Biological discussions about romance rarely fail to mention oxytocin, which has been nicknamed the “love drug.” A prosocial hormone that underlies the warm,, cozy feelings of stability and trust, oxytocin is released when people hug, touch, and orgasm — — which, in turn, facilitates positive feelings between lovers. However, a new study reveals that oxytocin is also released in a far less romantic situation: When the relationship starts to head south.
“The idea behind the prediction was that oxytocin might promote attention and motivation toward the relationship when it was both important and threatened,” University of Minnesota psychology professor and study University of Minnesota psychology professor and study co-author [Steven Gangestad, Ph.D., said in a statement about the new paper published in Hormones and Behavior. His fellow author, Norwegian University of Science and Technology psychologist Andreas Aarseth Kristoffersen, Ph.D., added that this “crisis mode” release of oxytocin may occur when people in a relationship are “waffling need to engage more.”
It seems that the brain, in these situations, encourages you to do exactly what your friends tell you not to do — that is, when the relationship seems like it’s going to end, try to even more love to your partner. In those dire moments, oxytocin makes the switch from being a “love drug” to a “crisis hormone.”
To better understand the role of oxytocin, the researchers examined its levels in 75 American couples and 148 Norwegian individuals who were in a relationship. Study participants were asked to think about their partner and how they wished their partner would connect to them romantically. The scientists measured the participants’ oxytocin levels both before and after they were asked to think about their love lives.
Across the board, all individuals showed elevated levels of the hormone when they felt a strong personal investment in their relationship. Crucially, however, individuals also released oxytocin when they felt they were more invested in the relationship than their partner.
Gangestad theorizes that the sudden release of oxytocin, while perhaps not ideal for someone in a sinking Titanic of a relationship, may be a natural response because it benefits people in different kinds of relationships, like mothers and their children. In that case, it could serve the relationship well for a mother to show her love even greater when she feels like the child may be slipping away.
Luckily, the brain doesn’t totally betray you when it comes to romantic relationships: The researchers also found that if people felt sure the relationship was absolutely going to end, their brains didn’t release a noticeable amount of oxytocin.
This doesn’t mean that the brain in love works in any predictable way. Even the study authors admit that when it comes to love, how the brain works is far from rational.
“It seems contradictory that you would release more oxytocin both when things are going well and when they’re not,” says Kristoffersen, “but that’s how it is.”