Why Fighting With Your S.O. Doesn't Mean You're Doomed

Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
By Dawn Maslar

Ever wonder what can cause one couple to stay together and another to break up? If a couple fights a lot, we might think they’re not as happy in their relationship as a couple who doesn't fight much — or ever. And yet, it's not that straightforward: We all know couples that seem to fight all the time, yet remain relatively happy and stay together for years, whereas others seem to split at the first sign of a disagreement. So, how do fights actually affect a relationship?

Well, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, wanted to find out if there might a genetic component that could predict how couple interactions affect marital satisfaction. Specifically, they were looking at the different forms of the serotonin transporter gene that produces and transport your hormone of happiness. This gene has two forms: short and long. Each person basically has two copies of the gene. A person can have either one long and one short (L/s), two long (L/L), or two short (s/s).

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The person with the short forms has lower levels of serotonin uptake. And, when it comes to serotonin, the more uptake — or, more serotonin you can get where is needs to be — the merrier. So, the short form-carriers may be at a disadvantage. The question the researched posed was this: Would people with two short (s/s) alleles be more dissatisfied in their relationships?

Conducting a 13-year long study of long-term marriages to find out if there was a correlation between this gene and relationship satisfaction, the scientists focused on middle age and later life couples. But, we can certainly make conclusions about younger couples based on their overall findings.

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The researchers looked at couples’ emotional behavior during an argument lasting about 15 minutes. They also looked at genes and relationship satisfaction to determine if there was an association between these three factors. They found that individuals with the short (s/s) allele were most affected by negative emotions in the marriage, such as expressions of anger, disgust or whining. For them, it wasn't as easy to get past these feelings. The individuals with long alleles (L/s) or (L/L) were not as affected by the emotions, regardless of their propensity to display positive or negative emotions during a fight.

So, does this mean that a person with short alleles is going to call off the relationship? Not necessarily. I emailed Dr. Robert Levinson, the contact for the study, and he assured me that these findings did not necessarily predict disaster for a partnership. He stated that the results suggest that if someone has the (s/s) allele, they will be especially sensitive to the emotional quality of the relationship, good or bad — suffering when it’s bad, but blossoming when it’s good. For the person with short alleles, the positive emotions felt in a relationship will be keenly felt — perhaps helping to cancel out some of the intensity of the inevitable negative ones.

And, other studies have looked at things like coping processes, attachment styles, and capacity for forgiveness as factors that may influence relationship longevity. So, couples that know how to cope with (and recover from) conflict better, or are better at forgiving, are less likely to suffer when their relationship faces the inevitable arguments that all couples have to go through at some point.

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