Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

A Genetically Informed Study of the Intergenerational Transmission of Marital Instability

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

A Genetically Informed Study of the Intergenerational Transmission of Marital Instability

Article excerpt

Environmental or genetic influences, or both could account for the increased risk of divorce among the offspring of separated parents. Previous studies have used covariates to statistically control for confounds, but the present research is the first genetically informed study of the topic. The investigation used the Children of Twins Design with twins, their spouses, and their young adult offspring (n = 2,310) from the Australian Twin Registry to test whether selection on the basis of genetic or shared environment factors accounted for part of the intergenerational association. The analyses also controlled for measured characteristics of both parents. The results suggest that both environmentally mediated and genetic risk account for the intergenerational transmission, supporting the roles of both selection and causation.

Key Words: divorce, intergenerational transmission, multilevel models, selection effects.

The intergenerational transmission of divorce has been found in large samples throughout the world (see Pryor & Rogers, 2001), including the United States (Greenstein, 1995) and Australia (Rodgers, 1996). In fact, research has consistently shown that parental divorce is one of the strongest predictors of marital instability (Amato, 1999). Researchers have sought to identify possible mediators of the association between parental and offspring marital instability. Various studies have examined factors such as age at first marriage and cohabitation, differences in perspectives on the costs and benefits associated with marriage, modeling of unsuccessful relationship and interpersonal skills, mate selection, and lower commitment to marriage in the offspring of divorced parents (review in Fine & Harvey, 2006). Despite their unique foci, all these efforts share one general assumption: Parental divorce increases the risk for offspring marital instability through some causal mechanisms (e.g., Amato, 2000). We refer to this view as the causal assumption.

It is possible, however, that the statistical relation between parental and offspring marital instabUity is not causal. Selection factors that lead to marital instability in both generations may be responsible for the association (Amato, 2000; Emery, 1999). Figure 1 presents a graphical representation of two of the main classes of confounds when studying intergenerational associations. First, common environmental factors may account for a statistical relation between a parental and an offspring characteristic. For example, couples living in poverty are more lUcely to separate, and socioeconomic status could be a third variable that explains the intergenerational association. Statistical procedures can control for possible environmental selection factors, such as socioeconomic status (reviews in Amato, 2000; Emery), but such analyses cannot control for environmental factors that have not been measured or have been measured inaccurately. Further, no study has included in-depth assessments of characteristics and psychopathology in both parents. This is a major limitation, given that parental psychopathology is associated with changes in family functioning, and the transmission of psychopathology could account for some of the intergenerational transmission of divorce. Studies of the consequences of divorce that have included measures of maternal psychopathology have underscored the important role of selection factors (Capaldi & Patterson, 1991; Emery, Waldron, Kitzmann, & Aaron, 1999). Therefore, exploring the risks for offspring relationship instability associated with the psychopathology and demographic characteristics of both parents will provide a more complete understanding of the processes responsible for the transmission of relationship instabüity.

Second, genetic risks might also account for the association between parent and offspring marital instability, an example of passive geneenvironment correlation (Scarr & McCartney, 1983). …

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