In this episode Dr.Wendy Walsh discusses long term love. Why is it that some struggle with maintaining intimate relationships and others seem to glide through with barely a bump? Could happy love lives be in our genes or is it all learned behavior? Listen to this episode and find out
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The Secret Life of Super Attachers
Speaker: Dr. Wendy Walsh
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Who are these couples that last a lifetime or at least a large chunk of a lifetime, while the rest of us mere mortals struggle to keep it together? What do they have that we don’t? What do they know? Basically, what’s their secret? This is Mating Matters.
Welcome to Mating Matters, the podcast that looks at human behavior through a lens of evolutionary psychology and reproduction, because mating matters for everything we do. I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh. On this episode, The Secret Lives of Super Attachers, people who stay attached for decades or life, happily.
Evolutionary anthropologists report that only 17% of human cultures worldwide are strictly monogamous. In other words, more than 80% of human cultures permit men to take more than one wife. Yet, monogamy has spread around the world in wealthy countries, in poorer countries, even in social circles where men could certainly afford to support more than one woman.
Researchers, Joseph Henrich from the University of British Columbia, Robert Boyd at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Peter J. Richerson from the University of California, Davis, speculated on why this is. It’s a provocative paper called The Puzzle of Monogamous Marriage. Their theory? That monogamy creates some societal norms and institutions that favor cultural evolution because it benefits the larger group.
Now remember, we are cooperative breeders. It takes many people to raise a human safely. According to these researchers, monogamy reduces the population of unmarried men. Yeah, angry young men with fewer economic resources who can’t obtain regular sex, not so safe for society at large. In that way, they speculate monogamy reduces crime rates, rape, murder, assault, and robbery.
It also shifts male energy from constantly having to seek female mates. You know, dating is time intensive and expensive to paternal investment. Expenditures on all those expensive romantic dinners where sex isn’t obtained, can now be redirected into food, education, and shelter for babies. So monogamy leads to lower rates of child neglect and abuse.
But, if only 17% of human societies are strictly monogamous, what’s really going on? Well, the rest of us embrace a mixed bag of perceived monogamy and serial monogamy. In real talk, that means plenty of affairs and high divorce rates.
Probably the most common question I get when I was a practicing clinician was, is this normal? Usually the client was referring to feelings they were having in their relationship, or ways their partner was relating to them. So many people live affected by childhood trauma, neglect, abuse, or abandonment by early caregivers that they’re missing a healthy blueprint for love. And consequently, may have tumultuous relationship lives. They want to know what real love feels like, what’s normal.
Meanwhile, another chunk of the population seems to be happily sailing through long-term relationships with such ease. It makes the rest of us wonder if they have a secret formula for love. Wow, they may have. How can some people happily stay together for so many decades?
So how many years have you been married?
Male: I have been married for 24 years. It’ll be my 25th wedding anniversary in May of 2020.
Female: We met in 1991, July, 1991.We married in October, 1992 and our anniversary is this Friday – 27 years of marriage.
Female: On November 11th, it’ll be 30.
Male: I’ve been married for 30 years.
Female: We’ve been married for 30 years, together for 31.
Male: We have been married for 38 years.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: News flash about that often misquoted statistic, that 50% of marriages don’t make it, the truth is that the divorce rate in the United States has actually been declining after it peaked way back in 1980. According to the national survey of family growth, the chances that a first marriage will last at least 10 years is nearly 70%. The chances of lasting 20 years? About 54%.
So a majority of marriages do last a very long time. What keeps people together? Well, according to a 2015 Pew research study, people report that they stay together because they have shared interests and a good sex life. Also, more than half said that sharing household chores was a big plus.
If you listen to our episode in season one of Mating Matters called What is Love? – You remember that love has biological, sociological and psychological underpinnings. And people who have been together a really long time seem to be quite clear about what works in long-term love, and just how secure they feel.
Male: It’s kind of corny, but she does things that I don’t do. So she kind of completes the equation. I’m not a detailed person. She crosses Ts and dots Is, and I don’t, and we both know where our strong suits are. So I don’t try to do things she’s really good at. She doesn’t try to do things I’m really good at.
So I think when we’re together, we feel like we work really good as a team. When we’re apart, the intimate relationship is not there, so you feel a little lost.
Female: We’re not just passionate about each other, we are very passionate about each other. But in addition to that, we’re very passionate about very similar things and that has helped our marriage to grow.
Male: I think just understanding and being sensitive with one another, and not crossing the line of really bashing each other’s families because family is one of those things when you marry somebody, you marry the family.
Male: We set boundaries. Like after eight o’clock, we don’t do anything that could be a major decision. That’s time just to do mindless things, just to have relaxing time, maybe talk.
Female: You have to be friends – friends above everything else. The attraction of you know, “Oh my God, oh my God, I just love that person, I can’t wait to be with that person. I can’t wait to jump in bed with that person.” I mean like that can wax and wane over the years. But your friendship and the respect of a friendship and love of a friendship, that I think lasts forever.
Male: We understand stress is a part of life and you have to manage it daily. You can’t go a day without managing your stress. If you don’t, then your loved ones are going to pay for it.
Female: Don’t nag, bite your tongue. Think of what you say, how that’s going to affect that other person, and think if it was told to you, how would you react?
Male: Communication is top of the list, obviously. I think that if you communicate and you build that trust, that’s the recipe for a long standing relationship. Just like in life, I think communication is the key to longevity with our marriage.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Okay, besides the fact that these super attachers have some mad skills when it comes to patience, communication and maybe even fair fighting, is there something else? Could all these people have a natural inclination to bond, a genetic predisposition to love well? Have some people evolved to carry a gene for happy marriages?
To answer these questions, we turn to a geneticist who knows a thing or two about this.
Dr. Sarah Seabrooke: My name is Dr. Sarah Seabrooke. I have a PhD in genetics and I’m the chief science officer for Instant Chemistry. So I’m involved in all of the science that goes on here for biological compatibility.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: When you talk about biological compatibility, what do you mean?
Dr. Sarah Seabrooke: So biological compatibility is a component of sexual or physical attraction that can be contributed to our biology. And what I mean by that, is there are certain genes and more specifically, genes of our immune system that contribute to our physical attraction. So these genes are very diverse among the human population. And the more different these genes are between two people, the more likely they are to have a physical or sexual attraction to each other.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: We know that having a physical attraction to somebody is great at the beginning. It’s good for drawing couples in together. But is there any evidence to say that people with these different immune systems have longer lasting passion?
Dr. Sarah Seabrooke: Yes. So if they have a physical attraction to each other, they’re more likely to have a longer lasting relationship. They’re more likely to have better sex lives with each other. They’re more likely to have a really good relationship with each other. So yes, that is definitely an important part of the biological attraction for our relationships to last.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Now, you are one of the founders of a company called instantchemistry.com where people can actually, couples can take a DNA test with a cheek swab saliva test to look at their immune genes. But what did we do in human history long before instant chemistry came along?
Dr. Sarah Seabrooke: Right, so that’s a great question. So how did we detect different genes in somebody else from ourselves back a long time ago before genetic testing. And it’s related to body odor. So when these genes – they’re turned into protein and when the protein starts to break down, they get excreted through our body odors and they contribute to the bacteria on our body that creates our body odor.
So it’s all about smell, it’s all about sense. So if somebody smells really good to you, they’re more likely to have different immune system genes than yourself. So it’s all about how good does that person smell?
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And there’s good evolutionary reason for this. When creating offspring, a baby may get brown eyes from one partner, long legs from another, curly hair or high intelligence from either, but not immune system genes – they’re special. Immune system genes combine to create a human stronger than either parent, ready to fend off way more diseases than either mom or dad. Each generation evolves to be more superhuman than the last.
But today, there’s a problem. Times have changed since we roamed the planet as sweaty and fragrant cave people, sniffing each other out. Today, humans don’t like natural human smells. And we do everything to avoid them by plastering our bodies with scents that promise a better life.
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Are we doing things that mess up Mother Nature’s perfect smell sensors?
Dr. Sarah Seabrooke: Yes, for sure. So when we’re showering regularly, we’re washing off all of that body odor. It’s a big movement to like not have any of your own body odor, to use perfumes, to use deodorants to kind of mask that smell. And that definitely impacts our ability to sort of detect those different immune system genes from ourselves and other people.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: But long baths and perfumes that disguise our scents aren’t the only problem. Widespread use of the birth control pill can play havoc with a woman’s natural ability to choose mates because hormones change the biological selection process.
Dr. Sarah Seabrooke: At the end of your cycle, there’s higher progesterone and that will drive you to be more like interested in being around family because if the progesterone’s high, you may be pregnant. But some birth control pills are progesterone-based birth control pills. And so it’s kind of tricking your body into thinking that you’re pregnant and it changes who you’re attracted to, who you want to be around.
So if you’re taking a birth control pill, you may be attracted to someone and then when you come off that birth control pill, you’re like, “Whoa, this person isn’t what I thought they were.” That kind of attraction goes away. So there’s definitely a component to taking the birth control pill to kind of mask our ability, detect the differences in immune system genes between people.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Now, instant chemistry also tests for some other genes, some other that affect our neurochemistry. And you look at serotonin, how can that predict if people will stay securely attached for a long period of time?
Dr. Sarah Seabrooke: Right, so there’s a serotonin transporter that affects how well serotonin is moved from the outside of the cell to an inside of the cell in your brain. And if you have very scientifically, they call it the short and long version of these transporters. And if you have the short version, it doesn’t move serotonin as well inside the cell.
And what they found is that people who have the short version of the serotonin transporter are more likely to respond very strongly to emotional situations in their life. When things are good, they’re really good for them. And when they’re bad, they’re also really bad for them.
And they’ve done research onto married couples and they did a 13 yearlong study on married couples looking at their serotonin transporter in relationship to their marriage and their marriage satisfaction. And what they found was that if two people had this short version of the serotonin transporter, that their satisfaction in their relationship decreased over those 13 years.
And the reasoning behind it is because they had these very strong responses to emotional situations in their life. And when it was good, it was really good. But when it was bad, it was very bad for their relationship, and it kind of weird away at their relationship over time and decreased that satisfaction.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And YouTube is full of people who publicly show us their short serotonin transporters.
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What about if two people have the long version of the serotonin receptor? Are they really boring?
Dr. Sarah Seabrooke: Well, they have more stable relationship satisfaction over time.
Male: Well, neither of us like to yell, which is good. So we do have conflict every once in a while, but luckily, nothing severe over 30 years. One thing that I think we’re both very more cerebral than most maybe, because we like to think things out and we like to kind of root it out and we have a saying – all blame is off track.
Female: So our conflict style is we don’t yell at each other. We never have. And if we reach the point of an impasse, usually we kind of go to our own separate corners, think it through, calm down, and then come back together and work through it again.
Dr. Sarah Seabrooke: There is another gene that we look for called DRD4, and that’s related to sort of excitement and looking for excitement in your relationship. And if you carry what’s called the 7R plus version of it, you are more inclined to want to do exciting things, explore, take risks than you are if you don’t carry the 7R plus version.
And what we see is that there’s only 30% of the population who carries 7R plus, but a lot of the relationships actually have one person carrying the 7R plus, and it looks like it’s because they need someone to bring that excitement to the relationship. Someone to keep it fresh, keep it moving. And if you have two people who are kind of with it, the 7R plus, they’re sort of boring. They like to get into a routine, they don’t like to try new things, take risks and it kind of gets like mundane and it just kind of flows along without too much new and exciting to keep that relationship fresh.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: So do people with the 7R plus gene fool around more? Are they more likely to have affairs? Because they’re risk takers?
Dr. Sarah Seabrooke: That actually is in the research and they have found yes, that if you have the 7R plus gene, you are more likely to be involved in an affair, yes.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Okay, calm down everybody. There is no such thing as a cheater gene. And saying, “My genes made me do it” is no excuse. It’s really important to remember that genetic predisposition doesn’t mean guaranteed to, it means maybe liable to or is inclined to, but can be prevented. Whether we’re talking about genes for emotional eruptions or genes for infidelity. Biology isn’t destiny.
Take the gene for heart disease for example, one that I happen to carry. Someone can make behavioral changes like exercise a lot, eat well and manage stress throughout their life that they will never ever have a heart attack, even if they carry a gene for it.
Likewise, someone with a gene for excitement and risk taking could just as easily take up sky diving and race car driving as sexual philandering. Genes can give you an advantage or a disadvantage. And, also, our early environment can enliven or suppress genetic predisposition.
So, remember those hotheads with the short serotonin transporter? They also could’ve been brought up by a family that taught them healthy relationship skills and how to manage emotions. That’s the truth about genes. They can always be enlivened or suppressed to some degree by environment. No matter what, good parents tend to raise good romantic partners.
Male: First of all, the groundwork for me was that my parents, when my dad passed away, my parents had been married 61 years – very stable family and very loving family.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And the same with your wife’s family? Did she have a model of secure attachment?
Male: Yes, she did. She came from a stable family with tremendous commitment between the parents. I did as well. And so what you want to do is you want to replicate that when the time comes for you.
Female: Well, I had a really great role model in my life with my parents. They were married for almost 50 years before my mother passed away, and my mom was kind of the more calm one and my dad was a bit more of a driver. So I saw that growing up. My family too, there was no yelling in our house. That just wasn’t allowed. And so that’s the way that I was raised.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Of course, we don’t know how much of these couples attachment style was nature and how much was nurture. We could attribute their calm nature to their long serotonin transporter genes that they inherited from their parents, along with watching their parents’ model good love.
You talked about people who both have the short version of the serotonin transporter, and sounds like they’re all fire and fury. And then you talk about two people who have the long version who tend to be stable. They’re probably a home with very neatly organized drawers. But what about when you have one and the other along in a short together of the serotonin transporter?
Dr. Sarah Seabrooke: Right, so they actually as well showed a more stable relationship satisfaction over more time because you have that one person bringing sort of that level headedness to the relationship and saying, “Okay, let’s step back. Let’s look at this. Let’s try to work through this.” So it helps to have one of the person be the more level headed approach to things in life.
Male: My dad never had any eyes for anyone else except my mother. He adored her and she wasn’t always easy to live with, but she was extremely funny and very witty person, very well read. And he played a great straight man to her ripe hosts and all through life, we had just ruckus laughter at the dinner table.
Male: I’m the bipolar one. I’m the one who has those streaks of, I’m up, I’m down, I’m moody, I’m whatnot, throughout the week. You know, this work can be somewhat stressful. But I think … the most even keel one. At the end of the day, I think she happens to be the rock of the family. She’s really the glue. She is.
Female: I’m more of the like, “I can’t believe you just did that, blah, blah, blah.” He’s more of the, doesn’t say a word. So when I just word vomit and get it all out there, he just lets me do it and then I’ll revisit it and say to him, “Okay, let’s talk about this calmly and I know that I went crazy on you.”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: With almost every couple we interviewed, we notice that when asked about conflict style, one partner was described as cool and steady. And the other was described as a bit of a hothead.
In our armchair analysis, the couple seemed to share one long and one short version of the serotonin transporter gene, which may have contributed to their long-term compatibility. But then, we met a woman who’s been with her husband for 28 years, despite, well, a rocky road.
Female: We’re almost the same when we argue. We’re both stubborn and we raise our voices, and one of us walks away until we cool down. We used to fight even a little bit more when our daughter was younger and throw stuff. I used to punch the wall, things like that. I know that’s bad, but I had anger issues, I guess, that’s part of it. I mean, I’m not angry anymore. I’m matured.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: When you were young and fiery and throwing things and punching the wall, was he-
Female: Breaking lamps.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Breaking lamps – was his reaction a little more calm?
Female: No, he would fight back. He wouldn’t throw things, but he would scream.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: So how did they stay together through decades of anger? Maybe, just maybe, they had two short versions of the serotonin transporter gene; the ones that cause fire and fury. But those genes could have been modulated by an excellent pairing of immune system genes – the ones that contribute to an exciting and bonding sex life. It was the physical attraction that kept them stuck like glue.
Female: We’ve always had a good sex life for some reason, even though we kind of hated each other. Maybe the hate brought the sex better, I don’t know. And I think if we didn’t have a good sex life, I don’t know if we would have lasted, I don’t know. But some people, they can’t have sex with each other when they’re mad at each other, but we were still able to do it.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And are there other genes that you look at for instant chemistry?
Dr. Sarah Seabrooke: Yeah, so we look at an oxytocin receptor and that’s related to empathy. And we look at two versions. One which they found people have higher abilities to empathize. And the other version people have lower abilities to empathize. And that’s also very important for a relationship because there’s research showing that if you have one person who is less empathetic, they bring more anxiety to the relationship, more anxiety about the stability of the relationship, they have lower trust and that also affects the relationship.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And here’s the good news, empathy can be learned. Relationship skills can be learned. Our lovable hotheaded friend, the one with the great sex life, you just heard, she says that once she became ill and woke up in the hospital with her husband at her side, at that moment, she made an intellectual choice to change, to respect him more. She says she had an awakening, one that may have saved her marriage.
Female: We’re like friends now, friends and lovers and mates. We do more things together. We go to movies together, we do something every weekend. It’s just we have more respect for each other now. I know it’s kind of boring saying that, but I wouldn’t see the good things that he did. It was like blocked.
I started reading some books about happiness, how to be happy and this and that. Treat people the way you want to be treated, and just doing it with him, he just was responding in a positive way. Now, when I do act like a bitch, I usually realize it and I apologize.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Empathy is also how the couple who has been together for 30 years operates.
Male: Always look at how you can serve the other person. And if you look at it that way, then you’re not becoming co-dependent, you’re actually adding to the relationship. And I think that that’s a big thing. I’m not always looking to take, I’m looking to see how can I add value? How can I plus her day, how can I make things better? And she’s doing the same thing for me.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: It’s important to remember that a DNA test can help reveal the vulnerabilities in a relationship. Not so you can break up, but so that you can attend to those vulnerabilities, instead of letting your genes run the show.
So do you recommend that before anybody get married nowadays, they both take a DNA test?
Dr. Sarah Seabrooke: I think it’s a great idea. I’ve taken it with my husband and I thought it was a great thing to do. It gives you some information about your partner that is very unique to your specific relationship because we’re looking at so many different factors. So it’s very unique to you and your partner. And it tells you insights about them that gives you an understanding about why they’re reacting to certain situations.
Maybe you’re like, “Well, I didn’t find this to be a big deal, but my partner is very stressed out about this, or reacting very strongly. And okay, well maybe there’s this genetic predisposition to it, and I should be more empathetic towards that and take that into consideration. Instead of just being like, ‘Why are you reacting so strongly?’” Have an understanding about how the other person is working, how they tick.
Love takes work. It takes involvement in the relationship. I mean, maybe it just happens at the beginning, but it doesn’t just stay. It’s something that you have to work on and develop. I think it’s really important, really great for your relationship to take the test.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Remember the man married 30 years, the one with the calm neurochemistry who never raises his voice in an argument? Well today, he and his wife run a company called BrainTap that actually helps people and couples manage their neurochemistry.
Male: Your loved ones will take you back, so there’s a tendency to go off on people you love because they’re going to love you back. And so knowing that you need to basically get rid of that excess energy, but there are solutions. It’s more than just saying there’s a problem. There are solutions out there today that can help relationships.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Even solid relationships whose partners have good relationship skills, face life’s speed bumps. Here’s the man who’s been married 38 years, the one who learned relationship skills from his parents who had been married 61 years. Even he and his super attached partner had to work through tough times. One time, he says, he, his wife and one of their sons decided to talk to a therapist about some behavioral issues, but a lot more was uncovered.
Male: And concurrently with that situation, she had seemingly lost interest and intimacy with us. And I quite frankly, one night I said to her, “I think I can do the math in my head, how many times more we’re going to be intimate before we expire.” And she just had kind of a different response.
And it turned out that my wife’s mother who had passed away two years before, it turned out that that shutting down of intimacy impulses was the fact that she was in a deep mourning for her mother’s death and she had no idea. And the psychologist got that out of her, but apparently she was in a deep form of mourning that I was not able to recognize it. I didn’t see that.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: For most couples, being a super attacher means being willing to do the work. But, for some lucky couples, the mating game is literally about winning a genetic lottery.
Dr. Sarah Seabrooke: I think if you have maybe a high biological compatibility and you’ve got a couple of high factors and the neurochemistry that there’s a higher chance there of you having that sort of super attachment. If you’ve got that physical attraction component and you’ve got like, yeah, you’re very stable in your relationship, those are all benefits to you – could contribute to being a super attacher
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Nature and nurture work hand in hand. Our genes may impact nearly 60% of our behavior, but the other 40% is up to us. You and your partner may have mismatched immune system genes, which means you have to work a little harder on your sex life. Or maybe it’s your serotonin transporter genes, meaning you have trouble with emotional regulation and fiery fights.
Well, conflict resolution skills can also be learned or perhaps, it’s empathy, the oxytocin receptor, and you have trouble with empathy and trust. That also can be learned. Finally, if you’re one of the 30% of the population with the DRD4, the 7R plus version, that means that you’re a risk taker. You love excitement and adventures. There’s ways to do that without risking your relationship health.
The human brain is malleable. The four cornerstones of a good relationship do include physical attraction, emotional regulation, empathy, and impulse control. But if you didn’t win the couple’s genetic lottery, awareness is the key. You have to know your vulnerable areas and give them the attention and extra effort they need. Because yes, relationships are work.
Thanks for listening to Mating Matters. I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh with producer Brooke Peterson.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: If you’d like to call the Mating Matters message line, you certainly can. The number is (323) 207-8277. That’s (323) 207-8277. If you’ve got a question, we want to hear it. Or maybe you have a comment, either way, we love to hear from you, our listener
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Mating Matters is produced in partnership with iHeartMedia. It is researched, interviewed and written by me, Dr. Wendy Walsh. And it is edited and produced by Brooke Peterson.
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Male: Listen to the other, listen to them. Humor is really important. So having a great sense of humor is really important. And whether you like it or not, compromise, you’ve got to compromise. If you’re going to be stubborn and dig in on things and be unreasonable, you’re going to have problems down the road.
I’m a big believer, listen to what they have to say. And you may have to do something that you don’t want to do. Don’t compromise principles, don’t compromise ethics. But it’s give and take. You’re a team, and it sounds hokey, but you’re a team. And as long as you view each other as a team, it’s all good.