How important is it to consider the genetic profile of a romantic partner before getting married?
It is logical to think that genetic factors can be the basis of many traits already used by the corresponding sites – such as personality and empathy – that many assume could promote initial chemistry and long-term potential in specific pairs. So perhaps it is not surprising that there are now websites that combine genetic testing and matchmaking.
But do the corresponding intimate partners based on specific genes have any scientific basis? Studies have shown that genetically identical twins, grown separately, evaluate the overall quality of their marriages in a similar way, suggesting a lasting genetic contribution to married life. However, specific genes that are relevant to marriage, and why, remain a mystery.
As such, the prediction of marital compatibility based on specific combinations of genetic profiles is based on a tenuous scientific basis. Currently, researchers are just starting to identify genes that can be associated with marital happiness and through which processes.
Why study the effects of genes on marriage?
As a scientist and clinical psychologist, I have a long-standing interest in identifying the factors that contribute to a happy marriage, such as how couples cope with conflicts. My interest in the exploration of genetic determinants, however, has developed more recently.
Genes are segments of DNA that encode a particular trait. A gene can take various forms called alleles and the combination of the two alleles inherited from both parents represents its own genotype. The differences in the genotype correspond to observable differences within that trait among individuals.
Although genes underlie individual differences in a wide range of characteristics considered relevant for marriage, I am specifically interested in the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR). Oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the love hormone, seems to play a significant role in emotional attachment. For example, oxytocin floods a new mother at the birth of a child and peaks during sex. Therefore, I reasoned that the gene that regulates oxytocin, OXTR, could be good to study in the context of marriage, since it is often implicated in the way we become attached to other humans. Furthermore, OXTR has been associated with a range of phenomena related to human social behavior, including trust and sociability.
Of more interest to me is that the OXTR gene has been linked to physiological responses to social support and to traits considered essential to support processes, such as empathy. Considered together with the results that the quality of social care is a determining factor of the general marital quality, the evidence implied that the variations on the OXTR gene could be linked to the subsequent conjugal quality, influencing the way in which the partners they supported each other. To test this hypothesis, I brought together a multidisciplinary team of scientists including psychologists with additional expertise in conjugal research, a geneticist and a neuroendocrinologist specializing in oxytocin.
Together, our team recruited 79 married couples of different sex to participate in our study. We therefore asked each partner to identify an important personal problem – unrelated to marriage – to discuss with the spouse for 10 minutes.
These discussions were recorded and subsequently coded according to the way in which each partner solicited and provided "positive" support through the evaluation of elements such as problem solving and active listening. Couples responded separately to different questionnaires including a measure of perceived quality of the support received during the interaction. Each person also provided saliva samples that our team analyzed to determine which two alleles of the OXTR gene carried by each person.
Genetic variation and conjugal quality
Based on previous evidence, we have focused our attention on two specific positions on the OXTR gene: rs1042778 and rs4686302. As expected, higher quality social support has been associated with marital quality. Furthermore, genetic variation in each OXTR site for both spouses and wives was related to partner behavior during support discussions.
However, individuals did not seem more or less satisfied with the support received based on differences in the positive abilities used by their partners during interaction.
Rather, we found that husbands with two copies of the T allele at a specific location on OXTR (rs1042778) perceived that their partners provided lower quality support. This was regardless of whether his partner's support abilities were strong or weak.
For us, this implied that husbands with the TT genotype had more difficulty interpreting their respective wife's behavior as supportive. This is consistent with other findings involving this same genotype in cognitive-social deficits, as well as autism.
In particular, the married husband and wife also reported being less satisfied with their marriage overall than those with different combinations of alleles. This suggests that couples in which the husband carries two copies of the T allele were worse, in part, because these men had difficulty perceiving their wife's behavior as an aid – a notion that eventually our statistical analysis He claimed.
Do we have the necessary evidence to start screening potential husbands for specific combinations of genes that look harmful to marriage?
I would not recommend doing it for some reasons. The first is that genes can influence a wide range of characteristics, which can be detrimental to a marriage in some aspects, but beneficial to others. Although we discovered that having two copies of the T allele seems to be a responsibility in the context of social support, exploratory analyzes have revealed that this combination also seemed to confer a positive influence on marriage. The exact mechanism is not clear, but we assume that being less sensitive to social nuances can be protective in other areas of marriage, for example, by smoothing hostile exchanges during disagreements.
More precisely, supposing that a single gene can create or destroy a marriage, the complexity of genetics and marriage is underestimated. It is possible that certain genes may be more or less harmful depending on the rest of a partner's genetic profile. However, at present there are no published data on which to base any kind of proposed correspondence. Therefore, excluding future husbands on the basis of variations within or between genes does not make much sense.
However, there are still practical implications for our current results. Researchers have shown that social support from intimate partners can buffer the deleterious effects of stress on mental and physical health. To the extent that certain genotypes affect an individual's ability to feel sustained, that person may be more susceptible to the effects of stress. Therefore, the screening of men for the TT genotype on OXTR could help identify those at risk for problems related to stress. In addition, future research may highlight how to adapt the offer of social support in ways that can benefit these individuals.
There are also many other potentially relevant positions on OXTR, as well as other genes that may be relevant to relationships. Our study provides a model for the approach to the study of conjugal genetics.
Richard Mattson is an associate professor and director of university studies in psychology at Binghamton University, New York State University. This was first published in The Conversation – "How your genes could influence the quality of your wedding"
Now read: 8 strange things that the happiest couples in America have in common
Receive a daily rundown of the main personal finance readings delivered to your inbox. Sign up for the free Personal Finance Daily newsletter from MarketWatch. Sign up here.