July 8, 2013
The Science Of Monogamy And Love
As a single person, I wonder about love an incredible amount. Most of the people I know are married, getting engaged or at the very least have been in a long-term relationship for quite some time, and happily so. Since I’m not only single, but also a biology fan girl, I often wonder about the science behind what we all seem to seek; love. More specifically, monogamous love. Why does it work for some people, or species, and why not others? Is there a science to the longevity of a romantic relationship? According to several studies of humans and non-human animals, there are a handful of key chemicals and genes involved in love.
One of the most seemingly important neurochemicals involved in a happy romance is oxytocin. In humans, oxytocin, or the “cuddle hormone,” is partially responsible and greatly involved in feelings of trust, a sense of commitment and bonding. In one study, men who were in monogamous relationships put more distance between themselves and attractive females when they were made to smell oxytocin. In women, higher levels of naturally occurring oxytocin have been linked with longer lasting and happier romantic relationships. Even more fascinating, in Switzerland researchers gave couples either oxytocin or a placebo intranasally, and followed the treatment with having the couples discuss conflict in a laboratory setting. Couples with the higher levels of oxytocin showed a significant decrease in levels of anxiety and stress as well as “increased positive communication behavior.”
Another recurring component of long lasting romantic bliss seems to be the neurochemical vasopressin, or the “monogamy chemical,” as well as the vasopressin receptor 1a gene. According to a scientific study of over 500 twins, those that carried the gene variant 334 experienced far more strife and unhappiness in their romantic relationships. Hasse Walum, author of the Swedish study, also points out that vasopressin seems to play a much larger role in the male brain. While this still hasn’t been extensively researched in humans, there have been several monogamy studies conducted with voles. It has been repeatedly shown that male voles with high levels of vasopressin mate for life and actually mate more than is necessary to reproduce; in a sense they’re “addicted” to their mates. Not only do they mate more than “necessary,” but they also fiercely and “jealously” defend their mates. However, in the same species, when males were given a compound to suppress their levels of vasopressin, they stopped mating as frequently and weren’t as protective.
While it’s easy to draw certain conclusions about these neurochemicals and genes, environment and circumstances also have a great deal to do with successful romantic relationships. Researchers point out that it’s important to remember that, at least in humans, these aren’t the only components of a long lasting love and definitely not the be all end all of finding happiness in romance. The science of love is still a relatively young and uncharted territory with new information and studies being produced regularly. So the next time you ask yourself, “Is the chemistry there?” you can respond with an assured and logical yes; whether it’s the kind of chemistry you want, that’s for you to discern.
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