Annefleur Langedijk, hoofdredacteur
Hedwig Ens, eindredacteur
Will van Houten, eindredacteur
Anton Heijboer / © VOF Heijboer-Malomajo
dr. M. Dekker
dr. M. Keestra
drs. S. Sitalsing
prof. dr. F. van Vree
drs. L. Wenting
Romantic love is the most extraordinary human feeling and is associated with health and happiness in adults. Romantic relationships thus have an important contribution to adult life. Well-functioning ones are associated with physical and psychological health. Unreciprocated love, on the other hand, may cause a variety of negative emotions. Also relationships themselves may be accompanied by stress, negative emotions and tension.
Romantic love only recently became a topic of experimental science. Until 20 years ago, it was thought that investigating feelings in general was not connected to science; rather research should investigate ‘real’ disorders. Moreover, would the magic of love not be taken away when you make it a topic of research?
It is now known that romantic love is associated with many hormonal changes. Several neurological hormones, including oxytocin, cortisol, and testosterone, are involved in both the initial period of love as well as in long-term relationships. The aim of this article is therefore to present an overview of the hormonal changes in heterosexual couples: new lovers vs. long-term partners.
The initial period of love
Falling in love is a complex process established by dynamic biological processes. It is characterized by various endocrine functions, which will be discussed in the following sections.
Predictor of relationships
Oxytocin, also known as the ‘cuddle hormone’, increases during the initial stage of romantic love. Remarkably, couples that stay together after this first period show even higher levels of oxytocin. The high level of oxytocin during the initial period of a romantic relationship thus has a positive effect on the process of partner attachment. This suggests that oxytocin may give an indication of the relationship’s duration.
When we take cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’, into account, the process of falling in love is actually best described as a stressful condition. Research demonstrated that cortisol levels of both men and women who had recently fallen in love were significantly higher compared to those of men and women in established relationships.1 Moreover, during the early stage of romantic love, women showed increased levels of cortisol compared to men. As entering a new relationship often brings many changes, it could also be that these increased levels are simply associated with fear of news things.
Libido and more
The last hormone to have a closer look at is testosterone. Testosterone is known as the male sex hormone. However, it is also made in small amounts in the woman’s body. A recent research measured the levels of testosterone in both men and women who had recently fallen in love in the previous six months, and compared these to subjects who were either single or in a long-term relationship.1 It was found that testosterone levels are lower in men who had recently fallen in love compared to the other men. And interestingly enough, women who had just fallen in love have increased testosterone levels. It is therefore suggested that the stage of falling in love is associated with converging hormone levels. This could be a mechanism of temporally eliminating some differences between the sexes. The softening of male characteristics, like sex drive and aggression, due to testosterone, and the strengthening of the same characteristics in women may contribute to pair bonding in romantic relationships. An increase in testosterone results in an increase in sexual behaviour in women, which is typical for the first period of love.
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1. MARAZZITI, D., DELL'OSSO, B., BARONI, S.,
MUNGAI, F., CATENA, M., RUCCI, P., ALBANESE, F., GIANNACCINI, G., BETTI, L., FABBRINI, L., ITALIANI, P., DEL
DEBBIO, A., LUCACCHINI, A. & DELL'OSSO, L. 2006. A relationship between oxytocin and anxiety of romantic attachment. Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health, 2, 28.
2. SCHEELE, D., WILLE, A., KE;/NDRICK, K. M., STOFFEL-WAGNER, B., BECKER, B., GUNTURKUN, O., MAIER, W. & HURLEMANN, R. 2013. Oxytocin enhances brain reward system responses in men viewing the face of their female partner. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 110, 20308-13.
3. DIAMOND, L. M., HICKS, A. M. & OTTERHENDERSON, K. D. 2008. Every time you go away: changes in affect, behavior, and physiology associated with travel-related separations from romantic partners. J Pers Soc Psychol, 95, 385-403.
4. GRAY, P. B., CHAPMAN, J. F., BURNHAM, T. C., MCINTYRE, M. H., LIPSON, S. F. & ELLISON, P. T. 2003. Human male pair bonding and testosterone Hum Nat, 15, 119-131.
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