Marriage Gene?

A correspondence with Dr.Gene-Pair:

SMF: Are some people more genetically predisposed to marriage? Is there a “marriage gene”?

Dr. Gene-Pair: Well, if I were to oversimplify things a bit, the answer to this question is “Yes, there is a marriage gene.” However, I wouldn’t rush to test myself or my spouse for genetic predisposition to marriage anytime soon.

A relatively recent study (see citation below) identified a common variant of a certain gene, by the name of AVPR1A, that is implicated in the functionality of intimate relationships among the opposite of sex. Males possessing a gene variant, or allele, known as “334” earned low scores on their partner-bonding scale and were less likely to be married at all.

Men carrying two copies of 334 were twice as likely to have had a marital crisis in the past year. Their wives were much more likely to report dissatisfaction with their marriage. “Fifteen percent of the men carrying no 334 allele reported marital crisis, whereas 34 percent of the men carrying two copies of this allele reported marital crisis,” the researchers wrote.

More than 30 percent of the men who had at least one copy of 334 were unmarried, compared to 17 percent of the men who had no copies.

It is also noteworthy that the 334 allele and other variants in the AVPR1A gene (a gene that codes for a vasopressin receptor) have been linked previously to aggressive behavior and altruism (or lack thereof) in other studies. One of these studies suggested a link with autism, which affects the ability to interact socially, while another showed over-activation of the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center. Also, a previous study involving different species of voles found that monogamy vs. promiscuity was heavily influenced by the makeup of the AVPR1A gene in the rodent under investigation.

Altogether, what does all this mean? Unfortunately, not a whole lot more than we already know. A rise from 15% to 34% of men reporting marital crisis is definitely statistically significant, but not a whole lot more! What about the other 66% of men carrying two copies of the “nasty” 334 allele? Why aren’t they divorcing? The study cited above indicates that the wives of 334-affected men are putting up with them, but, unlike the numbers I have already provided, these numbers are less convincing.

Clearly, societal and social elements play heavily into the success of marriages in general. Yes, some people are naturally more inclined to pursue close relationships with the opposite sex than others, but genetics cannot fully explain behavioral patterns of such complexity. This is probably why no study, to date, has identified a gene that demonstrates a truly remarkable rise from 15% to say 85% allele-carrying individuals who have experienced marital crisis. Honestly, I don’t think it’s possible.

Genetic variation in the vasopressin receptor 1a gene (AVPR1A) associates with pair- bonding behavior in humans. Walum H, Westberg L, Henningsson S, Neiderhiser JM, Reiss D, Igl W, Ganiban JM, Spotts EL, Pedersen NL, Eriksson E, Lichtenstein P. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Sep 16;105(37):14153-6.

About Dr. Gene-Pair

Dr. Gene-Pair (alias) was born and raised in New York City. He received his bachelor degrees from the University of Pennsylvania in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and Biology. Shortly after, he married and emigrated to Israel where he pursued his graduate studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Gene-Pair recently completed his doctoral training in Human Genetics. Currently, he resides in Jerusalem, Israel, with his wife and four children.
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