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Oxytocin: Niche or Not?

The two-year love limit and the oxytocin deficit

I've been thinking more about the recent research showing how the madly-in-love neurochemicals dissipate within two years. Some news stories reported this as "love only lasts two years."

The truly-madly feeling is meant to be replaced by the truely-deeply part that comes with the recurrent bonding pulses of oxytocin.

Certainly our culture places undue emphasis on the burning, passionate, drug-addicted type of love. Pop songs are for tweens and teens who may cycle through their madlies in mere months, so of course, they’re not going to be about mellow, committed love.

But many of us bounce from love to love long beyond our teens; some of us bounce our whole lives. I believe that's not simply because we can’t recognize the biochemical sea change in love, but because we really don’t experience it.

For most of my life, I would experience these awful shifts from thinking someone was The One to waking up one morning, looking at him and thinking, who the hell are you? My passion hormones could be evoked by one date, but they ebbed as quickly as they flowed.

Oxytocin, the chemical scientists now believe responsible in both men and women for bonding with a mate, courses through our bodies constantly, helping to regulate water intake and the parasympathetic nervous system. But our bodies may release pulses of oxytovin in social situations where we feel intimately connected to another person. Those situations include being with friends, hugging, even stroking a pet.

Oxytocin may gush during sex and orgasm, exciting areas of the brain involved in social memory and reward. The brain then associates that sex partner with all good things, forming the bond we know as committed love.

However, the oxytocin response to another human being isn’t automatic. It's learned in the first months of life -- if we're lucky. Recent experiments with kids adopted from Romanian orphanages showed a stunted oxytocin response when they cuddled with their adoptive mothers.

I think that as a culture, we have a huge oxytocin deficit.

Those of us not raised by baby-sling toting moms and dads, those of us who spent a lot of time in baby daycare, those of us whose moms weren't so sure they wanted to be moms, may not have developed the oxytocin response. We're great at the obsessive part, but underneath the covers, we may not be developing the bond that should accompany sex and passion.