A new study finds that oxytocin, commonly referred to as the “love hormone,” could also be called the “love crisis hormone.”
The findings show that although our oxytocin levels tend to increase when we think about bonding with our partners — helping us feel more connected and generous — the hormone also increases when we notice that our partners seem less interested in the relationship than we are.
So researchers are asking: In this case, is oxytocin urging us to move closer to our less interested partners or prompting us to seek other relationships?
“Two main theories exist. Some scientists believe that oxytocin is released primarily to enhance a relationship and make it stronger when you’re with someone you love,” says Andreas Aarseth Kristoffersen, a research assistant in Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of psychology.
But others believe that oxytocin levels increase primarily when we find ourselves in difficult or even threatening situations. In those cases, the hormone helps us seek out new social relationships.
Researchers from NTNU and the University of New Mexico teamed up to study the connection between oxytocin and relationship investment among 75 American couples and 148 Norwegian individuals who were in relationships.
“Participants in the study were asked to think about their partner and how they wish their partner would connect with them in the relationship,” says Trond Viggo Grøntvedt, Ph.D., from the Department of Psychology at NTNU.
Oxytocin levels were measured both before and during the tasks. When participants were feeling a strong personal investment in their bond, their oxytocin levels went up, seemingly confirming the chemical’s reputation as a love hormone. But the crucial finding came from simultaneously examining both partners’ involvement.
The partners who were more invested in a relationship released more oxytocin when they thought about their relationship than the less invested partner did. Considering both members together, it was the difference in investment between partners that predicted an increase in oxytocin.
“Yes, oxytocin relates to one’s feelings of involvement — but, this association is particularly strong when one feels more involved than their partner,” says first author Nicholas M. Grebe, Ph.D.
In this case, oxytocin may be acting more like a “crisis hormone.”
“The idea behind the prediction was that oxytocin might promote attention and motivation toward the relationship when it was both important and threatened,” says Professor Steven W. Gangestad.
For example, the partner who is most invested in the relationship might benefit from putting even more effort into making it work, so that the more skeptical party re-engages.
“What’s implied here is a statement about what oxytocin is doing: It’s perhaps fostering attention to and motivation to ‘take care of’ the relationship,” says Gangestad.
Nevertheless, there is apparently a limit, such as in relationships that are clearly heading for a break-up. In these hopeless situations, the more invested partner did not show the same increase in oxytocin levels.
“I might emphasize that it isn’t necessarily ‘bad’ or ‘good’ for a person to release oxytocin. Yes, it might motivate attention that helps to maintain a relationship, but as the article hints, that isn’t necessarily desirable, though it could be! What is biologically ‘functional’ and socially ‘desirable’ are two different things,” says Grebe.
“We think that viewing oxytocin in this way can help us understand why it plays a role in other kinds of interdependent social relationships — new romances, mother-infant bonds, as two examples. The idea is that emotionally salient relationships, especially when those relationships are vulnerable, are elicitors of the oxytocin system.”