Are You Genetically Predisposed for Romantic Happiness?

Differences in oxytocin receptor genes predict long-term relationship happiness.

Posted Mar 30, 2019

Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock
Source: Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock

Does the idea of marriage appeal to you? Do you feel safe and secure in long-term relationships, or do you find yourself anxious or always looking for the next best thing? Have you ever felt like you're not made for long-term love?

Inclinations towards staying single, playing the field, or settling down are often discussed as outcomes of learned experiences (e.g., childhood, dating history, etc.). In other words, how happy you feel tying your world to one person might reflect how you've learned to view and perceive intimacy with others. Recent attention, however, has turned to a possible genetic predisposition for happiness in long-term, monogamous relationships. The focus? Oxytocin.

Differences in oxytocin could mean differences in relationship skills.

Oxytocin, often called the "trust hormone," is naturally produced by the human body and has implications for social bonding. Its receptors vary across people, and that's where things get interesting. Scientists have identified three types of oxytocin receptors: GG, AG, and AA.

An accumulating body of evidence points to the social-bonding benefits of carrying the GG genotype, including emotional stability, empathy, and an ability to recognize social cues (e.g., Uzefovsky et al., 2015). Until recently, no research had specifically examined oxytocin receptor variation and its role in romantic relationship functioning.

Can variations in oxytocin explain why some people are happier in long-term relationships?

Researchers out of Yale University asked this question by analyzing secondary data obtained for two different experiments, which comprised approximately 175 heterosexual married couples (Monin, Goktas, Kershaw, & DeWan, 2019). Their goal was to test for relations among measures of relationship satisfaction, attachment, and OXTR genotyping. They were particularly interested in how one spouse's OXTR genotyping might predict their own and their partner's marital satisfaction.

Results showed that carriers of the GG genotype reported more happiness in their marriages, and their spouses also reported more happiness. No such effect was observed for carriers of the AG or AA genotype. Having at least one partner with a GG genotype predicted greater happiness for both individuals.

Interestingly, the link between GG genotype and marital satisfaction was mediated by the spouse's attachment anxiety: meaning, individuals who had the GG genotype tended to be more happy in their relationships potentially because the GG genotype predicted less anxiety, which, in turn, predicted higher relationship quality (Monin et al., 2019).

The value of this study is its contribution to the idea that yes, genetics appear to be associated at least in a small degree to subjective judgments of relationship experiences, including happiness in long-term romantic relationships. When couples are blissfully married, then, it could reflect a benefit of the GG genotype, among other factors. However, such direct causal assumptions are not warranted from correlational research. In no way does this research suggest that GG genotype determines relationship outcomes. Indeed, attachment orientations are still considered primarily learned, and even in this study, their observed mediating role could mean that GG genotypes are helpful, but are potentially less important than attachment styles.

Oxytocin receptor differences are not such that they can fully explain unhappiness in relationships, particular for an individual person or a specific couple. Indeed, despite all of the media attention this specific study has attracted, the findings suggest that oxytocin receptor variation accounts for only 4 percent of the variation of marriage satisfaction. The other 96 percent are left to other factors—making your GG, AG, or AA genotype an unlikely excuse if you're unhappy in long-term relationships.

References

Monin, J. K., Goktas, S. O., Kershaw, T., & DeWan, A. (2019). Associations between spouses’ oxytocin receptor gene polymorphism, attachment security, and marital satisfaction. PloS one, 14(2), e0213083.

Uzefovsky, F., Shalev, I., Israel, S., Edelman, S., Raz, Y., Mankuta, D., ... & Ebstein, R. P. (2015). Oxytocin receptor and vasopressin receptor 1a genes are respectively associated with emotional and cognitive empathy. Hormones and Behavior, 67, 60-65.