Empathic communication between couples plays an important role in relationship quality and individual well-being and research has pointed to the role of oxytocin in providing the neurobiological substrate for pair-bonding and empathy. Here, we examined links between genetic variability on the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) and empathic behaviour at the initiation of romantic love. Allelic variations on five OXTR single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) previously associated with susceptibility to disorders of social functioning were genotyped in 120 new lovers: OXTRrs13316193, rs2254298, rs1042778, rs2268494 and rs2268490. Cumulative genetic risk was computed by summing risk alleles on each SNP. Couples were observed in support-giving interaction and behaviour was coded for empathic communication, including affective congruence, maintaining focus on partner, acknowledging partner's distress, reciprocal exchange and non-verbal empathy. Hierarchical linear modelling indicated that individuals with high OXTR risk exhibited difficulties in empathic communication. OXTR risk predicted empathic difficulties above and beyond the couple level, relationship duration, and anxiety and depressive symptoms. Findings underscore the involvement of oxytocin in empathic behaviour during the early stages of social affiliation, and suggest the utility of cumulative risk and plasticity indices on the OXTR as potential biomarkers for research on disorders of social dysfunction and the neurobiology of empathy.
Keywords: OXTR; bonding; empathy; genetic risk; oxytocin; romantic relationships.
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