Children whose parents divorce have lower ‘love hormone’ levels in adulthood

WACO, Texas — Renowned American author William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.” Now, a new study is lending some scientific credence to the notion that one’s past influences and dictates their present and future. Researchers from Baylor University say that adults whose parents divorced while they were a child show lower levels of oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone.”

According to the study’s authors, low oxytocin levels may make it harder for these individuals to form and maintain stable attachments and relationships of their own.

Oxytocin originates in the brain, and is usually secreted in response to various intimate experiences. That includes everything from love-making to a simple hug to the birth of a child. A good deal of research has shown that oxytocin plays a big role in one’s overall social behaviors and emotional attachments – especially early in life. Beyond all that, oxytocin is also linked to parenting style and anxious feelings.

“Since the rates of divorce in our society began to increase, there has been concern about the effects of divorce on the children,” comments lead study author Maria Boccia, Ph.D., professor of child and family studies at Baylor University in the Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, in a release. “Most research has focused on short-term effects, like academic performance, or longer-term outcomes like the impact on relationships. How divorce causes these effects, however, is unknown.

“Oxytocin is a neurohormone that is important in regulating these behaviors and is also sensitive to the impact of stressful life events in early life,” she adds. “This is a first step towards understanding what mechanisms might be involved.”

How divorce can influence oxytocin levels

Children of divorce have long been linked to a higher chance of developing mood disorders and or substance abuse issues. Coincidentally, oxytocin is thought to be connected to both of those issues as well. Moreover, divorce (or the death of a parent, for that matter) is a risk factor in children for depression and anxiety as an adult. It also can influence poor parenting skills, less parental sensitivity and warmth, and harsher disciplinary tactics.

With all that in mind, it certainly makes sense to theorize that divorce may influence oxytocin levels. So, the research team gathered 128 people between the ages of 18 and 62. Among that group, 27.3% have parents who divorced when they were a child. On average, those participants were 9 years old when their parents split.

Upon arriving for the study, each person was asked to empty their bladder. Then, they were given a water bottle to drink before filling out a series of surveys asking about their childhood (parents, friends) and current social functioning. More specifically, questions cover their mother’s and father’s parenting methods (affection, protection, indifference, over-control, abuse, etc.). They also ask about an individual’s own confidence levels, comfort with intimacy, need for approval, and relationship attachment style.

Next, urine samples were collected to be used as as a means of oxytocin concentration analysis. Levels were “substantially” lower among adults whose parents divorced when they were a child.

Clear difference among people whose parents split

“What we found was that oxytocin was substantially lower in people who experienced parental divorce compared to those who did not and correlated with responses on several measures of attachment,” Boccia says. “These results suggest that oxytocin levels are adversely affected by parental divorce and may be related to other effects that have been documented in people who experience parental divorce.”

The study shows that children of divorce have less confidence, more uneasiness regarding intimacy, and less relationship security in adulthood. Also, these individuals rate their own parenting style as less caring or sensitive than other study subjects.

“One of the first questions I am asked when presenting this research to other scientists is ‘does how old the child is when the divorce occurs matter?’ That is the most pressing question that we need to explore,” Boccia concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

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