Oxytocin is a feel-good chemical that’s produced in the body to build a closer bond with someone, hence why it’s colloquially known as the “love” or “cuddle” drug. Cute, right? However, a new study is here to put a damper on that romantic notion, because nobody can have nice things.
Researchers suggest that, in addition to making you feel more connected, oxytocin may also warn your body when a relationship is on the outs. To test this theory, an international team of researchers led by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology studied the effects of oxytocin when a relationship was under threat.
To figure this out, researchers examined oxytocin levels in 75 American couples and 148 Norwegian individuals who were in relationships. Subjects were asked to ponder their relationships and write about how they feel their partner responds to them as well as how they wished their partners would respond to them. Subjects’ oxytocin levels were measured before and during the process.
Both studies revealed that individuals showed elevated hormone levels when they felt a strong investment in their bond. In this case, traditional beliefs around oxytocin remain true. If you’re close with your partner, you’re going to produce more oxytocin. Nothing new there.
However, the interesting—albeit depressing—part of the study found that partners who were more invested in a relationship released increased levels of oxytocin when they thought about their relationship than the less invested partner had.
“The idea behind the prediction was that oxytocin might promote attention and motivation toward the relationship when it was both important and threatened,” Professor Steven Gangestad, an author of the study, said. “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.”
This means oxytocin may also be a sort of “crisis hormone.” When your relationship is being threatened—he’s being noticeably distant, she’s talking to some handsome guy at work, etc.—your body produces a more generous dose of oxytocin to motivate you to restore the bond that oxytocin inherently craves.
Relationships that had little chance of working out didn’t show similar increases in oxytocin, which suggests that even your body is cognizant when a relationship is over. There’s no threat to a relationship that’s going nowhere, so oxytocin levels remain more or less the same.
“We think that viewing oxytocin this way can help us understand why it plays a role in other kinds of interdependent social relationships,” lead author Dr. Nick Grebe said. “The idea is that emotionally salient relationships, especially when those relationships are vulnerable, are elicitors of the oxytocin system.”
So when you feel compelled to rekindle a fractured bond, it could very well mean that a relationship is worth saving. Of course, more research is required to be sure, but it’s a revealing discovery that could potentially to impact how we regard threatened relationships.