When it comes to marriage, wouldn’t it be nice to know whether it’s for the better or for the worse? Fortunately, for the meticulously-cautious and planning-obsessed people, a recent study published in the journal Emotion begins to tap into this fascinating area of marriage and its relation to DNA. Dr. Robert Levenson, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley and the main investigator of the study, suggests that our genetic make-up contributes to our marital satisfaction.
The study discovered that alleles — different versions of particular genes — set the stage for how individuals process and understand their emotional state, which eventually affects their relationships.
“We are always curious why some couples are happy and thriving whereas others are seemingly unhappy and miserable,” said Claudia Haase, co-author of the study, in an email interview. “Research has shown that the emotions that spouses show when they are together (e.g. affection, joy, sadness or anger) play an important role in how their marital satisfaction develops over time.”
The researchers discovered a linkage between an allele known as 5-HTTLPR which regulates serotonin levels and relationship satisfaction. All of us inherit some variant of this gene from our parents. Since 1989, this longitudinal study tracked 156 married couples over 20 years.
Every five years, the participants checked in at UC Berkeley to report their marital satisfaction and interact with one another in a lab setting. The researchers observed and coded their behaviors, such as the participants’ facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and the topic of the participants’ conversations. Half of the participants provided DNA samples, and researchers were able to match up their genotypes with the level of marital satisfaction reported by the participants.
The study found that participants with two short alleles of the 5-HTTLPR gene were found to be most dissatisfied in their marriage when a great surge of negative emotion was experienced. However, they were the most happy when positive emotion was involved. In contrast, participants with one or two long alleles for the gene, were less likely to be bothered or affected by the emotional highs and lows of their marriages.
The researchers caution that one shouldn’t predict their happiness or unhappiness in a marital relationship simply based on their genes. It isn’t advised to assume that just because you have inherited two short alleles for the gene, that you are set up for marital doom.
Committed married couples form an integral part of the UC Davis community — ranging from professors and staff to both graduate and undergraduate students. Dustin Burns, a third-year PhD graduate student in the physics department, is a member of this subpopulation.
“At least from personal experience, some people are definitely more sensitive to the emotions present in their relationship, while others are more indifferent,” Burns said.
The study simply suggests that individuals with two short alleles are more likely to be sensitive to the emotions they experience in their marriage. For instance, they are more likely to be happy in a healthy relationship, and fare the worst in an unhealthy one. Regardless of your genetic make-up, it is important to not exclude environmental factors, which clearly also play a role in one’s emotions and relationship satisfaction.
Dr. Lian Bloch, who earned her PhD in clinical psychology from UC Berkeley and is now a psychologist, played a key role in envisioning the connection between genetics and marriage. She believes that therapy, whether it be done with a professional or at home, can help couples to regulate their emotions and to better process and understand their heightened emotions when they occur.
“Couples therapy supports taking an active look at self-awareness, emotional and communication dynamics within the marriage. [It takes] time to foster awareness as an individual, and as a couple as well,” Bloch said.