Could oxytocin nasal spray keep marriages alive?

The continued popularity of writers like Shakespeare and Nicholas Sparks speaks for itself – Humans are fascinated by the concept of love. Soul aside, science offers some fascinating explanations for how/why our bodies act and react when we experience love.

Adrenaline makes the heart beat faster, testosterone and estrogen keep the genders interested in each other, but oxytocin takes the cake as the hormone most associated with love.

This neuropeptide consists of nine amino acids made in the pituitary gland near the brain. It’s released naturally in pregnant women to advance labor and works so well that doctors will even give a dose if baby is ready to come out but lagging behind. Oxytocin is also released when moms nurse their young, causing a strong emotional bond between mother and baby. The more oxytocin mom makes, the greater the emotional closeness.

Men and women also release oxytocin when sexually stimulated, leading to the same nurturing emotion that a mother feels for her baby when nursing.

Last year, further proof was provided about oxytocin’s ability to hold relationships together. A research team in Germany decided to test the strength of the oxytocin bond using a nasal spray of the hormone.

Eighty-six heterosexual men were given either the oxytocin spray or a placebo spray. Then, an attractive researcher approached each man, standing about 24 inches away. She moved one or two steps closer and then further back. The men were asked to judge when the attractive woman was at an ideal distance vs. when she was close enough to make them feel “slightly uncomfortable.”

The researchers suspected that those receiving oxytocin would be prone to welcoming the woman closer. But the results showed something else.

Men who were in monogamous relationships (married or with steady girlfriends) and received the oxytocin spray preferred to keep a greater distance between themselves and the attractive researcher. They stayed four to six inches further away than those who received the placebo and those not in a relationship.

This research suggests that oxytocin is capable of protecting the bond between Romeo and Juliet – or at least help spoken for test subjects avoid the temptation of an attractive researcher.

Knowing this, there are still more questions about oxytocin that have yet to be answered:

  • Will monogamous women also find that oxytocin strengthens their relationship bond, even if tempted?
  • If oxytocin is released in people whose object of affection is pornography, is that bond strengthened, too?
  • Should oxytocin be prescribed to help strengthen marriages?

We’ll keep a look out for these answers and more as we continue to learn about the science behind love.