The Neurochemistry of Relationships

Relationships are at the heart of our existence as humans. Relationships help to define us; they bring us some of life’s greatest joys and deepest sorrows. Some relationships develop seemingly effortlessly, while others take an immense amount of effort. On our quest for ultimate holistic health, it is worthwhile to reflect on our past, current and hoped-for relationships in order to gain a better understanding of where we’ve been, where we are now and where we are headed.

Think about your most treasured relationship. It may be with your spouse or significant other; maybe with your child; maybe with an aging parent, a friend or your dog. If your relationship with this important individual is currently experiencing turmoil or stress, you likely feel emotions like sadness, anger or fear when thinking of the relationship. You may also feel happiness, excitement or satisfaction when thinking of this person, based on the history of that relationship. What causes these emotions?

Emotions including love, fear, anger, sadness and excitement are all produced in the brain. Functional MRI studies have revealed that the feeling of being in love is created when dopamine-releasing regions in the brain are stimulated. Dopamine release is an important part of the neurochemical process that leads to strong feelings of pleasure and satisfaction when you are with another person.

Oxytocin is another important hormone involved in the formation of relationships. Oxytocin drives the strong bonds that form between mother and child and also play an important role in the development of new romantic relationships. Functional MRI studies have also revealed potential interaction between oxytocin and dopamine related to feelings of romantic love. So both dopamine and oxytocin are important to the development and maintenance of close relationships.

Understanding the neurobiology of relationships can be interested but how does it help us develop and maintain meaningful relationships in our own lives? First, it’s helpful to understand that the intense feelings of “being in love” are temporary and not sustainable long term. Often times relationships end because two people “fall out of love” but what does this really mean? In a new romantic relationship, dopamine and oxytocin flood the brain. We feel strongly attached to the other person and feel compelled to be with them all the time. The parts of our brains that would typically notice unappealing qualities in this person are temporarily impaired as we view our new love interest through “rose-colored glasses.”

As these feelings wane, are there enough neurochemicals left to sustain a lasting relationship? Thankfully, yes; there often times are. As we engaged in physical closeness with another person, oxytocin, triggers feelings of contentment, calmness, and security, which promote lasting bonds. Likewise, the release of vasopressin occurs. Vasopression is associated with behaviors that produce lasting relationships. This may help explain why intense, “blind” love fades while attachment to  another replaces the initial high of “being in love.”

Whatever the chemical processes behind our relationships, we know that close, personal relationships are critical to our well being. One meta-analysis of  148 studies that included 308,849 participants, found a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships. This included relationships with a romantic partner, friends, family and within the community. According to these results, a lack of close relationships may be as unhealthy for you as smoking tobacco. Relationships are hard work but clearly worth it, in the long run.

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