Various experiments with rodents, monkeys, even sheep, have led to a number of speculations about the role the neurotransmitter oxytocin has in pair-bonding, sexual behavior, social memory and support, and stress coping (Neuman, 2008). Correlating subsequent behavior observed from hormone manipulation from experiments on animals to humans is proving too simplistic. However, these initial experiments serve as important preliminary evidence into investigating its cause and effect. The three types of voles (prairie, mountain, and meadow) have two distinct patterns of pair-bonding and of social interactions. The prairie vole behaves monogamously, while the mountain and meadow voles are promiscuous. Noting these differences with one species provoked inquiry into why that may be the case. The difference was determined to be due to the varying degrees of oxytocin present in each subtype: the prairie voles showed higher levels than the other two. It would make sense that a prairie vole living in wide open plains and vulnerable to predators, would have adapted biologically to favor receptors that facilitate trust and sociability. It would also follow that to do so in pair-bonds creates micro-clusters of interactions. For the purposes of this paper, though, the jump from the mating patterns of voles to the prediction of emotional bonding in humans exhibited as partner attachment or social behavior, will be regarded as premature, as the current research into the effects of oxytocin on human behavior is proving to be contradictory.
If when the neurotransmitter oxytocin is released into the bloodstream during an orgasm it facilitates an emotional bond or sets the stage for a monogamous pair bond, what is the essential quality of this bond? It may not be love, per se, though Janice Hiller (2004) does define love as a neurochemical phenomenon, so perhaps it is. For what is love but a feeling or emotion, and what is a feeling or an emotion but a complex interaction of neurons following a path of least resistance to a receptor ready to precipitate a behavior. And it is in our behavior that the outward appearance of a bond, or partner attachment (Fisher, 1998), becomes apparent.
The neuropeptide oxytocin has entered into mainstream awareness as the potential key for affectionate partner attachment (Fisher, Aron, & Brown, 2006) and positive social interaction (Campbell, 2010; Neuman, 2004). Indeed, the observable behavioral changes in voles do indicate this peptide hormone plays a part in pair-bonding and affiliation for social interaction. Oxytocin, once released into the blood stream, has both a central and a peripheral effect on the human body. The central effect of oxytocin is that it works as a neuromodulator when this hormone is released through the hypothalamic pun and goes into the limbic regions before entering the brain stem (Landgraf & Neumann, 2004). Its peripheral effect, stemming from the pituitary gland, acts to stimulate uterine contractions during labor and excretion of breast milk during lactation. It is partly due to the connection with breast-feeding, and its calming affect on the woman, that has lead researchers speculate on its effects with bonding. That idea is in line with the hypothesis behind the attachment theory: a bond is formed between a breast-feeding mother and the newborn infant. Also, there may be a connection with the release of oxytocin and orgasm as studies on humans have shown plasma levels of oxytocin increase during orgasm in men and a high base level of oxytocin for multi-orgasmic women (Burri, Heinrichs, Schedlowski, & Kruger, 2007). The same study showed that the simple act of hugging produced an increase in plasma oxytocin levels for men, thereby supporting its role facilitating affinity in affectionate bonding. A world of speculations and postulations has opened up from these observations and correlations, but as we know, this does not mean there is an actual causal relationship. There are inherent limitations preventing definitive conclusions to affirm this effect between oxytocin and pair bonding: we can not simply inject a dose of oxytocin into a human brain as we can into a vole brain.
According to the Affective Primacy Hypothesis (Zajonic, 1980), to form a love bond, the love has to be communicated, i.e., each person has to know it is there. How is this communicated? Oxytocin has been shown to have an effect on the ability to trust and create a feeling of empathy (Campbell, 2010) by activating mind-reading abilities (Domes, Heindrichs, Michel, Berger, & Herpetz, 2007). Indeed the external administration of oxytocin has shown an increase in verbal exchanges among partners, even during an argument (Ditzen, et al. 2009). Trust and intimacy are interdependent, and the ability to “read” one’s partner to predict their needs is a crucial factor to sustaining a long-term relationship (Neff & Karney, 2005). There is no doubt that communication styles affect the quality of a relationship or attachment, and knowing that one is loved allows a person to feel secure and relaxed, thereby creating a bond that enables true intimacy. Cassidy (2001) sums it up by expanding on the definition of trust itself: the sense that the relationship is solid, the awareness of what one actually wants, the trust in oneself, and the trust in the other.
A securely attached person embodies these qualities of trust (Ainsworth, 1972). Yet only approximately 60% of the adult population displays this characteristic. So what about the other 40% of adults who display behaviors of anxious- ambivalence or avoidance? Does the release of oxytocin during orgasm attenuate these tendencies? And what about the 20-30% of women who do not experience orgasm (Harris, Cherkas, Kato, Heiman, & Spector, 2008), or men with erectile dysfunction? Does it follow that neither of these groups form positive emotional bonds? I should point out that many of the women in the Harris, et al., study were experiencing marital difficulties or were not in a relationship. This study also revealed a high correlation between emotional instability, demonstrated by high anxiety levels, and the inability to achieve orgasm (Harris, et al. 2008). Although there are a variety of psychological and physiological factors involved in erectile dysfunction (Levay & Baldwin, 2009), stress and anxiety certainly do play a large role. If oxytocin is the stress reliever it is reputed to be, then wouldn’t administrating a dose of oxytocin be the answer to these woes?
Alvares, Hickie, and Guastella (2010) noted an important component of the desire to be a part of a social circle, and its correspondence to levels of oxytocin: these effects were dependent on the quality of the precipitating social encounter. When the social cue was encouraging, cooperation ensued after the release of oxytocin into the bloodstream, whereas if there was an element of uncertainty within the context of the quality of social inclusion, the presence of intranasally administrated oxytocin in both men and women did not reduce the state of stress. This concurs with the idea that human behavior arises from within a psychological context, and that the effects of oxytocin are highly conditional to those psychological states (Hiller, 2004).
If patterns of attachment are created when one’s preconceptions from past experience set up paradigms of recurring patterns of behavior, as both Bowley and Ainsworth have proposed, and as many others have noted, then these are the psychological states which may influence the workings of oxytocin on one’s physiology. In other words, the quality of an attachment is dependent on the expectations a person has before the release of oxytocin, of particular concern here before the orgasm. The connection between a perceived threat of loss and ensuing anxiety is well known (Bowlby, 1980), and a person who is in a state of constant worry, from fear of rejection or abandonment, is certainly approaching their partner in a state of uncertainty.
Taylor, et al. (2008) found high baseline levels of plasma oxytocin in women, both young and old which seemed to correlate specifically to relationship stress. If the woman was in a partner attachment, this relationship stress was conveyed as a feeling of distance from her partner, of being unable to trust and open up to her partner. In short, the stressed woman conveyed feelings of anxiety. There were also indications that these elevated oxytocin levels were shown in women not in a relationship. Interestingly enough, it was also shown in woman either experiencing estrangement from their mothers or grieving the loss of a pet. What is not known is whether an influx of oxytocin from an orgasmic release would contribute to a feeling of calm and openness to social connection, as it also not known if these woman were experiencing orgasms or not.
If desire is a combination of psychological and physiological responses, particularly for women (Basson, 2003) (but also for men as evidenced in erectile disfunction studies), then what happens when the psychological precepts are those of anxious-ambivalent attachments or of avoidant attachments? Does an orgasm override these tendencies to block secure attachments? Or does the attachment occur, but then either become manifest in total preoccupation and obsession with the partner or become repressed so as not to be consciously acknowledged? And further, does gender make a difference?
The psychological states of mind a person is experiencing, such as those displayed in the attachment theory, may be the key for the subsequent effects oxytocin has on the bond. The study Birnbaum, Reis, Mikulincer, Gillath, & Orpaz, (2006) conducted reveals some pertinent evidence to support this claim: within the context of a relationship, both men and women demonstrated a decrease in maladaptive behaviors following sexual relations. The key, though, did seem to be the quality of mindset prior to coitus. If the mindset was positive, the interactions followed suit, but if it was not, then the opposite was true. This correlation was most evident in partners who demonstrated anxious attachment tendencies. In those who were avoidant, their tendency to regard sex as a separate entity continued to be evident (Birnbaum, et al., 2006). While it can be safely assumed that, unless there was an erectile dysfunction, an orgasm occurred during coitus for the man, what is not known, is whether the women in the study experienced an orgasm during coitus. According to the statistics gathered by Taylor, et al., only 36% of women are considered to be highly orgasmic, while 16% of women have never had an orgasm. Granted, this study was geared toward older women- – mean age of respondents was 50, but these statistics may hold true across all age groups.
Palk (2010) has looked at “state effects” at the time of sexual involvement, and has determined that people self-select into certain relationship types: some for sex, some for love. His postulation that the quality of a relationship is determined by the mental mindset at the time of sexual involvement reinforces the findings of Alvares, et al. (2010) on oxytocin and subjective responses. Birnbaum, et al. (2006) suggest that people with avoidant attachment tendencies are more likely to engage in casual sex. Stinson (2010) has noted that people with secure attachment tendencies do not readily participate in the hook-up culture, and that the avoidant and anxious characteristics of others tend to become more pronounced in that culture. Faley and Shaver (2000) even go so far as to claim that a relationship does not indicate an attachment.
Avoidant attachments often work in such a way that no matter what the underlying truth of the emotion may be, there is a pronounced tendency to deny that truth. Fisher, et al. (2006) makes the case the sex drive is distinct from both romantic love and partner attachment, therefore a person who is avoidant may engage in sex, even have orgasms, but the act is purely physical; they have detached themselves from any further emotional possibility. Many studies have shown that highly avoidant people are less likely to fall in love or be interested in long-term relationships, while highly anxious people tend toward using sex to keep their partners from leaving them and yearn to merge with their partner (see Birnbaum, et al. 2006, for full review).
Oxytocin has been shown to have a direct relationship with estrogen (Taylor, 2006); it needs estrogen to synthesize (Hiller, 2004). Could this indicate that women are more susceptible to emotional bonding from an orgasm than men are? Zajonc (1980) has proposed that women use sex as a means of creating bonding. But does it work? Do the men they have sex with bond with them? Since men reach orgasm more frequently than a mere 36% of the time, are they also bonding emotionally with the women they are engaging in sexual relations with? Hiller (2004) has stated that the oxytocin release for a man does indeed affect a sense of closeness. The levels of plasmic increase of extraneously administered oxytocin remained high in men for about 80 minutes following their orgasm (Burri, et al. 2007). This temporary emotional bond, experienced as the oxytocin is circulating through the blood, may simply be the hormone’s calming effect, and not something that creates a sustained secure attachment.
I find myself cautious about disregarding the potential effects of oxytocin on emotional bonding, especially for women who display anxious-ambivalent tendencies. Due to the random occurrence of an orgasm, when it does occur, a woman might mistake the pleasurable feeling to indicate a love for the man. Unless he can give her the constant reassurance she needs, e.g., he may be an anxious- ambivalent himself and respond in kind, she could find herself at the losing end of an avoidant’s game playing. Men, in general, are known to play more games than women (Hendrick & Hendrick, 1991). If a sense of trust is created by the release of oxytocin and the man is experiencing a sense of peace from his own orgasm, the woman may find herself even more vulnerable to rejection than if she had not experienced an orgasm. She may be at an even greater risk for forming an inappropriate emotional bond, as studies have shown that administered oxytocin decreased fear in situations of betrayal, presumably by decreasing activity in the amygdala (Campbell, 2010).
Those who are avoidant may have enough autonomy to remain emotionally stable, although if they are intent on using sex as a physical release only (Birnbaum, et al., 2006) with oxytocin’s effect on reducing fear, they may find themselves emotionally attached and in an active fight to resist the intimacy aroused. And if, as Oberzaucher & Grammer (2009) noted, men tend to overestimate their sense of control in unfamiliar situations, then a relationship that began as a hook-up and then progressed to casual sex (friends with benefits) at the eleventh encounter (Palk, 2010) with reoccurring orgasms with the same person, an avoidant may find themselves experiencing a cognitive dissonance. That may not lead to a dismal end if their partner is either in a secure attachment pattern, or is another avoidant who understands autonomy and negotiation. This would allow the partners to bond on a cognitive level rather than an emotional one.
My conclusion is nurture rules the day with regard to how we humans actually do form our attachments, and nature plays a supporting, yet potentially dangerous role depending on one’s true intentions, motives, desires, and needs. Perhaps what we might now learn from the voles is to be content with different mating patterns, and to know ourselves well enough to self-select into the pattern we want. Those who have secure attachments may be like the prairie voles, at peace in their pair bonds and social interactions. Avoidant attachments may be seen in the mountain voles, off on new adventures and seeking out novelty, moving from one vole to another. Perhaps the meadow voles are caught in the middle and are anxious and ambivalent.
The preliminary results concerning the effects of oxytocin released into the blood stream, whether from an orgasm or intranasally, are not straightforward enough to be definite, but what behavior across the spectrum of human nature is? One thing I have concluded about oxytocin is that it seems it can have a powerful effect, though it may be for only a short period of time. Perhaps if oxytocin is released upon simple affectionate touch, as well as during an orgasm, these intimate caresses may be the key to forming a sustained secure attachment. I would suggest longitudinal studies could be done to inquire upon this effect. As far as emotional bonding occurring, it would seem oxytocin does indeed exert an effect, but the nature of its quality seems to be context-specific. It does not appear to be as simple injecting oxytocin into the human brain and converting a promiscuous person into a monogamous partner, if that is what one wants. At least, not yet.
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