Study shows DNA linked to marital satisfaction

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Married couples short on satisfaction might want to look at the length of their genes, according to a study released this week by UC Berkeley researchers.

In a paper published on Oct. 7 in the journal Emotion, researchers revealed a link between DNA and the susceptibility of marital satisfaction to emotional influences. Researchers looked at a certain allele — a gene variant people inherit from each parent — that comes in a long or short version.

The researchers found inheritance of two short alleles predicted a heightened reaction to the emotional ups and downs of marriage. In contrast, the longer variant attenuates the effects of emotional fluctuation on spouses’ relationship satisfaction, according to Lian Bloch, a former graduate student at UC Berkeley who worked on the study.

“It certainly does point to the implication that our genes actually have a role in how emotions can affect our relationships, which is pretty profound,” Bloch said.

According to campus psychology professor Robert Levenson, the senior author of the study, these findings are the result of  more than 20 years of research. Levenson observed and surveyed a 156-person sample of married couples every five years, beginning in 1989.

“We bring them in our lab so we can take a snapshot of their marital interaction,” Levenson said. “We send them cards on their anniversary and stuff. So we’ve been part of their lives for two decades.”

In 2009, researchers received a grant allowing them to collect and study DNA from 125 people in the group. They had previously compiled a “recipe” for marital success based on which emotions couples generate and how they regulate them, Levenson said.

“Those are the ingredients,” Levenson said. “Now the question is, where do they come from? We thought, ‘Well, maybe one of the sources of these emotional ingredients are genetic differences.’ ”

They chose to focus on this particular allele, according to Levenson, because of its known connection to emotional responsiveness. It regulates serotonin, a chemical important in mood adjustment. People with two of the short alleles tend to experience the chemical more strongly.

While the short allele has been linked to negative outcomes, such as higher risks of depression and anxiety, Bloch said the results of this study are not black and white. While the short variation decreases resistance to emotional turmoil, it also allows a person to flourish more in a positive emotional climate.

According to Levenson, researchers are continuing to study DNA collected from the 125-person sample, including a gene that regulates dopamine, another mood-adjusting chemical. Like Bloch, he points to the nuances in this genetic evidence.

“This is not destiny,” Levenson said. “These are just slight differences in how you react to your environments. But they do accumulate over the days and the months and the years and the decades.”

Contact Melissa Wen at [email protected].