RELATIONSHIP Is there such a thing as the perfect match?
Can new scientific tools like DNA analysis really determine romantic “chemistry”?
chandani Sheth and her fiancé, Steve Male, had been together for three and a half years when they decided to turn to science to see if they were a perfect match. They sought out the expertise of Instant Chemistry, a Toronto-based genetic-testing service that examines whether couples have complementary genetic as well as personality traits. They ordered the $199 kit, which comes with a plastic tube to collect their saliva and a biohazard bag to send it off via FedEx, and they also completed a 24-question multiple-choice personality assessment online.
“We have a lot of differences,” says Sheth, 31, a human-resources manager in Toronto. “I’m more spontaneous and social, and Steve is more practical and a bit of a homebody. I wanted to know how compatible we are.” Sheth’s now husband, a 32-year-old marketing director, had no doubts that the couple was meant to be, but he indulged Sheth’s curiosity.
It’s that same curiosity that inspired Instant Chemistry co-founders Sara Seabrooke and Ron Gonzalez to launch their company back in 2013. Although the field of behavioural science is well established, layering in a genetic filter to assess compatibility is new. Still, Seabrooke points to 20 years of peer-reviewed materials to support their company’s approach. “It has been scientifically proven that long-term relationship satisfaction stems from two constants: your DNA and your core personality and how these match up with your partner’s,” says Seabrooke, who, like Gonzalez, is a neuroscientist.
In addition to the personality quiz, which was developed by Joel Block, a couples therapist in Plainview, N.Y., the researchers at Instant Chemistry test couples’ levels of serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine. These are the “love hormones” that are most associated with romantic connections and conflicts, explains Seabrooke. “If you have two people who both have lowered sensitivity to serotonin, the relationship can be emotionally charged,” she says. But couples with similar results for dopamine, for example, can have issues with risk taking and impulsivity. If you’re both that way, you could be in for one wild—and unpredictable—ride.
The researchers also study the COMT gene, which may influence whether someone is prone to anxiety. To measure a couple’s genetic diversity, they examine the human leukocyte antigen ( HLA). These are specific genes that regulate the immune system in humans; the more diverse they are, the greater the chance a couple’s offspring will stave off diseases. NATURAL SELECTION Still, some researchers dispute much of the science practised by firms like Instant Chemistry, claiming there’s no proof behind it. Dan Davis, a physicist and author of The Compatibility Gene, says he and his wife took a test to determine their genetic diversity because they wanted to anticipate any potential issues for their children—it was never about trying to find out if they would be good for each other. “There’s no hard science that justifies genetic matchmaking,” he says.
Even without the benefit of a genetic test, adds Davis, humans already subconsciously smell genes associated with genetic diversity. In one famous 1994 experiment cited in his book, a group of men were asked to wear a plain cotton T-shirt for two days. Then, a group of women were asked to rank how sexy they thought those T-shirts smelled. The women preferred the smell of the T-shirts worn by men with dissimilar major histocompatibility genes (MHC). SCIENCE OF LOVE Instinctively or not, we’re increasingly drawn to h
scientific explanations that make it easier to deal with something as mysterious as love, explains Benjamin Karney, a professor of social psychology and co- director of UCLA Marriage Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“What the hunger for scientific answers to the challenges of love speaks to,” says Karney, “is just how enduring those challenges are and just how much people would like help.” One of the first mainstream examples of this desire for scientific certainty came to light in 1966, when researchers at the University of Western Ontario used a computer algorithm to match up two single people. But now we want to move beyond pseudo-science like onlinedating algorithms to more nuanced and data- driven models that explain how we both find and sustain love—which is rather ambitious, says Karney. “Systematic research on intimate relationships is less than a century old,” he says. “Some of it is useful, but none of it gives people the easy answers they’re hoping for.”
Instant Chemistry’s Gonzalez acknowledges that the research on genetic compatibility is still young and shaky. (The company has thus far tested only around 100 couples.) “But we’re not going to advance this science unless we have people who are trying to push it forward and start collecting data,” he says, adding that relationships and love are some of the most important aspects of our lives, and scientists are just now starting to skim the surface: “I think this research is part of a movement toward self-improvement.”
In a continuation of that quest, Seabrooke and Gonzalez are now working on a rapid compatibility “stir-stick test,” a consumer product they’re hoping to get to market in 2016. The kit, which would only measure HLA, would be similar to a home pregnancy test in terms of usability and pricing. Armed with this info, you and your date could meet at a bar and determine your genetic harmony or discord—before you commit to that $15 Manhattan. BODY TALK Other researchers are focusing their attention on body language and body chemistry and how they affect our relationships. “We’re mammals,” says John Gottman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington and co-founder of the Gottman Institute, a research facility that also offers couples therapy. “The other person has to look, smell and taste right.” Gottman is best known for his research into how body language and physical responses between couples can predict relationship outcomes. Gottman’s lab studies couples over decades, prompting them to discuss an area of ongoing disagreement and then measuring adrenalin and cortisol to determine the degree of stress they impose on each other. He has studied thousands of couples up close and claims he can predict with 90-percent accuracy whether a couple will stay together. Bodylanguage cues, including eye rolling or sneering, for example, can be signs of “contempt,” which Gottman has identified as one of the most toxic elements of a relationship. LOVE, ACTUALLY But even if you and your partner have hit the biological jackpot, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be effortlessly happy together forever. “Relationships are what physicists call ‘dissipated systems’: You have to keep putting energy into them in order to get energy out of them,” says Gottman. “I think the next growth industry will be in Japanese sex robots because there are a lot of people who don’t want to do the work necessary to be in a relationship,” he adds with a laugh.
Samantha Joel, a 25- year- old graduate student in social psychology at the University of Toronto, wasn’t worried about putting the time into her relationship. When she got married just over a year ago to her boyfriend of four years, she took an unusual approach to crafting her wedding vows: She based them on scientific evidence. Instead of the classic promises to “cherish” and the outdated “obey,” Joel wrote 10 vows based on research from the burgeoning field of relationship science. They included promises to respect her partner’s freedom, to strive to meet his needs and to keep their lives exciting—all things that researchers have proven work to create happier partnerships.
“I wanted to promise things with a lot of empirical backing, things that are concrete and behavioural that you can actually work on,” says Joel. The couple keeps the 10-point list on their fridge. DATING FAST TRACK Science— whether it’s genetic- or relationshipbased—is changing the way we think about love and romance. Yet, the notion of “soulmates,” or finding “the one,” is still a cherished dream for even the most sensible women. Mandy Len Catron, a 34-year-old who teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia, certainly felt that way. “There’s an idea that fate has a big hand in our love, especially when it comes to romance,” she says. “But on a practical h
Science—whether it’s genetic- or relationshipbased—is changing the way we think about romance.
level, you’re better off finding one person and investing in them than waiting for a magical being.”
Last summer, Catron decided to adopt a more practical, science-based approach to finding love. She and an acquaintance asked each other 36 questions that had been developed by renowned psychologist Arthur Aron. According to Aron, intimacy between two relative strangers can be fast-tracked if they ask each other personal questions, such as “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” and “If you were to die this evening, what would you most regret not having told someone?” At the end of the quiz, the two people have to stare into each other’s eyes for four intense minutes.
Catron wrote about the experience of taking the test in an article for The New York Times. “The questions reminded me of the infamous boiling-frog experiment in which the frog doesn’t feel the water getting hotter until it’s too late,” she wrote. As Catron felt herself becoming increasingly vulnerable, she also felt a growing intimate connection; it was a shortcut to a connection that can typically take weeks or months. The pair transitioned to a close friendship and then made a conscious leap into a committed partnership three months later. They’re still together today.
“I felt like I could trust him right away, but we gave each other space to figure out what we really wanted,” says Catron. “Mark thinks we might have started dating anyway without the experiment,” she adds, “but this felt really deliberate to me in a way no other relationship has. Before this, I would mostly feel an overwhelming attraction to someone who would make me feel helpless— which isn’t very healthy.” THE VERDICT Two weeks after Sheth and her partner sent in their tests, they got their results from Instant Chemistry: a 27-page e-booklet divided into two parts. The first half outlined their individual genetic profiles paired with an explanation for how each of these genetic components can have an impact on personal behaviour, including emotional response, empathy, cognition and risk taking. The latter half of the manual was dedicated to a comparison of the couple’s individual results. There was even a “Certificate of Compatibility,” with an overall percentage as well as a breakdown of percentage matches for each of the areas tested.
Sheth says that they received an overall compatibility score of 89 percent. According to the company, the average compatibility finding for couples it has tested is around 75 percent. Sheth found the test results— including results for four genes known to influence emotional response, empathy, cognition, risk taking and adventurous behaviours—comforting.
“My husband says that now I can’t ever say we’re not compatible because we have scientific proof,” she says with a laugh. In particular, Sheth appreciated the part of their report that indicated potential sources of conflict and recommendations on how to troubleshoot problems. “Couples fight a lot, and you’re not always sure why,” says Sheth. “You think they’re crazy and they think you’re crazy. But the report gave us tips related to our personalities, like how we both have a really hard time with routine and we need more stimulation than most couples. That can really help.” Still, Sheth, who got married in May, wasn’t predicating future plans on the results of the test. “We were already in it for the long haul.” n