Oxytocin and relationships

Oxytocin is all in the news these days, and people seem to want a better understanding of the role the hormone plays in relationships. Here is an analogy based on my take on it.

Have you ever made bread? I had a breadmaker for a long time, a gift from a good friend. It eventually died of old age, after making literally thousands of loaves. I experimented with the ingredients all the time. Every once in a while I would forget to add an ingredient, and the results were, as a rule, disastrous.

I made whole-wheat loaves, which are a bit touchy. If I forgot to add an egg — or gluten or something else to increase the protein content — everything would still go fine in the beginning. The yeast would eat the sugars in the honey or molasses and release CO2, causing the loaf to rise beautifully.

At that point the heat was supposed to chemically change the protein in the gluten or egg, to denature it, making it firm so that the loaf would hold its shape. With too little protein, the bread would rise and then, as the yeast started to die from the heat, fall in the center. As that network of tiny holes collapsed, the moisture could no longer evaporate out — the result was a dense, moist brick of firm dough with a nearly bulletproof crust.

For an adult whose brain doesn’t manufacture much oxytocin — perhaps through some misfortune of genetic inheritance, or a lack of parental love as a child — trying to have an intimate relationship may be a bit like baking that doomed loaf of bread. In the early stages of a relationship the brain is swimming in hormones like dopamine and serotonin and adrenalin, and all goes well. Like yeast happy in their sugar-rich environment, the relationship feeds on the resulting euphoria and grows by leaps and bounds.

Eventually, though, the high wears off. Oxytocin is supposed to be in play at that point, though, keeping you firmly attached to your beloved. Ideally you feel as though your life and your partner’s life are more or less one life shared by the two of you, in a large emotional space opened up by passion and given permanence by oxytocin. You still have your own separate interests, of course, but the core of your life is not just in a space shared through some act of will but rather is the same as the core of your partner’s life.

But if your brain doesn’t produce enough oxytocin, you might still feel like a person with his/her own separate life, sharing an intimate world with somebody you enjoy and care deeply about but who is nevertheless, in some sense, ever so subtly intruding on your life.  You make compromises for the benefit of the relationship, but those compromises feel different than they would if you were really bonded to your partner. Disappointments and inconveniences accumulate because goals are not truly shared.  You begin to secretly wish that your life were your own again.

Eventually the relationship collapses into a disagreeable blob that is impossible to get out of the pan without a hacksaw.

Whole wheat, anyone?

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