Genetics might play a role in healthy marriages

By CHRIS REINHARDT | March 14, 2019

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The secret behind a successful marriage may be more than just passion. According to a new study, genetics may also play a role. Yale scientists found that a gene responsible for emotional stability may also predict marriage satisfaction. This may pave the way for a future study on how genetics can impact the quality of relationships over time.

Joan Monin and her team at the Yale School of Public Health interviewed 178 married heterosexuals divided into two groups. One partner in the first group had a painful chronic musculoskeletal condition like back pain or arthritis, while couples in the second group had no such restrictions. 

Additionally, the spouses in both groups had to be at least 50 years old, be married or in a marriage-like relationship, and to have lived with each other for at least six months. One spouse in the first group watched the spouse with chronic pain complete a household task that elicited pain. Afterward, both spouses were interviewed separately and asked questions about their marriage satisfaction. 

Each spouse was also asked to provide a cheek swab for genetic analysis. Participants in the second group were interviewed about one of the wife’s health concerns and one of the husband’s health concerns. Each spouse was randomly chosen to either offer or withhold support from the other partner. Each participant in this group also provided cheek swabs and answered questions about marriage satisfaction.

Monin’s team tested the swabs for variations in a tiny portion of a oxytocin receptor gene. Oxytocin is known as the “love drug” and is associated with everything from romantic love to maternal feelings. The team was looking for a specific variation of the gene called OXTR rs53576. Having a specific OXTR rs53576 genotype is associated with increased empathy, sociability and emotional stability. Monin was interested in whether people with this genotype would have more successful marriages.

Monin found that people with the genotype reported higher marriage satisfaction, and their partners showed similar results. This was even enough to offset people who scored abnormally on questions related to attachment, like concerns about emotional distance or how clingy a partner was. 

They found that there was no gender divide for marriage satisfaction when one spouse had the genotype, indicating that the genetic markers may have been more influential than gender roles. In fact, the group found that this genotype affected up to four percent of marriage satisfaction, which they stated is a greater impact than other genetic factors are believed to have.

While the results look promising on paper, some were concerned about their methods. Both groups were asked to focus on health concerns, which may have distracted them from other aspects of their relationship. Additionally, the couples they used were older and already in successful long-term relationships — this doesn’t show whether a gene may actually lead to longer relationships. 

Bella Radant, a senior at Hopkins who works in a lab, was confused about the actual experiment. 

“They didn’t explain why they chose to use one group with chronic pain,” she said. “The experiment doesn’t make sense for what they’re examining.” 

She didn’t see the connection between marriage satisfaction and the stressful incidents of watching a loved one in pain or discussing health issues if they were looking at a gene. 

Radant was also skeptical about the effect of one gene. 

“There’s so much more in a relationship than genetics,” Radant said. She indicated that communication skills and trust were far more important. She also cited concerns with the publication itself: The study was published on an open access site rather than a dedicated journal.

Monin plans to expand her work to follow couples over a longer period of time. It’s possible that genetics slowly shape a partner’s attachment security and, in turn, their marriage satisfaction. Monin wants to see how this might pan out as a relationship develops and deepens. She was also interested in whether the genotype can help protect couples from adverse life events. 

However, don’t expect to be taking any genetic test to determine whether this partner’s the one any time soon — relationships are complex and scientists are still unsure to what extent genes may affect our love lives.

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