When you notice
your partner is less interested than you are, your
brain may send out a hormone that can help you fix
Partners who were more invested in a relationship
released more oxytocin when they thought about their
relationship than the less invested partner did.
both members together, it was the difference in
investment between partners that predicted an
increase in oxytocin.
may be acting more like a 'crisis hormone.'
is often called the "love hormone" or "cuddle chemical," but
American and Norwegian researchers have found out that it may as
well be called a "crisis hormone."
When we hug someone, oxytocin is released into our bodies by our
pituitary gland, lowering both our heart rates and our
cortisol levels. Cortisol is the
hormone responsible for stress, high blood pressure, and heart
Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that acts on the limbic system, the
brain's emotional centre, promoting feelings of contentment,
reducing anxiety and stress, and even making mammals monogamous.
It is the hormone
responsible for us all being here today.
"When people notice
that their partner is showing less interest in their
relationship than they are, the level of this
relationship-building hormone increases," says Andreas Aarseth
Kristoffersen, a research assistant in NTNU's Department of
The hormone oxytocin has
long been associated with relationships in several different ways.
Oxytocin has a great
reputation, because it is thought that it can make us feel better by
reducing anxiety and making us feel more generous. Our brain
secretes it during orgasm. It also influences the relationship
between mother and child.
But it's not all cuddling and love.
Two Or More
"Two main theories
believe that oxytocin is released primarily to enhance a
relationship and make it stronger when you're with someone you
love," says Aarseth Kristoffersen.
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.
However it may not just be either-or.
Increases In Good and Bad Times
NTNU researchers joined researchers
from the University of New Mexico to study the connection between
oxytocin and investment in couple relationships.
The researchers examined 75 American couples, and 148 Norwegian
individuals who were one of the partners in their relationships.
Newly minted Ph.D. Nicholas M. Grebe is the study's first
author and visited Professor Kennair at NTNU's Department of
Kennair has collaborated
with Grebe's Ph.D. advisor Professor Steven W. Gangestad.
"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 Gr°ntvedt, PhD, from the Department of Psychology.
Oxytocin levels were
measured both before and during the tasks. In both studies,
individuals showed elevated hormone levels when they felt strong
personal investment in the bond.
In this case, oxytocin's
reputation as a love hormone holds up.
relates to one's feelings of involvement - but, this association
is particularly strong when one feels more involved than their
partner," says Nick Grebe.
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.
Here, oxytocin may be
acting more like a "crisis hormone".
contradictory that you would release more oxytocin both when
things are going well and when they're not, but
that's how it is," says Aarseth Kristoffersen.
But why would that be?
Effort Into The Relationship
"This may be because
people in a relationship where their partner is waffling need to
engage more," Aarseth Kristoffersen says.
"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 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
"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 - some would say fortunately - a limit. This would apply
to relationships where everything seems lost and is clearly heading
for a break-up.
In those situations, the
more invested partner does not show the same increase in oxytocin
"There's no point in
investing more in a lost cause," says Kennair.
There appears to be a
limit to how long you should spend energy and resources on a
relationship that is simply over.
However, this is still mostly speculation for now.
Believe Is What Matters
The researchers found no significant difference between US and
Responses to the study
tasks were consistent across cultural conditions, which reinforces
the theory that the underlying explanation is biological.
The procedure in the two countries differed somewhat.
The American couples were
asked directly about how committed they were in their relationships.
The Norwegian individuals were asked how invested they thought their
partner was in the relationship.
This made no difference
for the results. It is enough if you think the relationship is
weakening because your partner is losing interest.
This will trigger your
brain to release extra oxytocin.
"I might emphasize
that it isn't necessarily 'bad' or 'good' for a person to
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 Nick 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
The idea is that
emotionally salient relationships, especially when those
relationships are vulnerable, are elicitors of the oxytocin
system," Nick Grebe concludes.
Grebe, Andreas Aarseth Kristoffersen, Trond Viggo Gr°ntvedt,
Melissa Emery Thompson, Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, Steven
W. Gangestad -
Oxytocin and Vulnerable Romantic
- Hormones and
Behavior, 2017; 90: 64