He seems distant. She isn’t calling as often as she used to. You don’t bring me flowers anymore. Are things falling apart? Or are you overreacting? If you fear the latter, you might want to think again: new research from the University of California at Berkeley shows that you might not just be oversensitive to your partners’ failure to return your texts with sufficient swiftness; the emotional roller coaster you’re on may be driven by your genes.
Looking at experience -- and genotypes -- of 100 married couples over the course of 13 years, the researchers found that people with a particular short variant of a specific allele (an variant form of a given gene, according to my deep background work with Wikipedia) were more sensitive to the state of their relationship than people without it. In other words, when things were going well, they were very happy, and when things were going wrong, they were more likely to scoot out of their marriages, rather than waiting it out. In contrast, people with the long variant of the gene were generally happy to tough it out -- or perhaps unaware that there was anything to tough. The result, if you have a short-gened and a long-gened person loving each other? Sometimes, not pretty.
I suspect I’m a short-gened person: as long as I can remember, I’ve been either burdened or gifted with an extreme kind of empathy. I’ve lost count of how often I’ve cried in response to what I perceive to be other people’s discomfort: classmates being admonished by a teacher for naughtiness that didn’t involve me. Strangers caught in rain without umbrellas. On one occasion, I shed floods of tears watching a bad pantomime, so troubled was I simply to witness actual actors performing in it.
More often than not when my relationships have foundered, I’ve seen the end coming quite some time before the man uttered ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. Which is not to say that I was able to stop any of them: somehow, knowing what a man I was dating was thinking or feeling before it had crystallized for him seems an impossible (if not creepy) thing to convey or prepare for, beyond laying on a supply of Kleenex in anticipation of the end.
Is there value in this emotional prescience? Perhaps; being able to read emotional situations with clarity has helped me in many situations, if not so much in love. But I’m not sure I’d like to lengthen my genes, either: the study found that neither the excessively sensitive nor comparatively boorish partners had an advantage. Lacking understanding of the emotional landscape in a relationship can feel relaxing, but can backfire when you come home to find your partner’s cupboards emptied of all but a single sock that he never liked anyway.
Knowing that my awareness that things are going wrong, in the end, is little comfort.
With a few extreme, pathological, exceptions, genetics feel to me like a-poor excuse for not working on a relationship that feels like it’s unravelling -- or, indeed, for not noticing something unravelling until its too late. We overcome our genetics on a daily basis: when we put on our glasses, when we color our hair, when those of us who are lactose intolerant (runs in my family!) take special digestive supplements to help us eat delicious cheese. So, too, must we cope with the way that our genes respond to relationships. We all have our shortcomings and sensitivities. The true measure of adulthood is learning to cope with them.