Neural Correlates of Marital Satisfaction and Well-Being: Reward, Empathy, and Affect

Bianca P. Acevedo, Arthur Aron, Helen E. Fisher, Lucy L. Brown

Numerous studies suggest that marital satisfaction is associated with psychological and physical health. Using fMRI, the present study explored the neural correlates of marital satisfaction to investigate the physiological markers potentially mediating these health effects. Seventeen middle-aged individuals (M=52.85 years) in happy, stable, longterm, heterosexual pair-bonds (Mean length of marriage = 21.4 years) were scanned while viewing facial images of their spouses, as well as facial images of a familiar acquaintance and a close friend (to control for familiarity and social bonding). Participants’ marital satisfaction scores (assessed with the Relationship Assessment Scale; Hendrick 1988) were correlated with brain activity in response to all of these facial images. Greater marital satisfaction (after controlling for Passionate Love Scale scores) was positively correlated with activation in several neural regions, including the ventral tegmental area (reflecting reward and motivation); the orbitofrontal cortex (associated with the evaluation of rewards); the anterior insula (associated with empathy); the inferior frontal gyrus (associated with the mirror system), the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (associated with stress control); and the prefrontal cortex (associated with affective regulation). Greater marital satisfaction was also associated with decreased activation of the subcallosal cingulate gyrus, an area whose high activity is implicated in severe depression. These findings highlight key neural sites that may mediate the link between relationship quality with psychological and physical well-being and health.

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