Tag Archives: caring

Genes May Contribute to Relationship Empathy

A new study out just this month that appeared in the online journal Emotion, published by the American Psychological Association, suggests that our genes may determine how inclined we are toward empathy. This means that the level of connection we have toward our spouse’s negative emotional state may have more to do with their biological makeup than with how much they care.

Researchers suggest that our genetic makeup may make some people more responsive to their partner’s emotional states and others less so. Their theory is that the serotonin transporter gene 5-HTTLPR might play a role in making us either less or more responsive to our spouses’ emotions.

The study involved data from 172 couples who remained married after 11 years. Researchers found some people have one variant of the gene, while others have a second variant. Depending on which variant you or your spouse has, your emotions may be more or less connected to your partner’s emotions. The gene appears to control how long your reaction lasts, and how responsive you are to your spouse’s emotional cues.

While we can’t blame our actions on our biology, Bradbury says we do need to realize that who we are is in large part a makeup of our biology, and that our reactions are sometimes outside our control. However, researcher Tom Bradbury says, “It’s much more complex than a single gene.”

The reason this understanding is important, say the psychologists, is not so that we can explain away our own behavior, but instead that we learn to be more forgiving of our spouse. “This research may imply that we should be forgiving of the behavior of a loved one and not demand that a spouse change her or his behavior,” said the psychologists.

  “Who you are and how you respond to me has a lot to do with things that are totally outside your control,” said Bradbury. “My partner’s biology is invisible to me; I have no clue about that. The more I can appreciate that the connection between who I am and who my partner is may be biologically mediated leads me to be much more appreciative of invisible forces that constrain our behavior,” he added.

Researchers believe multiple genes are at play in helping to contribute to our reactions. They say that if you realize how hard it is to change yourself, you may see that your partner can’t control this aspect of him or herself either.

There’s much more to the full research study that I’ll write about later, but this biological component is important to helping understand why we need to have a forgiving bent within marriage. It’s difficult at times to see things the way our spouse seems them, and at times we would like them to be more emotionally understanding of where we are. However, this may be harder than you realize for your partner to accomplish.

From my own experience, I believe my husband to be very empathic with others, but I don’t believe we are always emotionally on the same page. So, this research helps remind me that we have a different makeup and that he can’t always choose to be where I am emotionally. It doesn’t mean that he can’t understand my emotions, but rather that we may have to work harder to maintain emotional connection and understanding.

Do you find these results interesting or enlightening—or dull and unhelpful? Does it help you view your spouse’s reactions in a new light? Or, do you think individuals can exercise much more control and choice over the way they respond, and shouldn’t rely on biological excuses?

Photo by Photostock courtesty of freedigitalphotos.net.

Lori Lowe is the author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage. The book tells the true stories that demonstrate that marriage can thrive even in the most difficult circumstances. Learn from 12 inspiring couples who experienced child loss, infidelity, drug addiction, cancer, financial crises, brain injury, stranger rape, military service, infertility, opposing religions, unsupportive families, interracial relationships, raising special-needs children, and much more. These couples found the pressures of life didn’t destroy them; instead, they crystallized their commitment to each other.