The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Is the Secret to a Happy Marriage Held in Your DNA?

A new study discovers a specific gene linked to happier marriages.

Are you happily married? Did you grow up in a home with two parents who were happily married? My parents had a horrible ‘War of the Roses’ kind of divorce. As a kid, it was a living hell to watch their marriage go up in flames. Unfortunately, I have seen many of my friends go through heartbreaking divorces that leave each spouse and any children involved poisoned by the toxic emotions. Like everyone, I also have plenty of friends and family who are happily married and always will be. What elements make happy marriages different?

Does divorce run in families? Are some people genetically predisposed to stay happily married? Researchers at UC Berkeley and Northwestern University have found a major clue in our DNA. The scientists have honed in on a gene involved in the regulation of serotonin and can predict how much our emotions affect our relationships. Researchers have found a link between relationship fulfillment and a gene variant, or "allele," known as 5-HTTLPR.

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This new study is one of the first to link genetics, emotions, and marital satisfaction. The paper titled, “The 5-HTTLPR Polymorphism in the Serotonin Transporter Gene Moderates the Association Between Emotional Behavior and Changes in Marital Satisfaction Over Time” was published on October 7, 2013 in the online journal Emotion.

According to the CDC about 50% of marriages end in divorce. "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 paper. "With these new genetic findings, we now understand much more about what determines just how important emotions are for different people."

The length of your 5-HTTLPR gene may influence marriage compatibility.

Every child inherits a copy of the 5-HTTLPR gene from each parent. Study participants with two short 5-HTTLPR alleles were found to be most unhappy in their marriages when there was a lot of negative emotion, such as anger and contempt, and most happy when there was positive emotion, such as humor and affection. By contrast, those with one or two long alleles were far less bothered by the emotional tenor of their marriages.

"Neither of these genetic variants is inherently good or bad," emphasizes Claudia M. Haase, assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University and lead author of the study. Adding, "Each has its advantages and disadvantages."

Levenson and his fellow researchers have been following a group of 156 middle-aged and older couples since 1989. Every five years, the couples have come to UC Berkeley to report on their marital satisfaction and interact with one another in a lab setting while researchers code their conversations based on facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and topic of discussion.

Recently, 125 of the study participants provided DNA samples, and researchers matched their genotypes with their levels of marital satisfaction and the emotional tenor of their interactions in the lab setting. "We are always trying to understand the recipe for a good relationship, and emotion keeps coming up as an important ingredient," said Levenson.

The results of the study found that spouses with two short 5-HTTLPR alleles, who made up 17% of the spouses studied, had a strong correlation between the emotional tone of their conversations and how they felt about their marriage. On the flip side, the 83% of spouses 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.

As the child of two parents who seemed like oil and water I wonder, "Did my mom and dad each have short 5-HTTLPR alleles which made them emotionally volatile and ultimately incompatible?" Maybe if they had known that they were genetically mismatched from the beginning—but gotten married anyway because they were in love—they would have made an extra effort to squelch some of their anger and negativity towards one another and tried harder to bring loving-kindness and positive emotions to the relationship after the ‘honeymoon phase’ was over?

The link between genes, emotion and marital satisfaction was found to be particularly pronounced for older adults according to Levenson. He concluded, "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.”

Marriage Is the Sacrifice of Ego When Two Become One

Joseph Campbell once said in an interview with Bill Moyers for The Power of Myth: “Marriage is not a simple love affair, it’s an ordeal, and the ordeal is the sacrifice of ego to a relationship in which two have become one.” Below is the full quotation:

MOYERS: Then the necessary function of marriage, perpetuating ourselves in children, is not the primary one.

CAMPBELL: No, that’s really just the elementary aspect of marriage. There are two completely different stages of marriage. First is the youthful marriage following the wonderful impulse that nature has given us in the interplay of the sexes biologically in order to produce children. But there comes a time when the child graduates from the family and the couple is left. I’ve been amazed at the number of my friends who in their forties or fifties go apart. They have had a perfectly decent life together with the child, but they interpreted their union in terms of their relationship through the child. They did not interpret it in terms of their own personal relationship to each other.

Marriage is a relationship. When you make the sacrifice in marriage, you’re sacrificing not to each other but to unity in a relationship. The Chinese image of the Tao, with the dark and light interacting — that’s the relationship of yang and yin ... which is what a marriage is. And that’s what you have become when you have married. You’re no longer this one alone; your identity is in a relationship. Marriage is not a simple love affair, it’s an ordeal, and the ordeal is the sacrifice of ego to a relationship in which two have become one.

Conclusion: Beware of Potential Genetic Testing Backlash

Studies like this create a potential Brave New World scenario where people on the dating scene and matchmakers might start to look at DNA and 5-HTTLPR alleles when choosing a mate. This could easily backfire.

"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. "Conversely, people with one or two long alleles are less sensitive to the emotional climate."

The researchers emphasize that, “The new findings don't mean that couples with different variations of 5-HTTLPR are incompatible. Instead, it suggests that those with two short alleles are likelier to thrive in a good relationship and suffer in a bad one.” Like all of us, really.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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