Ever wondered what makes some people the committed “relationship types” while others seem to be tempted to take the forbidden fruit from the tree?
An obvious answer to this is that technically, humans are not monogamous creatures. It goes against our nature to be committed to a person for a lifetime, or even just for a few years.
But of course being human, we also thrive off love and affection.
Our fidelity is a small price for the type of security, unconditional love and intimacy we all hope to have. After all, falling in love has the capacity to make even the grumpiest of people regress into blushing and glowing adolescents. Songs are sung about it, poems are beautifully written about it, and films can make us cry over it.
But what is the biology behind it?
Oxytocin has received a lot of press attention with it being labeled the “love hormone”, and more recently, it has also tried to explain why some people seem to be more “prone” to cheating than others.
But is it really responsible for making our hearts explode with excitement, and can it have an influence over whether people cheat or not?
Let’s start with the love part.
It is said that sharing a 20-second hug with someone releases enough oxytocin to help relieve stress, lower blood pressure and allows you to experience a deep connection with others.
The term “love drug” was also coined because oxytocin is released during childbirth; helping a mother not only get through painful contractions, but also well after birth, as it helps connect her deeply connect with her baby.
However, in terms of sexual relationships, contrary to belief, oxytocin isn’t quite the love hormone the media have made it out to be. It certainly makes us want to focus our attention on others, but dopamine and our response to pleasure (the opioid system) also play their part in cupid’s game. So love is born out of a combination of these things. Although, what it does do, is make us want to attach to our mates.
So how can such a wondeful hormone be linked to cheating you may wonder? According to a recent study carried out by psychiatrist Larry Young, the way our brain responds to oxytocin might play a part.
To gain further insight into this, he carried out an experiment on two species of voles (small rodents) that exhibit very different sexual behavior.
The montane voles are what you might call the cheaters and are promiscuous by nature (giving new meaning to the term “love rat”) whereas the more loyal prairie voles are the monogamous type.
In his experiment, he found the faithful prairie voles to have additional receptors for oxytocin in an area of their brain that helps them focus their response to a social stimuli (their mate). This is then associated with reward and reinforcement – turning them into committed lovers.
For male prairie voles, oxytocin also triggers a defensive response – as not only do they favor their partner over another, they want to defend and protect them too. But before we start to gush over their protective behavior, it seems this response is because they view their women to be their territory!
Regardless of their motives, there does seem to be a small biological difference between voles that could explain why one type leans towards monogamy more than the other.
So it seems that this powerful hormone plays a crucial role – right from our birth, and then throughout our lives, as we form deep and meaningful connections with other people.
Of course the verdict is still out as to whether biology can explain cheating, but it would be interesting to learn how this experiment translates in humans, and how else the “love hormone” affects us.