Adults With Divorced Parents May Have Less of the 'Love Hormone,' Study Suggests

parents fighting while little girl sits at the table

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study shows that people who experienced parental divorce during childhood had lower levels of oxytocin compared to those who didn't.
  • Lower oxytocin levels may be associated with adverse adult attachments and negatively impacted by parental divorce.
  • Just because your parents divorced doesn't mean you are destined to repeat the narrative.

Experiencing a parental divorce during childhood may impact adult levels of oxytocin—commonly referred to as the ‘love hormone’—and thus attachment in relationships, according to a study published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology in September 2020.

“There is compelling evidence that early life adversity may lead to oxytocin dysregulation that can have consequences for longer-term social experiences,” said Dr. Cleopatra Kamperveen, a fertility strategist and executive director of The Fertility & Pregnancy Institute.

What the Study Found

A total of 128 participants ranging from ages 18-62—the majority being Caucasian women—were recruited. Of the participants, 35 indicated that their parents were divorced. The main goal of the study was to see if there were differing levels of oxytocin between people with and without divorced parents. 

When they arrived, participants were asked to use the restroom, then drink a bottle of water before completing multiple questionnaires about parental divorce history, attachment styles, and more. After they finished filling the forms out, they gave a urine sample which was later tested for oxytocin levels. 

Samantha Jeffries, LMFT

This is just another trend that is out there that's being seen. It doesn't mean that lower levels of [oxytocin] for you mean that your relationship will end or that you are doomed in your future.

— Samantha Jeffries, LMFT

People whose parents divorced when they were young had, on average, less than half of the amount of oxytocin as those whose parents did not divorce. 

There were some limitations to the study: it did not distinguish between how nature and nurture shaped the overall effects of divorce, nor did it account for the age at which people experienced their parents’ divorce. With only 27% of the participants being children of divorced parents, study authors suggest there is still more research to be done with larger samples.

What This Means For You

Oxytocin levels may be lower in people whose parents divorced during their childhood compared to people whose parents did not. But just because your parents got divorced does not mean you will too.

The Role of Oxytocin 

Oxytocin has multiple functions in the human body, such as sexual arousal, trust, and anxiety. It increases with physical touch and may even play a part in addiction and stress. In women, oxytocin is released during labor and childbirth and promotes lactation. It serves a smaller role in men but does aid in sperm movement and testosterone production. 

“Oxytocin levels are linked with bonding between mother and child as well as broader social relationships,” Kamperveen said. “Lower oxytocin levels in childhood may increase the odds of difficulty with social bonding in adulthood, including maternal bonding.”

Attachment insecurity with the parents and lower confidence in future marriage success tend to be more prominent in adults who went through parental divorce. This is consistent with the study’s findings that show associations between oxytocin levels and measures of attachment and caregiving styles. 

Short and Long Term Effects of Divorce

Divorce is known to have additional effects on people who experience it as children. Samantha Jeffries, a Rochester-based licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in anxiety treatment and marital and premarital counseling, said that all divorces are unique. Whether a divorce is high or low conflict may impact the effects it has on individuals.

Some short-term effects on children may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Turmoil
  • Acting out
  • Difficulty connecting with parents
  • Feelings of guilt

In the long term, Jeffries said that some adults may feel deprived of connection and seek out unhealthy relationships, while others fear getting a divorce themselves, which can influence their ability to build relationships.

“It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you're so afraid of your relationship ending that you wind up shutting down and not communicating, it [may] end up producing the result you are actively trying to avoid,” she said.

On the other hand, some people are able to move on from their parents’ divorce with a healthier view of relationships. Because these people know that divorce is available, “they sometimes don't feel like they have to be stuck in relationships. It doesn't mean they're going to take that option—it just means they're more open to leaving a relationship if it becomes evident that it's not healthy,” Jeffries said.

While this study may suggest that people who experience parental divorce as a child have lower oxytocin levels and are thus more likely to have difficulties forming attachments, these outcomes are by no means absolute. 

“Not all divorces are the same, and research is created as a general way to help us understand things,” Jeffries said. “This is just another trend that is out there that's being seen. It doesn't mean that lower levels of [oxytocin] for you mean that your relationship will end or that you are doomed in your future.”

5 Sources
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