Dr. Robert Levenson, University of California Berkeley - Genetics of Marital Bliss

Dec 19, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Robert Levenson of the University of California Berkeley explores the genetics nature of marital satisfaction.

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Robert Levenson is a professor of psychology at the University of California Berkeley where his research is focused on the areas of human psychophysiology and affective neuroscience. More specifically, his work examines the nature of human emotion, in terms of its physiological manifestations, variations in emotion associated with age, gender, culture, and pathology, and the role emotion plays in interpersonal interactions.  He holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.

About Dr. Levenson

Dr. Robert Levenson - Genetics of Marital Bliss

When spouses are unhappy in their marriage, their well-being suffers, their health may decline, and they may ultimately be headed to divorce. Why is it that for some couples, even a tiny bit of negativity is toxic for the relationship, but for others the emotional quality of their interactions doesn’t seem to matter?

Our research shows that part of the answer lies in our DNA, specifically, in the 5-HTTLPR gene , a gene that is involved in the regulation of serotonin. All humans inherit a copy of this gene from each parent. We found that study participants with two short 5- HTTLPR alleles were most unhappy in their marriages when there was a lot of negative emotion, such as anger and contempt, and most happy when there was a lot of positive emotion, such as humor and affection. By contrast, participants with one or two long alleles were far less bothered by the emotional tenor of their marriages.

Participants in our study belong to a group of 156 middle-aged and older couples whose relationships have been followed by our research group since 1989. Every five years, the couples have come to UC Berkeley to report on their marital satisfaction and interact with one another in a lab setting while our research team analyzes their conversations based on facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and physiological responses.  More recently, 125 of the study participants provided DNA samples, and we were able, for the first time, to link the 5-HTTLPR genotype, emotion, and marital satisfaction.

An enduring mystery is what makes one spouse so attuned to the emotional climate in a marriage, and another so unaffected. With these new genetic findings, we now understand much more about what determines how important emotions are for different people.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.