Questions about Oxytocin and Relationships

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Submitted by Marnia on
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Hi,

Been looking at your site the last few days and I find your research and findings very interesting.

I'm going through some personal difficulties at the moment with my relationship (8 years gone strong till now). Our sexual interactions have recently (last year) become stale and potential new partners are totally kicking me into an extreme emotional roller coaster and heavy craving even though I deeply love my partner and have no desire *mentally* to ever fulfill my cravings with others. I often feel totally out of control in these situations, it's like my more 'primitive' self just wants to take over. I would very much like to work out approaches to managing and even mitigating the cravings and integrating my currently warring sides.

So, the findings and conclusions you reach are of significant interest. I am at heart a skeptic (burnt by fundamentalism in my younger years) and have questions that I can't see answered in your writings.

1. Your central premise states that oxytocin is the central key to reinvigorating, or at least maintaining a healthy relationship. This seems confirmed by the literature you cite though most of the scientific findings still seem pretty young. You then seem to infer that oxytocin is reduced by orgasm though sexual intercourse and I can't find any direct link to this in any literature you cite. From what I can gather you seem to believe that dopamine is the culprit and that the reduction of dopamine in the system reduces the level of oxytocin in the system. On the contrary, most literature seems to conclude that oxytocin is radically increased during orgasm and there is no material that indicates that it reduces to lower than normal levels afterwards. Could you point out the scientific basis behind the belief that orgasm is the cause of lack of oxytocin and thus detrimental to healthy relationships?

2. You cite scientific research on the short term affects of dopamine highs through orgasm combined with the affect of prolactin stating that it pushes the partners away from each other and come to the conclusion that it's the orgasm that's destroying the relationships and that by just focusing on intimacy and non-orgasmic sex we can increase oxytocin and maintain healthy relationships. The issue I have with this though is that the post-coital partner distancing is not the issue with my relationship (and most long term relationship issues that I know of). The issue seems to be more of a long-term dissipation of sexual attractiveness by the partner that is happening over a much larger and slower time scale that a post-coital distancing time frame. Could it be that rather than non-orgasmic sex having a neurochemical benefit to relationships it is the shifting of the partners focus onto oxytocin production rather than a dopamine fix that benefits a healthy relationship. Could it be that it is purely the oxytocin that is the key to a healthy relationship and the lack of orgasm have very little to do with it? Could a shift to a heavy focus on oxytocin production (petting, foreplay) during dopamine inducing intercourse be just as beneficial?

Again, thanks for your web published material. It has been very educational and thought provoking. Hopefully it will benefit my relationship long term as well.

best regards

Response

Thanks. We like skeptics, and consider ourselves skeptics too. You ask good questions and they deserve careful answers.

First of all, oxytocin levels in the blood do (many) different things than oxytocin levels in the brain. So far, the only evidence of oxytocin encouraging bonding shows up when it is in the brain's hypothalamus. There, levels can only be measured by fatal, gruesome means. In other words, so far science can't measure it in human brains (hence our reliance on other evidence of emotional bonding). There is also evidence that REPEATED increases in the blood (of voles) CAN raise it in the bonding part of the brain. However, the surge (in the blood of humans) at orgasm (which journalists jump on as the key to maintaining emotional bonds) may be doing an entirely different job. Some scientists suggest that the orgasmic surge occurs strictly to trigger the orgasmic contractions that aid in pushing sperm around. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dop...) If so, it could have nothing whatsoever to do with bonding.

This may explain why oxytocin levels after orgasm drop off immediately. The reason I know that is that we talked to a researcher at Heartmath who explained that measuring oxytocin levels around orgasm would be tough because they would have to draw blood immediately to catch the surge. I think a saliva test has come out since, which would be a bit less intrusive, but the point is that the orgasm surge of oxytocin doesn't hang around long.

Just for the record, prolactin (sexual satiation) stays high for as long as it has been measured (so far less than a day, I believe). Prolactin holds down dopamine.

It's possible that my husband can find you some abstracts that link dopamine and oxytocin levels to the effect that when dopamine drops, so does oxytocin. Certainly both drop after orgasm--though there may be no causal relationship. Both are needed in balanced quantities to maintain a strong bond. And yes, we do believe that when dopamine and oxytocin crash after orgasm, they may play a big role in pushing partners apart.

My PERSONAL thoughts are that dopamine drops/prolactin rises(?) create fear/uneasiness/restlessness--as we project our gut feelings onto our loved ones, and that it is this discomfort that erodes the more sustained oxytocin production (and emotional bond) over time. You may have seen the Nerve Growth Factor research. Interestingly, Gary recently found that oxytocin levels correlate also with NGF. (RAISED PLASMA NERVE GROWTH FACTOR LEVELS ASSOCIATED WITH EARLY-STAGE ROMANTIC LOVE (NGF correlates with "in love" feelings), and

NGF is released into plasma during human pregnancy: an oxytocin-mediated response? (NGF correlates with oxytocin levels))
Does that mean we all HAVE to fall out of love and that NGF and oxytocin will inevitably drop? Or does that mean that the ancients were wise and that when we learn to keep oxytocin up we also benefit from higher NGF and other beneficial neurochemistry? I believe the latter, but it's too soon to say with actual research as no one is yet exploring this other approach to sex from a research perspective.

Anyway, I believe that science will one day confirm that uneasiness blocks love. I definitely AM inferring...but no more than the general press with its assumptions that more orgasms will lead to lasting bonds. Smile My inference is not irresponsible in the sense that our personal experience is consistent with more sustained levels of oxytocin...overcoming addiction, countering depression, staying more bonded than in past relationships, feeling calmer, sleeping better, etc. Neurochemically, it is hard to account for these gains without sustained higher oxytocin levels...AND/OR increasing numbers of oxytocin receptors. However, there may yet be discoveries that peg this improvement to something else. The point is that the behavioral change DID lead to results unlike those achieved with conventional sex relationships...and oxytocin in is the most likely explanation.

I have definitely felt the primitive brain "take over" you describe. It pushed me out of many relationships before I wised up to the fact that it wasn't my will at work. I am happy to report that with this approach, such urges seem much milder and pass swiftly. Also, my partner looks more and more adorable (to me). That's encouraging...whatever the neurochemical story behind the results.

We don't think there is enough scientific data to answer exactly WHAT accounts for the separation urge. We DO think the idea that because oxytocin often surges at orgasm, orgasm bonds partners is naive given the dopamine drop and prolactin surge that also occur. These neurochemicals ARE associated with the kinds of misery that build between couples, so they seem likely candidates for the separation urge.

I guess we view ourselves as "another voice," encouraging science to look at what causes the separation, and what behavior changes could counteract it, instead of just assuming that our biological design is working in our favor in intimate relationships. The universality of the Coolidge Effect (http://www.reuniting.info/science/coolidge_effect)...and the lack of monogamous mammals make this a very blithe assumption. (Not that YOU were assuming it, but many do.)

I don't think more oxytocin-producing behavior will counter the separation programming completely, although it can certainly help keep couples together more harmoniously. When you say that most relationship problems aren't due to post-coital separation, I think you are talking about the immediate "roll over and snore" phenomenon, right? I would agree. However, in my experience conventional sex can create mood swings two weeks AFTER a passion bout. Such problems would typically just show up as "relationship friction" over sharing household duties, parenting issues, fading sexual attraction, or be blamed on PMS (another big prolactin rise...), etc. In other words, such issues SEEM to have nothing to do with coitus. However, in my experience, they do. I say that with some confidence because of my experience and the experience of others who have watched themselves while experimenting with this. Most folks never can compare the two approaches because they don't try this approach for long enough (or they just walk through the mechanics without staying focused on the mutual giving necessary). Those who do, notice an easy harmony in their relationships in lieu of a lot of that "everyday" friction.

If you do play with these ideas, let us know what you experience. It works at several levels. To get the best benefits you have to switch from "getting" to "giving" in the bedroom. You also have to integrate an understanding of how innocent you were, your past partners were, and even your parents were...under the influence of this natural separation device. In this way, any lingering, quite unsuspected, subconscious uneasiness about the opposite sex dissolves. This take a while. But enough...!

Thanks for writing. I'll forward anything interesting that my husband has in his collection when he has a chance to review my comments.

Warm regards,
Marnia

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