Nice Genes: Serotonin, Conflict, and Marital Satisfaction
May 1, 2015
Science of Relationships in Hot Topics, communication, conflict, genes, genetics, marital satisfaction, satisfaction

Ever wonder what can cause one couple to stay together and another to divorce? One study found that high levels of negative emotion such as arguing or criticism and low levels of positive emotion such as indifference during marital interactions were associated with lower levels of martial satisfaction.1 In other words, if a couple fights a lot, and does so in a not-so-nice way, they’re not as happy in their marriage. This conclusion seems like a “no brainer.” Who wants to be in a hostile relationship?  

But we all know couples that seem to fight all the time yet remain relatively happy and stay together for years, whereas others seem to split at the first sign of a disagreement. Is there a way to tell if a relationship is at risk for being especially affected by negative interaction dynamics? Some studies have looked at things like coping processes,2 attachment styles3 and capacity for forgiveness4 as factors that may influence marriage longevity, in other words, maybe couples that know how to cope with (and recover from) conflict better, or are not particularly insecure, or are better at forgiving are less likely to suffer when their marriages face the inevitable arguments that all couples face.

However, researchers at the University of California – Berkeley wanted to find out if there might a genetic component that could predict how couple interactions affect marital satisfaction.5 Specifically, the team decided to look at the 5-HTTLPR polymorphism in the promoter region of the serotonin transporter gene. That is a long title for different forms of the gene that produce and transport your hormone of happiness where it needs to be. This gene has two forms or alleles (short and long). Each person has two alleles, or copies, of the gene. A person can have either one long and one short (L/s) or two long (L/L), or two short (s/s). Unfortunately, the person with the short forms has lower levels of serotonin uptake. And, when it comes to serotonin, the more uptake, or more serotonin you can get where is needs to be, the merrier. Therefore, the question was would people with two short (s/s) alleles be more dissatisfied in their relationships?

The researchers conducted a 13-year long study of long-term marriages to find out if there was a correlation between this 5-HTTLPR gene and marital satisfaction. They focused on middle age and later life couples, because the efficiency of the serotonin system declines with age (i.e., the genetic link between serotonin-related genes and marital satisfaction would presumably be stronger, or magnified, in older couples).

The researchers looked at couples’ emotional behavior during a 15 minute conflict conversation,(i.e., how they behaved during an argument), genes, and marital satisfaction to determine if there was an association between the three. They found that individuals with the short (s/s) allele were most affected by negative emotions in the marriage;, such as expressions of anger, disgust or whining by the other spouse. Where as individuals with long alleles (L/s) or (L/L) were not affected by emotions, regardless of their propensity to display good or bad emotions during conflict?. In addition, older women were most affected as were older adults (relative to middle-aged adults).

So does this mean that short-allele grandma’s going to leave gramps? Not necessarily. I emailed Dr. Robert Levinson, the contact for the study, and he assured me that these findings did not necessarily predict disaster for a marriage. He stated that the results suggest that if someone has the (s/s) allele then they will be especially sensitive to the emotional quality of the relationship, good or bad -- suffering when it’s bad, but blossoming when it’s good.6 That means as long as grandpa’s nice, chances are good grandma’s staying.

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1Carstensen, L. L., Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1995) Emotional behavior on long-term marriage. Psychology and Aging, 10, 140-149.

2Randell, A., & Brodenman, G. (2009) The role of stress on close relationships and marital satisfaction. Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 105-115.

3Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2003). The attachment behavioral system in adulthood: activation, psychodynamics, and interpersonal processes.  Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 53-152.

4Fincham, F., Stanley, S. M., & Beach, S. R. H. (2007). Transformative processes in marriage: An analysis of emerging trends. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 275-292.

5Haase, C. Saslow, L., Bloch, L., Saturn, S., Casey, J., Seider, B., Lane, J., Coppola, G., & Levenson, R. (2013). The 5-HTTLPR polymorphism in the serotonin transporter gene moderates the association between emotional behavior and changes in marital satisfaction over time. Emotion, 13, 1068-1079.

6Levinson, R. (personal communication, June 24, 2014).

Dawn Maslar, M.S. - Website
Dawn’s focus is on how love evolves over time, and how that affects finding and maintaining a relationship. She is an award-winning author of From Heartbreak to Heart’s Desire: Developing a Healthy GPS (Guy Picking System) and an adjunct biology professor. She worked with the TED Education division (Lessons Worth Sharing) to create The Science of Attraction video, and she also blogs and vlogs about romantic love and attraction on her website. Her work has been featured on South Florida Today, Pittsburgh Tribune and NPR. Follow her on twitter @DawnMaslar.

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