Unhappily Married? Blame Genetics, UC Berkeley Study Says

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What's the secret to a happy marriage? Communication? Openness? A willingness to have and to hold your partner's hand even when they're purchasing that tub of Red Vines from Costco again?

According to a new study released today, scientists at UC Berkeley and Northwestern University posit that the key to cracking the code of love may actually involve a different code altogether, our DNA.

Researchers point to a gene variant that helps regulate serotonin (5-HTTLPR) which determines, in part, how emotionally satisfied you'll be in your marriage.

"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, senior author of the study published online in the journal Emotion. "With these new genetic findings, we now understand much more about what determines just how important emotions are for different people."

There are two kinds of 5-HTTLPR genes -- long and short -- that we inherit from our parents. According to the study, married participants with two short 5-HTTLPR genes were most unhappy in their relationships when negative emotions, like anger and contempt, were introduced, and happiest when positive emotions were present. In comparison, those with two long genes were less influenced by changing emotional states in regard to their marriage satisfaction overall.

It seems like having these two long genes would contribute to emotional stability in general, and not just in regard to how often a couple is arguing at Whole Foods. Or, as Claudia M. Haase, lead author and assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern put it, "people with one or two long alleles are less sensitive to the emotional climate."

Levenson has tracked 156 couples since 1989, asking about their marital satisfaction and recording their interactions, facial expressions, body language, and discussion topics in a lab. Recently, 125 of those couples gave DNA samples, forming the basis for this study.

Haase adds that the presence of one kind of gene variant over another doesn't doom us to a life of loneliness and Lifetime movie-watching. "Neither of these genetic variants is inherently good or bad. Each has its advantages and disadvantages."



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4 comments
Jason Zentraedi
Jason Zentraedi

And here I thought my unhappy marriage was due to me being an asshole. Thanks for absolving me of all personal responsibility, science!

Alex Yi
Alex Yi

So....these smart scientists discover a gene that determines whether I'm a happy person or not. Then conclude that happy people are less likely to divorce. Thanks for this profound knowledge we've gained through this utterly useless waste of grant dollars.

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