Does Divorce Have Long-term Biological Effects on Children?


Since the 1970s the rate of divorce has increased from 2.6 per 1,000 married people to 5.5 per 1,000 married people. It is also suggested that about 45% of first marriages end in divorce. New research from Baylor University (BU) published by The Comparative Journal of Psychology has suggested that people whose parents divorced when they were children show lower levels of oxytocin as adults compared to children whose parents remained married. The study aimed to study the link between oxytocin levels, early childhood experiences, and adult outcomes.

Oxytocin is a hormone and neuropeptide commonly known as the “love hormone”. It is produced in the hypothalamus and released by the posterior pituitary into the bloodstream. It plays an important role in social bonding, sexual reproduction, childbirth, and the period after childbirth. Previous studies on children whose parents divorced have shown that the experience of divorce as a child is associated with mood disorders, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. Additionally, research has shown that this experience as a child can result in poorer parenting in adulthood, less parental sensitivity and warmth, overreaction, and increased use of punishment.

Researchgate. Hormones and Hierarchies. (2014)

Despite previous research being conducted within this field, the link between oxytocin, early experience of divorce, and adult outcomes has not been well researched. The team at BU recruited participants aged 18-62 and asked them to complete a set of questionnaires on attachment style, parental history of divorce, and other measures. Of the 128 individuals recruited, 27.3% indicated their parents were divorced, with the average age of the child during divorce being 9 years old. A sample of urine was also collected in order to measure the level of oxytocin. Results showed that the urine oxytocin concentrations collected were substantially lower in individuals who experience parental divorce compared to those that did not. These findings also correlated with responses on several attachment instruments such as parents being less caring, and fathers being more abusive. Furthermore, individuals who experience parental divorce are said to be less confident, more uncomfortable with closeness, and less secure with relationships compared to those whose parents remained married.

Interestingly, animal studies have also suggested that suppression of oxytocin activity may be a mechanism to the negative effects of early parental separation. The study also provides some insight into the long-term effects on children of divorce, and what this may mean for their own future as adults. However, not much research has been well established within this field, and researchers at BU have stated that questions such as, what age the child has to be during the divorce for oxytocin suppression to occur and how common this effect is are yet to be answered.

Original Source: Boccia, M. L., et al. (2020). “Parental divorce in childhood is related to lower urinary oxytocin concentrations in adulthood.” J Comp Psychol.

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