Keep Your Love Evergreen: Oxytocin (The Cuddle Hormone) and Monogamy

by Marnia Robinson
Author of Peace Between The Sheets

Monogamy is rare among mammals, but in the case of humans, it can be extremely beneficial. In fact, harmonious union is a powerful defense against illness and premature death. In a seven-year study of 800 young adults, depression and alcohol abuse declined more significantly for those who married. Co-habitors, too, enjoy significantly lower levels of psychological distress than those with no partner living in the household.

But it's not union, but harmony, that really benefits us. A recent study of hundreds of older couples showed that spouses who were able to make their spouse feel loved and cared for lived significantly longer than those who gave no emotional support. And in Love & Survival heart-disease specialist Dean Ornish, M.D. points out that connecting with others in a genuinely caring way has an even greater beneficial impact on our health than regular exercise, stopping smoking, or improved diet.

Unfortunately, however, we are not one of the few mammalian species who are naturally monogamous. In fact, anthropologist Helen Fisher estimates that we humans are physically designed to stay together with our mates for only about four years before neurochemical changes make us unbearably restless. How can this be? Well, our physical design has evolved in directions that ensure the maximum number of offspring and lots of genetic diversity (through changing partners). And these traits are at odds with monogamy - and therefore with our happiness and well-being.

How does biology achieve its goals at the expense of our precious unions? By ensuring that our brains release certain neurochemicals that cause highs and lows in our relationships. Dopamine, for example, can make us reckless with passion (to encourage fertilization). Yet the "hangover" from such intense stimulation can also make us feel like pulling away from (or driving away) our lovers when we need to recover. This subconscious attraction/repulsion dynamic-which we perceive as each other's character flaws-can destroy relationships over time. In fact, now that church and state are losing their power to keep us wedded for life, we can see the power of biology's agenda in the Census Bureau's 2000 prediction that half of all new marriages will end in divorce.

In short, if we want to remain harmoniously monogamous we must successfully buck a biological tide. This can be done, and the clues about how to do it have been around for thousands of years in ancient Taoist, Tantra and even pre-Roman Christian texts. All speak of another way of making love - one that outmaneuvers biology. They recommend a relaxed approach, in which fertilization efforts (that overheat our brain chemistry) play no part. Instead partners tap into an ecstasy that is heart-centered and based on the production of lots of the neurochemical oxytocin. This approach also heightens spiritual awareness, which makes me think that the relationship chaos we're seeing is really The Giant Hand encouraging us to use our relationships for a loftier end.

But back to the neurochemical oxytocin: oxytocin has been nicknamed "the cuddle hormone," and amazingly enough it increases the attraction between familiar partners, i.e., mates - but not between unfamiliar partners. When scientists compared monogamous with promiscuous species of voles (field mice), they learned that the difference in their behavior boiled down to the different quantities of oxytocin in their brains. So oxytocin really is the "hormone of monogamy." Moreover, every day it seems that research uncovers a new health benefit conferred by oxytocin. It lessens the effects of stress, eases cravings (offering a very effective strategy for anyone who wants to overcome an addiction), and even acts as a natural antidepressant. No wonder harmonious union is so beneficial!

Happily, we can encourage the production of oxytocin to strengthen our intimate bonds. Affectionate, generous touch-such as stroking or massage, kissing, and conscious nurturing of another, all increase the quantity of this bonding neurochemical. Yet oxytocin is not strong enough to counter indefinitely the attraction/repulsion programming discussed earlier without our conscious participation. In other words, we can't just "do what comes naturally" in the bedroom and expect to sustain a harmonious, juicy intimate relationship. We need to learn to make love as the ancients did.

Having made the shift myself, I can assure you that the process can be thoroughly enjoyable, playful and deeply satisfying. Those ancient sexologists might know a thing or two that Dr. Ruth doesn't!

Marnia Robinson lives with her husband, Gary Wilson, in Ashland, OR. She is the author of Peace Between the Sheets: Healing with Sexual Relationships (2003, Frog, Ltd.). Visit her ByRegion page or her website and hear her (and Gary) on "GOOD HEAVENS" internet radio show Wednesdays 7-8 pm PT the second week of every month. You can write her at

  • return to home