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Is divorce in your genes?

Is divorce in your genes?

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How does your family history stack up when it comes to marriage? Do you come from a long line of relatives who have celebrated silver and golden wedding anniversaries? Or is it a little more chequered than that?

A new international study has found that genetics seem to have a significant influence on whether we divorce, and whether our own children celebrate a wedding anniversary or end up navigating a divorce settlement.

The research by Professor Jessica Salvatore with Virginia Commonwealth University in the US and Lund University in Sweden looked at divorce patterns of people who were adopted and the divorce patterns of their adoptive and biological parents. “We found that the reason the children of divorced parents are more likely to experience divorce themselves is because of genes shared between parents and children,” Salvatore says.

There isn’t one specific gene for divorce that indicates if you’re at higher risk – it can’t be detected with a blood or saliva sample. Instead, Salvatore says the study shows “a family measure of genetic risk”.

She says influences such as higher levels of negative emotions, being impulsive and unable to show constraint in a conflict are all traits that suggest you may be more predisposed due to genetics – and they can all contribute to relationship challenges and potential breakdowns.

Until now, most studies have suggested that when children watch their parents go through divorce, it undermines their own commitment to relationships. Psychologist Sian Khuman at Relationships Australia NSW explains this as ‘the attachment theory’, which states that if kids have a secure attachment to their primary caregiver, they grow up to have a positive approach to their personal relationship. “[But] if your attachment growing up was insecure, you’ll be wary of relationships, find it hard to trust and may think it’s better to rely on yourself than another person,” Khuman says.

She explains that while a healthy, positive relationship between parents offers a place for a child to manage their emotions, a relationship in which parents get upset and don’t problem-solve together can cause a child to see conflict as scary and something to be avoided. “So, as an adult in your own relationship, you won’t bring up hot topics because of a fear that it may lead to conflict,” she adds. “You don’t know how to work out problems with your partner, you can’t manage emotions and be present for your partner, and this can lead to divorce.”

Attachment theory still has value in helping us understand our view of marriage, Khuman says. “There’s not a direct link between divorce and insecure attachment, but there is a relationship.”


So, if you’re a child of divorced parents and want to break the cycle, what can you do? Khuman says it’s important to remember that in some cases, parental divorce is a positive step for everyone involved – if the parents divorce “well”.

“If parents divorce and they communicate well with each other, manage their separate houses and share time with the kids, that shows them that mum and dad might no longer love each other but they have put that aside for them,” she says. “That can be a very healing set-up that teaches children about the power of understanding and negotiation.”

Salvatore says knowing the genetic factors that influence divorce, such as having higher levels of negative emotions, is also a positive because many of those factors can be identified and worked on. “For example, a clinician can help you reduce the distortion in how you think about a partner’s behaviour, to help make the relationship better,” she says.

“Perhaps you get upset that your partner has arrived late to dinner and then take a referendum on how much that person cares about the relationship. It can be hard to recover from that,” Salvatore says. “But if you can instead tell yourself, ‘They were coming from the city to way out here, traffic’s bad around dinner time and they just got stuck,’ that gives a more positive attribution to your partner’s behaviour and curtails conflict before it gets too serious.”

The bottom line? Just as genes don’t necessarily dictate your risk of getting sick, neither do they spell out a future divorce. “If you say something is genetic and runs in the family, like divorce, people feel as if they’ve been bitten by a werewolf and that divorce is inevitable,” Salvatore says. “That’s not the case. Genes are one factor in a complicated equation and you can trump them – they’re not your destiny.”

Keeping it in the family

Generational divorce affects people from all walks of life, including the rich and famous

Angelina Jolie

It was a break-up most people didn’t see coming, but when Jolie split from Brad Pitt, she was no stranger to divorce – he was her third husband, following fellow actors Jonny Lee Miller and Billy Bob Thornton. Her dad, Jon Voight, has divorced twice.

Lisa Marie Presley

Elvis divorced his wife, Priscilla, in 1972, after five years. Their only child, Lisa Marie Presley, has wed four times, including to Michael Jackson and Nicolas Cage. She has two kids with her first husband and twins with her last, from whom she’s estranged.

Tom Cruise

Cruise’s mother, Mary Lee South, split from his father, Thomas Cruise Mapother III, in 1974. She remarried but divorced in 2010. Her actor son has been divorced three times, from actresses Mimi Rogers, Nicole Kidman (pictured) and most recently Katie Holmes.

Elle Macpherson

Macpherson was 10 when her parents divorced. She was first married at 22, to photographer Gilles Bensimon. They divorced in 1989. She went on to marry wealthy property developer Jeffrey Soffer (pictured) in 2013, but the couple recently split.

While we’re on the topic, read about oxytocin, the hormone that can predict divorce. Plus, how to deal with the hurt cause by a relationship breakdown.

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