The Role of Oxytocin in Building Trusting and Loving Relationships
The feelings of love, devotion, and trust are connected with complex processes in our brain. All of these emotions are closely related to one powerful and omnipresent hormone called oxytocin.
Also known as the “love hormone”, it serves as a neurotransmitter that mostly participates in mental processes related to love, physical attraction and social interaction.
Whenever we’re emotionally or physically stimulated, the level of oxytocin in our brain increases. That’s why this hormone plays a major role in a wide range of behaviors. From an early age when we bond with our parents to later periods in life, oxytocin is responsible for our emotional and social (in)stability.
Due to its deep connection with positive emotions, it’s also closely related to trust. When we spend time with people who we trust, oxytocin levels rise.
Although it’s usually mentioned in the positive context, it also has a less positive side. While oxytocin is a cohesive element with the people we love, it plays a secessionist role with the people we don’t like. As a result, it can enhance the feeling of love towards your group, but it can also amplify the feeling of prejudice to other groups.
As we can see from this introduction, this hormone affects our brain in many different ways. That’s why we want to explain its functions as much as possible in the rest of this text.
HOW DO WE FALL IN LOVE?
We all know that we’re in love when we feel butterflies in the stomach. However, this is an oversimplified phrase for a multi-level set of processes inside our body. Many of them have something to do with oxytocin.
First and foremost, you must have noticed that you don’t get equally attracted to all the people you meet. Some people trigger those butterflies in the stomach, while others don’t cause any reactions in your body whatsoever.
For some of us, somebody is attractive, while for others they didn’t. On the one hand, the sense of attraction has its roots in social norms, such as the social and economic background.
On the other, it’s caused and determined by numerous physiological elements.
One of the most important features when it comes to physical attraction are pheromones. According to the definition provided by Encyclopedia Britannica, a pheromone is
“any endogenous chemical secreted in minute amounts by an organism in order to elicit a particular reaction from another organism of the same species.”
Translated to humankind, these chemicals can make you feel attraction and affection towards other people.
Pheromones are divided into several categories.
Androstenol, androstenone, and copulins
Firstly, men and women produce and emit androstenol through their fresh sweat. To some people, this scent is interesting and attractive. This doesn’t mean that they’ll fall in love with you if they feel it, but it can be a trigger for other emotions.
Unlike androstenol, there’s also a pheromone called androstenone. This one is basically an odor and it’s not pleasant. When androstenol gets mixed with oxygen, you get androstenone. Basically, if you don’t take a shower after a gym training session, your pheromones will have a negative effect on other people.
The only difference between men and women is that the latter don’t emit those pheromones as the former because they use deodorants more often. That’s why the pleasant smell of fresh sweat is usually associated with men.
A pheromone produced only by women is copulins. Unlike some other women’s pheromones that can’t be felt by men, this one is detectable around a woman’s fertile window. That’s only one of the ways how the women’s body sends signals that it’s ovulating. When men feel this pheromone, they can become physically and emotionally inspired to approach the woman in question.
Pheromones vs. oxytocin
In a nutshell, pheromones are like a love patrol that goes out to see what’s going on around the place. When pheromones land on a fertile ground (pun intended), we start feeling those butterflies in the stomach. Further, some of us start blushing or stuttering, or simply can’t find the right word when they’re talking to the person they started to like.
As you and the other party are growing more and more attracted to each other, the level of oxytocin is constantly rising. These oxytocin heights are the main reason why we feel so excited and elevated when we start dating someone.
Also, it’s been proven that oxytocin is high when we’re cuddling, making love, or simply hugging and kissing. These gentle activities are especially beneficial for women, as explained in the article “10 Incredible Benefits of Cuddling That Make You Want to Cuddle Now”.
While pheromones are directed towards the outside, oxytocin is strictly restricted to the brain area. Had there been no pheromones, it would be more difficult for us to feel exaltation and emotional pleasure. Because of that, pheromones and oxytocin can be quite useful as allies.
EMOTIONAL COMMITMENTS AND BODY CHEMISTRY
We’ve analyzed how pheromones can contribute to higher oxytocin levels. Now let’s delve deeper into the matter of body chemistry and emotional commitments.
First and foremost, it’s important to say that the chemical processes inside your brain are changing as you’re becoming more and more committed to only one person.
Men, emotional commitments, and testosterone
As Gad Saad, Ph. D. explained it in the article “Long-Term Relationships and Men’s Testosterone Levels”, single men and those who have started a relationship recently have similar levels of testosterone. Since their level of commitment is still lower, their testicles still produce high amounts of testosterone. This is mainly due to the fact that their brain sends them a message that they’re still ‘on the prowl’. It’s a simple evolutionary aspect of our mind and brain.
However, men in long-term relationships tend to have a lower level of testosterone because their mind wants them to focus on their family, rather than sexual intercourses. This is even more obvious with men who have become fathers. Their main focus now is on providing things of their family, rather than sheer mating.
Women, commitments, and estrogen
The level of estrogen is highest during puberty and when women are young.
As they’re growing older, the level of estrogen is decreasing, only to get significantly reduced during the menopause.
The study “Increasing women’s sexual desire: The comparative effectiveness of estrogens and androgens” has shown that a high level of estrogen increases women’s sexual desire. However, when they start a family and become mothers, the level of estrogen starts to drop. Instead of finding a proper partner with whom they can have children, women concentrate more on care and commitment to kids.
This is why many women experience a drop of estrogen and sexual desire when they’re in happy, long-term relationships. Similar to men, the level of main women’s hormone becomes lower if they’re more committed to their partner.
Still, the levels of testosterone and estrogen in loving partners who have children often match. They might be lower than in single people, but that’s still high enough to have a normal, regular sex life.
Dopamine and Serotonin
Often mentioned together with oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin are also feel-good hormones, together with endorphin. Each of them has its special functions so let’s get a bit deeper into their roles.
Dopamine is a hormone that forces us to take action, pursue our needs, and move forward in life. People with high levels of dopamine are more likely to take risks in life, face new challenges, and make their lives better whenever possible.
Since this hormone can be called the motivation hormone, it’s important to get our brain hooked on dopamine. For instance, when you’ve achieved your goals, reward yourself with something that your brain will appreciate. That way you’ll keep it rolling for new challenges, goals, and achievements. However, in case your brain produces extremely high amounts of dopamine, you might delve into an extreme reward-centered behavior.
Serotonin, aka the happy hormone, is high when you’re feeling important, loved, and relevant. People who have low levels of serotonin often suffer from depression and anxiety. Belonging to a group that accepts you and supports you increases the levels of serotonin.
This is why people join different extreme social groups – they feel important and their serotonin levels increase. Truth be told, being part of any group that recognizes your qualities will keep serotonin, but lack of this hormone explains why some people seek confirmation in illegal groups. This is where they find support, trust and social affirmation.
Each of these hormones is included in the process of falling in love with someone. What’s more, each of them increases as our emotions become stronger and our bongs more intensive.
If you want to learn more about other chemical processes in our brain when we’re falling in love, watch the video below. In this TED talk, biologist Dawn Maslar explains different physiological and evolutional aspects of the feelings we experience as we’re becoming more affectionate toward someone.
OXYTOCIN VS. DOPAMINE
We’ve explained the main functions of oxytocin and discussed the elements of dopamine. If they’re both feel-good hormones, what’s the difference between them?
As we’ve already pointed out, dopamine is basically the motivation chemical which helps us get things done. It can also be referred to as an evolutionary conditioned survival hormone. Simply put, without dopamine you wouldn’t have the willpower to get out of bed, have something to eat or meet other people.
In other words, dopamine pushes you forward and maintains your motivation. Hence, it’s an important prerequisite for the production of oxytocin, as well. To be more precise, if your dopamine is low, you won’t be motivated to get out there and get in touch with someone you might fall in love with.
Here’s also where pheromones can be added to this equation. As dopamine nudges you to strive for survival and become more active in your social surroundings, it makes way for pheromones to get released and noticed by other men and women.
Once these two chemicals provide you with all the social, physiological and emotional conditions, you can get in a situation to kiss or hug someone, as well as cuddle and make love. These are all situations in which oxytocin is going up.
If there wasn’t for dopamine (and pheromones), you might never get a chance to experience the feeling of excitement and enthusiasm, caused by oxytocin. Therefore, it’s logical that neither of these hormones can work on its own. Since both oxytocin and dopamine are neurotransmitters, they’re connected with many other parts of the brain. As such, they make a large group of interdependent chemicals that function on the basis of chain reactions.
Therefore, you should leave as healthy a lifestyle as possible in order to keep all those hormones in harmony.
Please, check out the video below to find out some additional details about the connection between oxytocin and dopamine, as well as other feel-good hormones.
WHEN FALLING IN LOVE BECOMES DEEPER LOVE
When the butterflies-in-the-stomach stage is through, you start feeling less excited and more committed to the person you love. Yes, this is the right moment to replace the phrase ‘falling in love’ with the noun ‘love’.
As you can see, the language is pretty accurate here: first you’re falling in love, which is a continuous process, and then you are in love, which is a state.
Now that you’re in love, the brain gets into that specific mood.
As we’ve already said, men and women have higher levels of testosterone and estrogen, respectively, when they’re single. Also, these levels still stay high when they’re at the beginning of a romantic or physical relationship.
As you and your partner grow closer and more committed to each other, the levels of testosterone and estrogen drop a bit. When you get children, they drop a bit more, especially estrogen. This is so because women naturally concentrate on their children’s needs and upbringing.
It’s important to draw a line between testosterone, estrogen and oxytocin because they’re all closely related.
When you’re in love with someone for ages, your levels of testosterone or estrogen can be quite low, but oxytocin can still be high. This is when love between two people becomes a deep and committed relationship full of mutual trust and understanding.
This interdependence is nicely explained in the article “Love, actually: The science behind lust, attraction, and companionship”, published on the Harvard University blog.
In this test, author Katherine Wu highlights that the initial period of love relationship, i.e. the stage of lust, is marked by high levels of estrogen and testosterone. When you start feeling strong physical and emotional desire toward someone, it’s clear that these two hormones are running high in your bodies.
The next stage – attraction – is about dopamine and serotonin. The first one drives you forward to new experiences with that same person and makes you feel good about each new milestone you reach on both emotional and physical field.
The third stage – companionship –highlights oxytocin as the central hormone that dominates your brain. This is the comfort zone for both people in a stable, committed relationship. They feel complete
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN LOVE AND TRUST
It would be wrong to claim that we feel love and trust only in romantic and sexual relationships.
On the contrary, the entire process explained above isn’t restricted to love between partners.
Our brain reacts in a similar way when we’re establishing friendships and other forms of social relationships. At first, you feel comfortable and pleasant talking to someone and spending time with them. A good example is the situation in which you enroll a university or start working in a new company. In both of these cases, you meet a group of new people. With some of them you develop true and honest friendships, while with others you keep a distance.
With the exception of the lust stage, the feelings of love and trust work the same way in both romantic relationships and friendships. You like spending time with someone and you start to trust them.
We’ve already written about depression at work in our article “Dealing with Depression at Work: What You Need to Know”. In order to cope with this issue in a successful way, it’s clever to develop deeper relationships with some people at work. Knowing that you can count on someone there will make every potential problem easier to solve.
Since emotions and hormones are variables, the level of oxytocin starts to drop when someone betrays your trust. Again, the pattern is similar in both romantic relationships and social activities.
If you think that someone has let you down, the level of oxytocin will decrease. Hence, this drop is closely related to the feelings of disappointment and abandonment.
We all react differently to such emotional traumas, which is why there’s no universal one-size-fits-all rule. But if you want to reduce the probability that you’ll get hurt, you should make better choices when it comes to friends and partners. The article “Oxytocin: is it really a trust hormone? Maybe we should choose who to trust”, published by The Guardian brings an interesting insight into the matter of choice.
HOW DO WE STOP BEING IN LOVE?
How does it happen that you stop having strong emotions for someone for whom you were once ready to do anything in the world?
The answer is, as it usually is the case with emotions, complex and indefinite.
First of all, life can be merciless to both partners and the challenges each of us faces every day can be quite exhausting.
What’s more, the feelings of love, trust, and companionship reduce the levels of testosterone and estrogen. Since emotions aren’t stable, one of the partners can start feeling urges that are different from the ones he or she has been feeling for ages.
For instance, a woman in her thirties can realize that she wants more from life than being married. While this doesn’t have to mean that she doesn’t love her partner, such a thought can nudge her toward the end of the relationship.
Likewise, a married man could feel that he doesn’t feel as much attention from his wife as he used to. Daily family errands, work obligations and the natural decrease of hormones can lead to a stalemate in every relationship.
Love ends when chemistry wanes
Certain drops in the level testosterone and estrogen are expected and natural in long-term relationships. So, these hormones could be lower, but couples can have a perfectly healthy and exciting romantic life for many years.
However, if the production of all the feel-good hormones drops low, this can lead to serious problems. Do you know that feeling when your partner hugs you or kisses you and you feel nothing? This means that their touch doesn’t stimulate the production of oxytocin anymore. The article “Divorce Rate Linked To Oxytocin Levels; How The ‘Love Hormone’ Influences Marriage Success” on the Medical Daily website analyzes the correlation between the divorce rate and oxytocin levels.
In line with that, dopamine and serotonin can also drop to a pretty low level.
That’s why people who are breaking up or getting divorced are often desperate and physically ill. It’s not something they want. It’s the nature of things.
To end a long story short, every love comes to an end when the chemical processes in our brain related to our partner don’t make us feel good anymore. Some people stay together in spite of these changes. However, most couples realize that it’s better to start searching for someone who will give them the new dose of oxytocin.
We love and care and commit ourselves to others as a result of emotional, physical and social elements. Each of them has its specific features, but they all function together when it comes to our relationships with other people. Both friendships and romantic relationships are based on similar expectations.
We feel sympathy or affection for someone, which then grows into the feelings of committed love and trust. Chemical processes in our brain play an important role in all these feelings and relationships.
Although we need such experiences to realize what makes us happy and what doesn’t bring joy, it’s wise to be careful in those relationships. If you play your cards with both heart and brain, you could always have an ace up your sleeve that will keep the oxytocin levels high.
As a result, you’ll manage to feel good as much as possible and avoid some potential disappointments.
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