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Variation in the μ-opioid receptor gene (OPRM1) and experiences of felt security in response to a romantic partner’s quarrelsome behavior

Abstract

Research suggests that endogenous opioids play a key role in the creation and maintenance of attachment bonds. Opioids acting at the μ-opioid receptor mediate reward and analgesia and are thus thought to underlie feelings of comfort and warmth experienced in the presence of close others. Disruption of μ-opioidergic activity increases separation distress in animals, suggesting that low opioid states may contribute to social pain. Accordingly, a functional μ-opioid receptor (OPRM1) polymorphism (C77G in primates, A118G in humans) affecting opioidergic signaling has been associated with separation distress and attachment behavior in nonhuman primates, and social pain sensitivity in humans. However, no research has examined the effects of this polymorphism on socioemotional experience, and specifically felt security, in daily interactions between romantic partners. Using an event-contingent recording method, members of 92 cohabiting romantic couples reported their felt security and quarrelsome behavior in daily interactions with each other for 20 days. Consistent with prior work, findings suggested that, relative to AA homozygotes, G allele carriers were more sensitive to their partners’ self-reported quarrelsome behaviors (e.g., criticism), showing a greater decline in felt security when their partners reported higher quarrelsome behavior than usual. This is the first study to link variation in OPRM1 with felt security toward romantic partners in everyday social interactions. More generally, this research supports the theory that the attachment system incorporated evolutionarily primitive pain-regulating opioidergic pathways. We also discuss implications of this work for understanding of differential vulnerability to health risks posed by social stress.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    The original scale included four additional negatively worded items; however, these items have previously been found to have different psychometric properties (e.g., high skewness) and load on a separate factor from the positively worded items [29]. For these reasons, we chose to focus our analyses on the positively worded items, as per [29].

  2. 2.

    Figure 1 portrays results for women as actors and men as partners.

    As noted, there was no gender difference in the moderation of the event-level association between a partner’s quarrelsome behavior and an actor’s felt security by actor genotype; however, men and women had different intercepts for felt security (as described in the subsequent text; also see Fig. S1).

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Kayleigh-Ann Clegg for her help with data collection.

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Correspondence to Jennifer A. Bartz.

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Tchalova, K., Sadikaj, G., Moskowitz, D.S. et al. Variation in the μ-opioid receptor gene (OPRM1) and experiences of felt security in response to a romantic partner’s quarrelsome behavior. Mol Psychiatry (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41380-019-0600-4

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