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How Divorce Can Affect Children's Future Relationships

Marital dissolution may impact childrens' oxytocin systems well into adulthood.

  • Children whose parents had divorced may be less comfortable with closeness, more avoidant of others, and have less secure attachment styles than those who did not experience a divorce.
  • Oxytocin concentration, as measured through urine samples, tends to be lower in people whose parents had divorced.
  • Adverse childhood experiences have been linked to physical and mental health challenges in adulthood such as anxiety and depression.
  • Relationships are influenced by many different factors. Despite these links, many children whose parents divorced go on to form meaningful, stable relationships as adults.
Alex Iby via Unsplash
Source: Alex Iby via Unsplash

Curious about the mechanism behind these trends, a team of researchers led by Baylor University’s Maria Boccia, Ph.D., explored whether alterations in the oxytocin system—the neural manufacturing center of the hormone (oxytocin) involved in pair bonding and social information processing (among other behaviors and bodily functions, like lactation and uterine contractions)—might explain some of these differences.

Testing the Connection Between Divorce, Attachment Style, and Oxytocin

107 participants completed Boccia's study. Of them, about 77 percent were female, 22 percent male, and most were white (with African Americans, Asians, and "other" comprising 6, 8.5, and 2 percent, respectively). Twenty-seven percent reported having divorced parents, with nine being the average age at which those parents divorced.

All participants came to a lab to fill out several questionnaires assessing their attachment style, history of parental divorce, and perception of the care they received from their parents during childhood. Once done, participants provided urine samples, which researchers analyzed for oxytocin concentration.

Boccia and her colleagues anticipated that the questionnaires would serve several functions: possibly reveal correlations between attachment style (how secure, anxious, avoidant, or disorganized we feel and behave in relationships) and history of parental divorce; and stimulate the release of oxytocin by prompting participants to recall how stable (or not) their parents’ union was and reflect upon their own attachment styles.

In this way, the researchers hoped, correlations between attachment style and oxytocin secretion or history of parental divorce and oxytocin secretion could be observed—alongside differences in oxytocin activity between adults whose parents had divorced and adults whose families remained intact.

Divorce Linked to Lower Levels of Oxytocin

Greater discomfort with closeness, a stronger inclincation to avoid other people, and less secure attachment styles were indeed found among participants whose parents had divorced, as Boccia's team expected. Those whose parents did not remain together also “rated themselves with lower proximity maintenance [the desire to be near those we are attached to] and less sensitive caregiving,” as she and her colleagues wrote in a Journal of Comparative Psychology paper.

In turn, urine oxytocin “concentrations were substantially lower in subjects who experienced parental divorce compared to those who did not.” In fact, “Urine OT [oxytocin] concentrations in adults whose parents divorced during their childhood were, on average, one-third of those whose parents had not divorced." The effect was far more pronounced in female subjects than in male subjects—but this could have been due to too few male participants belonging to the parental divorce group, they explained.

Participants whose parents had divorced also tended to recall their parents as less caring, more indifferent. And, sadly, they were more likely to report having been abused by their fathers.

In line with prior findings in rodents and non-human primates confirming a link between oxytocin activity within the brain and the development of attachment and parenting behaviors, the researchers surmise that, in humans, “oxytocin activity may be a mediator of the effects of early parental separation on later maternal, sexual and other behaviors...[and] a possible mediator of the observed effects of divorce on children.”

In other words, one mechanism through which parental divorce appears to influence adult children’s relationship and parenting behavior is the oxytocin system—and how that oxytocin system’s output is altered by parental warmth (or lack thereof) as well as the dissolution of parental bonds.

Childhood Adversity Linked to Broader Challenges in Adulthood

Boccia's research adds to a growing body of evidence supporting a link between childhood adversity and difficulties throughout the lifespan. Divorce is, in fact, one of several adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs) found to predict mental and physical illness well into adulthood. Others include physical and psychological abuse, emotional and physical neglect, witnessing a parent abuse substances or be the victim of violence, and having a family member incarcerated.

Small wonder, then, that children and adults who experience depressive or anxiety disorders are more likely to have weathered the adverse childhood experience of divorce than individuals without such disorders, as Boccia and her colleagues note in their study. Other research suggests that, in some cases, experiencing divorce as a child can have a greater impact on later-in-life mental health than experiencing a parent’s death during childhood.

Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash
Source: Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

Why Oxytocin May Decrease

Previous research into the oxytocin system in several species, including humans, suggests that oxytocin production is markedly reduced when a child does not receive adequate or consistent nurturance, love, safety, and attention from their parents. Children reared in emotionally neglectful institutional settings (like orphanages) have been shown to produce less oxytocin than children reared by loving parents. The same goes for adults exposed to childhood abuse and neglect. Ample research also suggests that parental love and attention not only increase offspring oxytocin production but in fact are required for its production to begin with.

Boccia believes that parental divorce may alter the development of children's oxytocin systems by keeping both parents distracted by their own marital turmoil (or by the stress of separating) that they fail to adequately attend to their children's emotional needs. As a result, a child's developing attachment system, governed in large part by oxytocin production and oxytocin receptor activity and sensitivity, lacks sufficient stimulation, leading to a potentially lifelong underproduction of oxytocin.

But there are other routes through which adult children of divorce's oxytocin systems can be altered. Certain behaviors people may engage in to cope with the ongoing or historical stress of their parents' turmoil and separation can also have an effect on the neurohormone's activity. Chief among those behaviors: Substance use, which research shows alters oxytocin production. Children of divorce have a higher likelihood of abusing substances in adolescence and adulthood and being addicted to nicotine. One study found that 32-year-olds who drank excessively were more likely to have weathered parental divorce in their childhood. Another found a correlation between having divorced parents and starting to drink at a younger age.

Octavio Fossatti via Unsplash
Source: Octavio Fossatti via Unsplash

Hope Moving Forward: Attachment Styles Are Not Fixed for Life

Just because some research has implicated divorce during childhood as a factor in adults’ later-in-life behavioral and relational struggles doesn’t mean that divorce dooms all children to fail. Many factors influence divorce's effects on children. For starters, parenting style (think: whether caregivers are too lenient, too overbearing, or just firm enough while also still being loving) can modify divorce's impact on behavioral and attachment style outcomes, as research by Hira Nair and Ann D. Murray demonstrates.

What's more, divorce doesn’t always lead to negative outcomes. In some cases, it may have a protective effect on children’s well-being. Consider a 2016 Marriage & Family Review paper spearheaded by Constance T. Gager that found divorce helped attenuate the negative fallout from growing up in a household where interpersonal conflict between one’s parents was a regular occurrence. As she and her colleagues wrote in the paper, “our findings provide support for the argument that the long-term adverse effects of family conflict are lessened when parents dissolve their union.

We suggest that this attenuation is because children’s exposure to daily conflict is diminished after union dissolution, thus reducing children’s opportunities to model their parents’ conflictual style, which may be associated with an inability to resolve relationship conflict.”

Even if our parents’ divorce (or interpersonal conflict) rendered our attachment styles insecure, a growing body of evidence suggests attachment styles aren’t fixed for life. Attachment patterns have been found to change in response to psychotherapy as well as in response to significant life events or role changes—think: losing a loved one, becoming a parent, experiencing a natural disaster, or finding a meaningful cause to take an active role in.

As fellow PT blogger Berit Brogaard, D.M.Sci, Ph.D., has written, roughly 30% of people are expected to experience changes in their attachment styles throughout their lifespans. Research has also demonstrated that we don’t necessarily have one single attachment style that manifests consistently across all social situations. Rather, our attachment style may adapt and respond to different contexts or types of relationships, as well as the personality traits of the people we become close with. And if you’re concerned that you’re "not normal" for having an insecure attachment style, consider this: Some psychologists have reason to believe that a secure attachment style actually doesn’t exist.

The Takeaway

Divorce undoubtedly alters how we navigate, understand, and react in relationships. Just like any significant childhood experience would. But the relational script bestowed upon us by our parents' marriage isn't unalterable. Through psychotherapy, learning new behaviors from individuals with whom we become intimate, self-examination, and support (think: 12 Step Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, or Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families) we can edit our blueprint for relating to others—and, possibly, alter our oxytocin production as a result.

Many adult children of divorce go on to form meaningful romantic and platonic friendships, rear healthy and stable children, and lead satisfying and productive lives. That's a testament to this reality. Going through a divorce does not automatically preclude you from forging healthy, supportive and secure bonds with others—and reaping the physical and mental health benefits of finding stable and lasting love.

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