Oxytocin in Relationships: Is it Love or Hate?

The hormone oxytocin has been associated with being called the ''cuddle hormone", “the bonding chemical” and “trust hormone”.  It plays a significant role in human attachments and bonding in childhood and our later intimate relationships.  Research has shown it to be associated with our ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships and healthy psychological boundaries with other people.   During pregnancy and postpartum, a woman's body is stimulated with oxytocin to nurture her child in order to establish a social bond that ensure the child’s survival.  Social bonding is essential to our species survival since it promotes reproduction as well as protection against predators and environmental changes.  Oxytocin is also present during and after sexual intimacy, especially in the cuddling that happens after sex.   Some research has indicated that individuals with higher oxytocin levels had more sex with fewer partners due to their tendency to stick with one partner over a long period of time. 

Oxytocin released during hugging is known to be associated with boosting trust and empathy among human relationships and has the ability to reduce stress by lowering cortisol, also called the “stress hormone”.  The simple act of hugging someone or shaking someone’s hand, can release low levels of oxytocin, leading to increased feelings of optimism, trust and self-confidence.  In some cases, it has been observed to increase generosity in humans and assist people in overcoming their social inhibitions and fears.  Overall, oxytocin studies have mainly focused on women, mainly because females tend to release higher levels of oxytocin than males. 

You can get your fix of oxytocin through various ways:

  • tell your favourite person that you love them
  • belt out your favorite tunes in your car or shower
  • have sex with your partner then double the dose by spooning
  • take your grandma out for brunch and ask her about your family history to increase your connection to your ancestry
  • watch an emotional movie, usually a Disney movie will do the trick
  • kiss your child, usually works best when they are under 13 when they are more willing to kiss you back
  • go out salsa dancing or something that involves a partner
  • hug your dog or cat, but not too tight
  • help someone out to increase the “pay it forward” feeling for others and being rewarded with some extra Oxytocin to increase your mood
  • making eye contact with an attractive stranger, but probably best when single so you don’t give off the wrong vibe, upset your partner and simultaneously reduce your partner’s oxytocin levels
  • exercise with your best friend, whether yoga, jogging or Zumba

The question is if women are more prone to releasing higher levels of Oxytocin, can the hormone ever become dangerous?  Despite some research demonstrating oxytocin to be associated with our ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships, is it possible for it to mask unhealthy relationship dynamics? In both heterosexual and same-sex relationships, women can become more vulnerable due to their strong attachment to their partner if the partner turns out to be abusive.  That is not to say that men are not victims of abuse however, the numbers of females affected by abuse tend to be much higher.  It is important to become aware if your relationship is taking a turn for the worst and you might not have come to terms with it due to your high oxytocin levels for your partner.  It is also important to be aware if you play a role in an abusive relationship, especially if you also display unhealthy ways of relating to your partner. 

Is it healthy?

  • You always feel safe with each other
  • You are both faithful in your relationship
  • You never feel pressured to be intimate
  • You both accept responsibility for your actions
  • You can solve conflict without putting each other down
  • You support each other’s life goals
  • There is trust between the two of you
  • You respect each other’s privacy
  • You are proud to be with each other
  • You apologize when wrong
  • Your friends and family are supportive of the relationship
  • There is equal decision-making power in the relationship
  • You control your own money
  • You both respect each other’s opinions and beliefs
  • You can easily communicate about sex, if intimate
  • You always treat each other with respect
  • You both enjoy spending time separately as well
  • You usually have more fun times with each other than not
  • You encourage each other’s interests
  • You give each other space when needed

Is it unhealthy?

  • Your partner gets extremely jealous or accuses you of cheating
  • Your partner threatens to hurt you or commit suicide if you leave
  • Your partner ignores or withholds affection as a way of punishing you
  • Your partner plays mind games
  • Your partner tells you how to dress
  • Your partner puts you down with name calling and other put downs
  • Your partner doesn’t listen to you when you talk
  • Your partner is condescending or verbally abusive towards you
  • Your partner doesn’t take you or things that matter to you seriously
  • Your partner pressures you to have sex or humiliates you during intimacy
  • Your partner uses alcohol/drugs as an excuse for hurtful behaviour
  • Your partner acts controlling or possessive
  • Your partner smashes, throws or destroys your things
  • Your partner cheats or threatens to cheat
  • Your partner frequently criticizes your family and friends
  • Your partner has ever grabbed, pushed, hit or physically hurt you
  • Your partner blames you for their behaviour and doesn’t take accountability
  • Your partner embarrasses or humiliates you
  • Your partner prevents you from furthering your career/education
  • Your partner makes all the decisions in your relationship
  • Your partner frequently goes back on their promises
  • Your partner depends completely on you for their social/emotional needs

The list does not cover all possible factors however, it was meant to paint a picture of the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationship dynamics.  This could be applied to any relationship for reference.  If you find yourself in an abusive relationship, tell someone, seek counselling, safety plan with someone you trust.  Everyone deserves to be free of violence as well as be loved and respected in their relationship.