Science of good marriage

Science of good marriage

sorry darling: Genetic factors may influence commitment and marital stability. getty images

To find the answer, a  body of research is focusing on the science of commitment. Scientists are studying everything from the biological factors that seem to influence marital stability to a person’s psychological response after flirting with a stranger.

Their findings suggest that while some people may be naturally more resistant to temptation, men and women can also train themselves to protect their relationships and raise their feelings of commitment.

Recent studies have raised questions about whether genetic factors may influence commitment and marital stability. Hasse Walum, a biologist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, studied 552 sets of twins to learn more about a gene related to the body’s regulation of the brain chemical vasopressin, a bonding hormone.

Over all, men who carried a variation in the gene were less likely to be married, and those who had wed were more likely to have had serious marital problems and unhappy wives. Among men who carried two copies of the gene variant, about a third had experienced a serious relationship crisis in the past year, double the number seen in the men who did not carry the variant.

A series of unusual studies led by John Lydon, a psychologist at McGill University in Montreal, have looked at how people in a committed relationship react in the face of temptation. In one study, highly committed married men and women were asked to rate the attractiveness of people of the opposite sex in a series of photos. Not surprisingly, they gave the highest ratings to people who would typically be viewed as attractive.

Later, they were shown similar pictures and told that the person was interested in
meeting them. In that situation, participants consistently gave those pictures lower scores than they had the first time around. When they were attracted to someone who might threaten the relationship, they seemed to instinctively tell themselves, “He’s not so great.” “The more committed you are,” Dr Lydon said, “the less attractive you find other people who threaten your relationship.”

But some of the McGill research has shown gender differences in how we respond to a cheating threat. In a study of 300 heterosexual men and women, half the participants were primed for cheating by imagining a flirtatious conversation with someone they found attractive. The other half just imagined a routine encounter.

Afterward, the study subjects were asked to complete fill-in-the-blank puzzles like LO_AL and THR__T.

Unbeknownst to the participants, the word fragments were a psychological test to reveal subconscious feelings about commitment. (Similar word puzzles are used to study subconscious feelings about prejudice and stereotyping.)

No pattern emerged among the study participants who imagined a routine encounter. But there were differences among men and women who had entertained the flirtatious fantasy. In that group, the men were more likely to complete the puzzles with the neutral words LOCAL and THROAT. But the women who had imagined flirting were far more likely to choose LOYAL and THREAT, suggesting that the exercise had touched off subconscious concerns about commitment.

Of course, this does not necessarily predict behaviour in the real world. But the pronounced difference in responses led the researchers to think women might have developed a kind of early warning system to alert them to relationship threats.

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