Can Similar Parents Cause Psychological Issues in Children? Assortative Mating, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Obesity and Autism

Wednesday, November 01, 2017 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

Assortative mating--or marrying someone much like yourself--is a relatively new phenomenon. In generations past, marriage was often a function of factors like building relationships between families (think joining kingdoms), or for a dowry as opposed to similar dispositions.

Today, times have changed. We live in a computerized world of matchmaking, where we can seek and find those who are much like us with relative ease. Newer models of dating embrace "matching couples across 69 different personality traits" because everyone knows that those who are more similar are happier in the long run. 


Sharing certain ideologies or lifestyles may reduce later conflict between couples. But marrying someone with similar personality traits—and therefore similar genetics—may have unexpected consequences for younger generations for both heritable and environmental reasons. However, this doesn’t mean that anyone should necessarily avoid partnering with someone too similar.

So, what groups are affected by assortative mating?


Assortative Mating, Bipolar Disorder and Depression

A research review published in "Comprehensive Psychiatry" found that bipolar disorder and major depression were linked to assortative mating1.  In other words, individuals who have these conditions may be more likely to marry another with similar tendencies. Researchers found that this was especially true of the bipolar conditions.  

Substance Abuse

Other researchers have found a link between assortative mating and substance abuse issues. While this study found no significant relationship between assortative mating and anxiety disorders, they found that one third of those with substance abuse issues had a spouse with a substance abuse problem2

One third. That's a huge number. 

But why does this matter? 

Can Depression, Bipolar Disorder or Substance Abuse be Passed Down to Children?

Well, kinda. Super scientific, I know. 

While depression has a genetic component, some of higher rates of mental health and substance issues in younger generations probably comes from early learning. Those with depression, bipolar disorder and substance abuse often have less than ideal experiences in their own childhoods, which tends to create patterns of behavior that attract those who have similar patterns. 

So there might be an increased risk of genetic predisposition for depression, which might in turn lead to issues including alcohol use. Choosing a similar partner can also increase the likelihood that those traits or coping skills might be learned by children at higher rates, particularly if both parents model trouble with emotional regulation, substance abuse issues or other psychological disturbances. 

But, these early modeling factors and assortative mating tendencies affect more than mental heath; they may alter physical health as well.


According to some research, higher rates of assortative mating among the obese population may be contributing to the rise in obesity among children3. Other studies have verified this link, and believe that assortative mating may be occurring at higher rates because obesity has begun shifting into younger generations4

The rationale is that as more children and adolescents become obese, more people will choose obese mates because younger singles distinguish those characteristics earlier. In other words, the earlier individuals are exposed to obesity, the more likely it will be pulled into their ideal “type”, and the more likely they may be to choose that type when marrying. Because obesity can also be a risk factor for depression, those traits may circle back to the psychological realm as well.


So, Should I Marry Someone Like Me?

With regards to depression, bipolar disorder, substance abuse and obesity issues, modeling, genetics, attachment and environment all likely play a role. Many have deeper connections with others who have shared similar experiences, and that type of understanding and affiliation should not be underestimated.  

But understanding the issue at hand can allow parents to be more aware of their own actions and interrupt any negative interaction patterns before modeling issues become problematic in children. Understanding the higher statistical chance of these issues may also allow for earlier diagnosis and intervention in children affected by it.

However, assortative mating may play a role in some diagnoses on a fundamentally genetic level; diagnoses that cannot be explained through environment or modeling. 

Assortative Mating, Systemizing Traits and Autism

While autism is linked to a number of theories, most clinicians accept that it is the result of a complex set of factors that can vary from person to person. However, a theory by researcher Simon Baron-Cohen may be another piece to the autism puzzle. 

Baron-Cohen believes that some cases of autism may have a link to the systemizing mechanism in the brain5. This tendency to arrange things into systems--hence some of the hyper-organization behaviors seen in the autistic population--also affects the tolerance for change, including socialization, because other people can bring about unexpected—and therefore intolerable—consequences.   

So what of assortative mating?

Baron-Cohen's research indicates that those on the autism spectrum are far more likely to have family with systemizing professions, particularly fathers and grandfathers. And those with higher levels of systemizing—such as engineers, mathematicians or computer programmers—often marry those with similar traits.

In Baron-Cohen's view, the issue is that if someone with systemizing traits at a level below social disorder marries someone else with similar traits, genetic predisposition from both parents may mean a child winds up with higher levels of the trait than either of the parents themselves. And those higher levels might be too high to tolerate usual social interactions.

Besides being attractive to individuals with similar traits, these systemizing types of brain patterns may also be sought after because of the way our society is heading. With additional emphasis and financial reward being placed on computer and engineering professions, it makes sense for the traits that embody those professions to be desirable. 

And that desirability isn't likely to decrease. According to theoretical physicist Michio Kaku in Physics of the Future, future success will invariably depend on fewer face-to-face interactions and more computer-based work models, due to the expansion of technology and the direction of industry6. This means that those who possess these systemizing brain patterns, including those on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum, will continue to thrive in a future where such traits will continue to be rewarded and sought after. 

Bringing It All Together

This is not to say that those without systemizing traits will be at a disadvantage, that engineers will always end up with children on the autism spectrum or that a depressed individual who marries someone else with depression will necessarily set their children up for disaster. 

Far from it. 

Though the effects of assortative mating may prove to be more pronounced in outlying couples, for most the effects are probably on the smaller side due to the wide variety of things that contribute to those disorders and the small contribution of this particular issue. 

Instead, this should be a conversation starter. By being aware of the mechanisms involved in heritable traits and diagnoses as well as the environmental contributions, individuals can be conscious of the issues at hand and address them earlier, should the need arise. 

Marrying someone a little like yourself at least makes choosing a television program easier. We can use all the help we can get. 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100
Fascinating ideas on the future of industry from theoretical physicist Michio Kaku.

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
Primatologist/biologist Robert Sapolsky on stress and your brain. Good stuff.

We've Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication
Judith Warner explores the misunderstood issue of overmedication in relation to children's mental health.

The Anatomy of Love
An in depth look at a history of human mating. Sex, anthropology and more sex. What more could you want?