For Better or Worse- How genetics can affect relationships
By: Neil Lamb, PhD
Marriage requires working as a team, tackling challenges like joint finances, work-life balance and parenthood. Navigating these challenges impacts how satisfied a couple is in their relationship. Successful problem solving is shaped by factors like communication style, level of trust and a couple’s prior history. Now scientists say genetics might also be a player.
Social support – feeling that one partner understands the views, opinions and abilities of the other – is an important measure of marital satisfaction. Another is attachment security, the feeling of emotional safety that comes from others being responsive to our needs. Two scientific publications – one in the Journal of Family Psychology and the other in PLOS One – illustrate how variations in a gene previously linked to personality can also be associated with patterns of behavior and emotional response that ease or increase marital pressures. However, before you conclude that genetics predetermines the fate of our relationships, let’s dig a little deeper in the findings.
HOW GENETICS CAN AFFECT OUR RELATIONSHIPS
The most recent papers build on already-published research into the effect of variations in OXTR, the Oxytocin Receptor gene. The receptors can modify a range of responses to so- cial stimuli, such as stress or anxiety. DNA changes in OXTR have been connected with several personality traits associat- ed with sociability and bonding. For example, a 2009 paper found people with one specific variation in the OXTR gene thought and behaved less empathetically. That same variation also led people to have a stronger stress response, both men- tally and physically.
As you can imagine, people with less empathy and high- er stress relate differently to other folks and the world at large. Intuitively, those effects would carry over to marriage. Now researchers can demonstrate that carry-over through careful study.
THE ROLE OF GENETICS IN MARRIAGE
The team of scientists leading the Journal of Family Psychology study recruited 79 couples and asked each partner to come up with a pressing issue to discuss with the other – a personal problem not linked to their partner or partner’s family. For example, they might discuss a problem with a coworker. The scientists recorded ten minutes of conversation on the subject then analyzed the interaction to see how the partners sup- ported and accepted support from one another. They also surveyed the individual partners to get a broader sense of each spouse’s perceptions about their marriage and obtained saliva samples for genetic testing.
Variation along the OXTR gene influenced both the actions and the perception of those actions for men and women. That said, husbands with a specific genetic change (defined as the TT genotype at SNPrs1042778) reported less satis- faction with the recorded interaction with their wives, and lower marital satisfaction overall. The scientists hypothesize that husbands with this variant may have trouble identifying and interpreting the social support signals coming from their partners, and therefore perceive them as being less responsive. The PLOS One study examined 178 midlife and older married couples. Here too, participants provided saliva samples for genetic testing and completed surveys about their feelings of marital security and satisfaction. The study focused on the OXTR variant described above in the 2009 paper (rs53576). When at least one partner had the GG genotype – the opposite of the variation that led to less empathy and more stress – the couple reported higher satisfaction and security in their marriage than couples without this variant. Individuals with the GG genotype also reported lower levels of anxious attachment, which prior research has shown to be associated with a lower likelihood of jealousy and better relationship quality. Of course, this is still just a small portion of the marriage equation.
OUR GENES, OUR BEHAVIORS
Genes may have an influence on marriage, but that impact shouldn’t be overstated. The researchers found that the genotypes of both partners combined to account for about 4% of the variance in marital satisfaction. Because both studies analyzed relatively homogeneous populations of caucasian couples, it’s important to replicate these experiments using larger, more diverse populations.
However, it’s worth noting that this gene shapes both behaviors and perception of a partner’s behaviors. The the authors of the PLOS One study even suggest that the patterns of each partner can rub off on one another over time.
Further research could examine how those same genetic variants shape our interactions with positive and negative relationship experiences. After all, marriage often revolves around understanding and context. The genetics likely do as well.
HOW WE LOVE
The way we love stems from all kinds of factors, from our upbringing to our genome to the way we respond to the large and small stressors of the moment. Some pieces of our genetic code influence how we process feelings like empathy. So it’s understandable that our DNA recipes play a role in our most important relationships.
It’s interesting that we can link genetic variation to how supported a partner feels in a marriage. That certainly seems like a factor that could boost relationship satisfaction. Still, it’s important to realize that the science isn’t saying two people are genetically incompatible because of this one variation — or any other genetic information for that matter. Love, marriage and long-term relationships are complex and we’re just starting to learn more about how genetics play into the way we relate to others.
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