As humans we would like to think that we’re in control of our emotions. That disagreements with loved ones are settled completely on our terms. It turns out, however, that we may be heavily influenced by genetics when it comes to how much stock we put in the emotional world.
A new study, published this week in the journal Emotion, has found a link between a gene in humans and how we deal with emotions in relationships. The study followed over 100 married people, observing their marital interactions over the course of years. Those with shorter versions of specific gene alleles were more likely to describe themselves as unhappy or happy during times of trouble or joy in their relationships. Those with longer versions of the gene were not as affected by emotional changes in their marriages.
“An enduring mystery is, what makes one spouse so attuned to the emotional climate in a marriage, and another so oblivious?” said Robert Levenson, co-author of the study and a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley. “With these new genetic findings, we now understand much more about what determines just how important emotions are for different people.”
The gene, named 5-HTTLPR, is involved in the regulation of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in feelings of well-being. Levenson and his colleagues believe this could contribute to strong feelings for those with short versions of the gene, meaning those people would feel better than most when in a positive marriage – but feel worse than others when things turn sour.
“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 Claudia Haase, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University. “Conversely, people with one or two long alleles are less sensitive to the emotional climate.”