Unhappy in Your Marriage? Maybe You Were Just Born That Way

There are a lot of things that make for a good marriage. I don't know what they are, because I've never been married, and I don't believe that human behavior is predictable and controllable via magic formulas, and also "marriage" is a construct based on an archaic daughter-selling ceremony, which means that what actually makes for a good marriage, in the most traditional sense, is a herd of fine steer and a chest of money and a stack of fresh hankies for that weeping 13-year-old. But ANYHOOZ, I'm sure there are some fairly universal things that make for a "good" marriage, such as hugs. And talking. And taking turns doing the dishes. And—according to a new study—possibly your genetic makeup too.

New research out of UC Berkeley suggests that there may be a genetic component to successful longterm monogamous relationships. They studied 100 people, along with their partners, over a period of 13 years, and believe they may have found a link between healthy, stable relationships (a designation that seems utterly subjective, but okay) and an allele known as 5-HTTLPR.



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. The study involved 100 married subjects, with researchers studying their genotypes and observing the subjects with their partners over a period of 13 years.

"We are always trying to understand the recipe for a good relationship, and emotion keeps coming up as an important ingredient," said Levenson.

The new findings don't mean that couples with different variations of 5-HTTLPR are incompatible, the researchers note. Instead, they suggest that those with two short alleles are likelier to thrive in a good relationship and suffer in a bad one.

Clearly the sheer number of complex, confounding factors and external forces that shape every relationship—personal history, unexpected tragedies, basic personal compatibility, whether she laughs or cries at your farts, etc.—make a simple "good at relationships"/"bad at relationships" dichotomy utterly absurd. There are no magic formulas. Everyone is kind of good and kind of bad at every relationship, all of which are both good and bad, and constantly changing, all of the time, until they end, or don't. Wrangling that unpredictable beast is at the core of all longterm relationships.


But it's not so implausible (to me, via my guts, anyway) that different people are very slightly genetically predisposed to processing stresses and problems in very slightly different ways, and that those predispositions might make certain pairings of problem-solvers very slightly more or less compatible. I totally buy that. Like, for instance, when I get stressed out I really really want to talk about it and I stare at my boyfriend like a Keane painting until he runs and hides in the basement, whereas when he gets stressed out he really really wants to doodle on the piano for three hours and OH MY GOD LINDY WHY ARE YOU STARING AT ME ARE YOU HAUNTED OR SOMETHING JESUS CHRIST. We make up for that disconnect by talking and trying hard and loving each other the most and making the best jokes and working and him talking a little more than he wants to and me chilling the fuck out a little more than I want to. It doesn't make us "incompatible"—it's one tiny drop in the big churning, leaky, intoxicating bucket that is a grown-up longterm relationship.

Anyway, back to the study:

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


I still don't totally get if it's better to have short alleles or long alleles, or if your alleles should rub together when you walk or if you should be striving for an allele gap. It seems like if you both have short alleles and you're really super compatible in nearly every way, the only hurdle is that you might cut and run at the first sign of hardship. And the long allele situation sounds safe but a little cold—like, I don't know if I want to just be content in my relationship because I'm not sensitive enough to notice that it's broken. (And obviously, yes, this is all speculative and I am just speculating for fun.)


Whatever the case, relationships are what they are—they're infinitely complex, sometimes they work, sometimes they don't, and there's nothing "bad" about letting them die instead of clinging to longterm unhappiness out of some antiquated obligation. Especially when it just might be biology.

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