8 October 2013

Scientists link DNA to marital satisfaction

by Will Parker

Wedded bliss or a miserable marriage? Researchers at UC Berkeley and Northwestern University say that a gene involved in the regulation of serotonin can predict how much our emotions affect our relationships - and our marital satisfaction.

"An enduring mystery is, what makes one spouse so attuned to the emotional climate in a marriage, and another so oblivious?" said UC Berkeley's Robert W. Levenson, senior author of the study. "With these new genetic findings, we now understand much more about what determines just how important emotions are for different people."

The study, published in the journal Emotion, found a link between relationship fulfillment and a gene variant, or "allele," known as 5-HTTLPR. All humans inherit a copy of this gene variant from each parent.

For spouses with two short 5-HTTLPR alleles, who made up 17 percent of the spouses studied, researchers found a strong correlation between the emotional tone of their conversations and how they felt about their marriage. For the 83 percent of spouses with one or two long alleles, on the other hand, the emotional quality of their discussions bore little or no relation to their marital satisfaction over the next decade.

Study participants with two short 5-HTTLPR alleles were found to be most unhappy in their marriages when there was a lot of negative emotion, such as anger and contempt, and most happy when there was positive emotion, such as humor and affection. By contrast, those with one or two long alleles were far less bothered by the emotional tenor of their marriages.

The new findings don't mean that couples with different variations of 5-HTTLPR are incompatible, Levenson says. Instead, it suggests that those with two short alleles are likelier to thrive in a good relationship and suffer in a bad one.

"Individuals with two short alleles of the gene variant may be like hothouse flowers, blossoming in a marriage when the emotional climate is good and withering when it is bad," explained Northwestern's Claudia M. Haase, lead author of the study. "Conversely, people with one or two long alleles are less sensitive to the emotional climate."

"Neither of these genetic variants is inherently good or bad," she added. "Each has its advantages and disadvantages."

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Source: University of California Berkeley