Genetic Study Suggests More Sensitive People Respond Better to Couples Therapy

A new study by Queen Mary University of London and the University of Denver has found that a person’s response to couples therapy may be determined by their genes.

A well-established “Relationship and Prevention Education Program” (PREP) has been shown to improve communication skills and relationship quality, as well as prevent divorce in married couples. However, the effects of PREP may be inconsistent with some people who benefit more than others.

Previous studies have shown that individual differences in sensitivity can impact people’s responses to positive and negative experiences, including psychological therapies. Therefore, the researchers sought to determine whether differences in an individual’s sensitivity could explain the variable responses seen with the program.

Since nearly half of people’s differences in susceptibility can be explained by genetic factors, the research team collected DNA from more than 150 US couples participating in PREP to explore whether genes known to be associated with sensitivity had an impact on an individual’s response to the program. They found that the most genetically susceptible people benefited more from this type of therapy.

Couples completed questionnaires to assess communication, bonding, marital satisfaction, and likelihood of divorce before and after treatment, and then at six-month intervals over a two-year follow-up period. The researchers found that an individual’s genetic susceptibility had more of an impact in the years following treatment than in the short term. Since PREP is a skill-based therapy, the researchers suggest that this finding may reflect the time it takes for individuals to adopt new skills.

The researchers assessed an individual’s genetic susceptibility using two different measures, one based on examining a small number of known genes linked to susceptibility, and the other using genome-wide data with thousands of genetic variations. While both approaches showed that people’s responses to PREP depended on their genetic makeup, the results suggest that genetic susceptibility was better captured using the broad, genome-wide approach. Importantly, these results were replicated in an independent sample included in the study.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that people with low genetic susceptibility who did not participate in the program showed similar positive responses with respect to marital satisfaction over time as people with higher susceptibility who participated in the program. These results suggest that even if people with low sensitivity do not respond as well to treatment, they may in general be less vulnerable to typical relationship stressors experienced by couples.

Professor Michael Pluess, Professor of Developmental Psychology at Queen Mary University of London, said: “Our findings show that an individual’s genetic makeup can influence how they respond to couples therapy. As we know that everyone who participates in relational programs like PREP benefits equally, in the future it may be useful to identify people with low susceptibility, who may benefit less from these standard treatments, and potentially offer them an alternative .

“While in this study we used genetic data to determine an individual’s susceptibility, this is not the only way to do this as an individual’s susceptibility is also influenced by environmental factors. It can be more practical to use sensitivity questionnaires that can be quickly and easily completed to capture these differences.”

A free online sensitivity test is available at www.sensitivityresearch.com, which is run by some of the study authors.

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Material provided by Queen Mary University of London. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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