Is There a Strong-Relationship Gene?

New research reveals the role of genes in marital satisfaction.

Posted Mar 03, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
Is there a genetic component to having a strong relationship?
Source: Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
  • A three-year study of newlywed couples found that people with a particular genotype appeared to be more satisfied in their marriages.
  • Individuals with this genotype reported greater trust, forgiveness, and gratitude toward their partners.
  • The findings are not causal; having the genotype does not mean one is destined for a happy marriage.

Relationships are important, and we all want a great one. We also want to be the best partner possible. Yet it’s easy to see that some people are better at relationships than others. Clearly, lots of factors contribute to a person’s relationship abilities.  

But what if there was a genetic marker for having a strong relationship? Sure, it sounds a bit like an episode of Black Mirror, but researchers have been exploring this possibility. In particular, they have started to focus on the CD38 gene and its role in oxytocin release (Jin et al., 2007). That research, along with some work identifying CD38’s role in romantic relationships (e.g., Algoe & Way, 2014; Sadikaj et al., 2020), led to speculation that the CD38 gene may influence specific thoughts and behaviors that strengthen couples’ bonds. 

How They Did It

In a just-published study from February 2021, a research team from the University of Arkansas, Florida State University, and McGill University collected data from 71 heterosexual newlywed couples (N = 142 participants) in their early 30s. Within three months of getting married, couples completed a series of baseline measures regarding gratitude (“I feel appreciation for the things that my partner does for me”), trust (“How much do you trust your partner?”), forgiveness (i.e., the likelihood of forgiving the partner after a specific transgression: “snapping at you”), perceived severity of relationships problems (e.g., “showing affection, amount of time spent together, children; in-laws, religion, household management”), and marital satisfaction, as well as some additional exploratory measures (e.g., commitment, jealousy, and attachment insecurity: “I am afraid to lose my partner’s love”). 

Over the next three years, both partners completed measures of marital satisfaction every four months, along with saliva samples for DNA extraction. (Of the 142 samples, researchers successfully obtained adequate DNA from 139.) In particular, the researchers focused on rs3796863 (which is a “single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP), rs3796863, of either an adenine (A) or cytosine (C) located within an intron”).   

Findings

Those who had the rs3796863 CC genotype reported greater marital satisfaction, compared to those with the AC/AA type. In addition, those with the CC genotype also reported more trust, forgiveness, and gratitude toward their relationship partner. These associations were the same for men and women. Findings related to perceived severity of relationship problems were inconclusive.

Next, the researchers explored why those with the rs3796863 CC genotype may be more satisfied in their marriage. In particular, they sought to determine if the bonding-relevant cognitions (more trust, forgiveness, and gratitude) played a role. Their results indicated that of these three cognitions, trust largely explained the rs3796863 CC genotype’s benefits. That is, those with the CC genotype felt more trusting toward their partner, which was associated with reporting greater marital satisfaction.

Researchers also did several exploratory analyses and found no association between the rs3796863 CC genotype and attachment insecurity or jealousy. However, those with the CC genotype did report greater relationship commitment. There was also a gender difference such that men with the CC genotype had a stronger couple identity (i.e., thought of the relationship more as “us” & “we”) and were less likely to pay attention to other potential partners. They did not find associations between these behaviors and wives’ genotypes.

Finally, results suggested that those with the rs3796863 CC genotype remained more satisfied in their marriage over the course of the three-year study. Though encouraging, the authors acknowledge that these results should be replicated.

What These Results Mean

Admittedly, it’s fascinating to think that we can identify genes that help us have stronger and more satisfying marriages. Now you may be wondering if you have the gene, or more importantly perhaps, if your partner does. At the moment, there is no easy way to tell. 

It’s also important to realize that any genetic marker associated with a behavior — in this case marital satisfaction — isn’t causal. That is, every person with this CC genotype won’t be great at relationships. And every person without it won’t be hopeless when it comes to love. Genes aren’t destiny. But this research does show that there are genetic underpinnings to our behavior. By studying them we can gain a better understanding of how the ways we think about our relationship and our partner impact the quality and strength of our relationships. 

References

To learn more, see my new book Stronger Than You Think: The 10 Blind Spots That Undermine Your Relationship...and How to See Past Them

Jin,D. et al. (2007). CD38 is critical for social behavior by regulating oxytocin secretion. Nature, 446, 41–45. 

Algoe, S. B. & Way, B. M. (2014). Evidence for a role of the oxytocin system, indexed by genetic variation in CD38,in the social bonding effects of expressed gratitude. Social Cognition and Affective Neuroscience, 9, 1855–1861. 

Sadikaj, G., Moskowitz, D. S., Zuroff, D. C., & Bartz, J. A. (2020). CD38 is associated with communal behavior, partner perceptions, affect and relationship adjustment in romantic relationships. Scientific Reports, 2, 2. 

Makhanova, A., McNulty, J.K., Eckel, L.A., Nikonova, L., Bartz, J. A., & Hammock, E. (2021). CD38 is associated with bonding-relevant cognitions and relationship satisfaction over the first 3 years of marriage. Scientific Reports, 11, 2965. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-82307-z