Claudia Haase’s New Study Links DNA to Marital Happiness

Claudia Haase

What makes some people more prone to wedded bliss or sorrow than others? A study by SESP assistant professor Claudia Haase and her fellow researchers found a genetic link to marital happiness. A gene involved in the regulation of serotonin can predict how much emotions affect relationships, according to this study conducted at University of California–Berkeley, which may be the first to link genetics, emotions and marital satisfaction.

A puzzling mystery about marriage has been why some spouses are very emotionally attuned to the emotions in their marriage — from negative emotion such as anger and contempt to positive emotion such as humor and affection. All the while, other spouses are oblivious.

“Our study shows that part of the answer to this question lies in our DNA: Individuals with a particular variant of the 5-HTTLPR gene, those with two short alleles, are happiest in their marriage when the emotional climate is positive and unhappiest when the emotional climate is negative, much like hothouse flowers who thrive when conditions are good and wither when the climate is bad,” Haase explains. “Conversely, individuals with other variants of 5-HTTLPR are much less sensitive to the emotional climate in a marriage.”

“Neither of these genetic variants is inherently good or bad,” she adds. “Each has its advantages and disadvantages.”

UC Berkeley psychologist Robert W. Levenson, the senior author on the paper, heads up a longitudinal study of married couples who were studied in this research. Levenson emphasizes that these new genetic findings clarify how important emotions are for different people. “We are always trying to understand the recipe for a good relationship, and emotion keeps coming up as an important ingredient,” he says.

The new findings don’t mean that couples with different variations of 5-HTTLPR are incompatible, the researchers note. Instead, it suggests that those with two short alleles are likelier to thrive in a good relationship and suffer in a bad one. The results of the study, which looked at the genotypes of 125 spouses and observed how they interacted with their partners over time, bore this out, they say.

Participants in the study belong to a group of 156 middle-aged and older couples whose relationships Levenson and fellow researchers have followed since 1989. Every five years, the couples have visited 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.

More recently, 125 of the study participants provided DNA samples, and researchers linked their genotypes to their levels of marital satisfaction and the emotional tenor of their interactions in the lab setting.

For spouses with two short 5-HTTLPR alleles, who made up 17 percent of the spouses studied, researchers found a strong correlation between the emotional tone of their conversations and how they felt about their marriage. For the 83 percent of spouses with one or two long alleles, on the other hand, the emotional quality of their discussions bore little or no relation to their marital satisfaction over the next decade.

The link between genes, emotion and marital satisfaction was particularly pronounced for older adults. “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,” Levenson says.

The study was published online in the journal Emotion, a publication of the American Psychological Association.

This story is adapted from a UC Berkeley press release by Yasmin Answar, available at http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2013/10/07/marriage-gene/

By Yasmin Anwar, adapted by Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 10/9/13