genes. Our study is, at present, the largest to do this and what we find is strong, consistent evidence that generic factors account for the intergenerational transmission of divorce,” she says.

“For this reason, focusing on increasing commitment or strengthening interpersonal skills may not be a particularly good use of time for a therapist working with a distressed couple.”

“Other research shows that people who are highly neurotic tend to perceive their partners as behaving more negatively than they objectively are [as rated by independent observers]. So addressing these underlying personality-driven cognitive distortions through cognitive behavioural approaches may be a better strategy than trying to foster commitment,” says Salvatore.