How Much Damage Does an Argument Do? Depends on Your Genes


An interesting research study out of the University of California at Berkeley and Northwestern University this week highlights another possible difference between you and your spouse. It has to do with the 5-HTTLPR gene, one that has been studied a lot over the last decade.
This gene helps regulate the transport of seratonin (aka 5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT) as messages are relayed along your nerves, especially within your brain. You might know that many antidepressants are selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), because having less seratonin available for one neuron to signal the next seems to correlate with the likelihood of serious depression.
You get one copy of the gene from each parent. And like all genes, they vary a bit. The two alleles (variations) of the 5-HTTLPR gene are called Short and Long, named for their length, of course. There are slightly more long ones around than short (around 55% vs. 45%). If both are of the short variety, a person is more prone to depression and binge drinking, but also to empathy (emotional and physiological) for others experiencing distress.
So here is what the new study this week adds. People with two short HTTLPR genes are more sensitive to the emotional climate of their marriage. They are more likely to change their assessment of the marriage based on the emotions experienced in recent dealings with their spouse, whether verbal or through body language or even choice of what to talk about.
In their study, 17% of the study participants had two short genes, while 83% had at least one long one.
If you are the sort who lets an argument or a bit of contemptuous behavior wash right over you or can easily survive a lack of closeness and positive emotion for a few months, be aware that you may be married to someone with a different genetic makeup. Your spouse may be re-evaluating your entire marriage based on such events.
If you are the sort who is highly attuned to emotional events in your marriage, both positive and negative, be aware that your spouse may not be making any repair attempts because he or she is genetically predisposed not to notice. If repairs are needed, ask for them.
On average, according to research done by John Gottman and his lab, it takes five positive interactions for every negative one to keep a marriage healthy. But this new research suggests we might want to shoot for a higher ratio with a spouse who is highly sensitive to emotional tone, highly reactive to movies showing people in distress, or prone to bouts of depression.
The research appears in this week’s Online First releases of the journal Emotion, published by the American Psychological Association. The title is The 5-HTTLPR Polymorphism in the Serotonin Transporter Gene Moderates the Association Between Emotional Behavior and Changes in Marital Satisfaction Over Time. The authors are Haase, C. M., Saslow, L. R., Bloch, L., Saturn, S. R., Casey, J., Seider, B. H., Lane, J., Coppola, G., & Levenson, R. W.
Please let me know if research reports like this one interest you. I write this blog for you.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • Fascinating!
    Yes, Research reports like this are of great interest to me. Nice to see some “hard science” connections to what is a rather subjective topic in many ways.

  • I love these type of posts, Patty. What an interesting and telling study. Although not many of us can afford genetic testing/counseling, I bet we can each make a fairly good diagnosis on our own. Old Sir Jolly is getting a “must read” on this one.
    Thank you!

  • YES!!! My fave type of article in the marriage community. There is way too much mumbo jumbo fluff out here on other blogs. You and Winifred are a marvelous help by providing a good dose of reality and then backing it with science. Thank you, Patty, for sharing this and making sense of an important study for your readers!!!
    I really need to consider whether I have 2 shorties. When you have such a great spouse as I do, it’s hard to tell. The need for repairs are rare and we get more QT than most couples. So, I really cannot guess. Hmmmmm….

  • Patty, research-based information is so important, and I thank you for bringing our attention to this kind of study, and for explaining it in clear language.

By Patty Newbold

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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