Will you marry me? Maybe. It depends on your DNA


Is your partner more likely to have similar DNA to you, or is it true that opposites attract? The first ever study to take the entire genome into account when looking at relationships and genetics, has found that we are more likely to pair off with someone whose genes are similar to our own. Rather than being attracted to our opposite, it appears that birds of a feather tend to flock together, genetically speaking.

The study, soon to be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and already available online, examined 1.7 million places in the DNA which are known to differ between humans, and compared the overlap between husbands and wives with the rest of the sample. It turned out that spouses have more in common than random matches.

It’s not news that we tend to veer towards those who are similar to us when it comes to romantic relationships. Spouses are likely to have many characteristics in common, including religion, age, race, income, body type and education. We sense intuitively that this is true when we look at the couples around us. But what about the genes that lie behind these traits?

“It’s well known that people marry folks who are like them,” said Benjamin Domingue, research associate at the University of Colorado Boulder and lead author of the paper. “But there’s been a question about whether we mate at random with respect to genetics.”

On the surface, Domingue’s findings seem to contradict previous research, which showed that for certain parts of the genome, opposites do seem to attract. The most famous of these studies is known as the ‘sweaty t-shirt study’, in which researcher Claus Wedekind asked women to sniff strangers’ two-day old t-shirts, and rate how sexually attracted they were to the various odours. In that study, women favoured the smell of men who differed from them on specific genetic markers which are linked to the immune system. The findings were widely publicised and even inspired DNA-based dating. The website Gene Partner, for example, matches couples based partly on certain DNA markers, and claims their approach leads to a more satisfying sex life, higher chances of forming enduring relationships, and higher fertility rates. Whereas opposites may attract when it comes to the genes involved in building our immune system, Domingue’s new study shows that across the genome as a whole, we prefer to pair up with those who resemble us.

In addition to investigating the possible link between genes and wedded bliss, the researchers wanted to measure the relative power of genes in the game of attraction. To do this, they compared the level of genetic similarity of spouses with a factor that is known to play a huge role in the forming of partnerships: educational level. It is a well-documented phenomenon that people tend to get romantically involved with those who have a comparable number of years of education under their belt. This tendency has a big impact on society, as it is an important contributor to the rise in income inequality between households. The researchers found that the preference for a genetically similar spouse is about a third as potent as that of educational level.

The findings have implications for the estimates of heritability of certain diseases. Current models used to understand how genes are passed on, assume that partnerships are created at random as far as genes are concerned.

A major drawback of the new study is that it focused mainly on all-white couples, and the researchers call for further research to elucidate how these patterns might apply for married people of other races as well as for interracial couples.  

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