Serotonin Regulating Gene Plays Role In Marriage Emotions
October 8, 2013

Serotonin Regulating Gene Plays Role In Marriage Emotions

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Why are some couples seemingly fated to have a happy marriage and others end in sorrow? A new study from UC Berkeley and Northwestern University reveals a major clue rests in our DNA.

The study, which may be the first to link genetics, emotions and marital satisfaction, shows a gene involved in the regulation of serotonin can predict how much our emotions affect our relationships.

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

The research team found a link exists between relationship fulfillment and a gene variant, or "allele," known as 5-HTTLPR. Each human parent contributes a copy of this gene variant to their offspring. The researchers found participants with two short 6-HTTLPR alleles were the unhappiest in their marriages when a lot of negative emotion, such as anger and contempt, was present. These individuals were most happy when there was positive emotion, such as humor and affection, in their marriages. Participants with two long alleles, however, were far less bothered by the emotional tenor of their marriages.

“We are always trying to understand the recipe for a good relationship, and emotion keeps coming up as an important ingredient,” said Levenson, who leads a longitudinal study that has tracked more than 150 married couples for over 20 years.

The researchers note their findings do not mean that couples with different variations of 5-HTTLPR are incompatible. It suggests, however, that those with two short alleles are likelier to thrive in good relationships and suffer in a bad one. The results of the study, published in the journal Emotion, were born out by examining the genotypes of more than 100 spouses and observing interactions with the participants' spouses over time.

“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,” said Claudia M. Haase, assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University. Haase conducted the research as a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley. “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,” Haase added. “Each has its advantages and disadvantages.”

A group of 156 middle-aged and older couples participated in the study. Levenson and his colleagues had followed these couples since 1989, with the couples returning to Berkeley every five years to report on their marital satisfaction and interact with each other in a lab setting. During these interactions, researchers code their conversations based on facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and topic of discussion.

Recently, 125 participants provided DNA samples, which the scientists matched their genotypes with their levels of marital satisfaction and the emotional tenor of their interactions in the lab setting.

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

For older adults, the link between genes, emotion and marital satisfaction was particularly pronounced. “One explanation for this latter finding is that in late life – just as in early childhood – we are maximally susceptible to the influences of our genes,” Levenson said.