——- DRAFT ——-
Updated: 9 November 2020
This is my attempt to synthesize what we know so far about Oxytocin in to something simple enough for me to understand. This is a living document and will be updated as we learn more. This is also a draft document by which I primarily mean that it has not yet been reviewed and corrected by neurobiologists and others who have specialist knowledge in this area. Hopefully review will happen soon.
There have been significant advances over the past 10 and in particular 5 years in our understanding of Oxytocin and how it functions – with more info coming every day. A full understanding involves both the hard science biological/neurobiological aspects as well as discussions with psychologists, marriage counselors and others to better understand the psychological effects.
Oxytocin and its functions are perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of our bodies (and that has caused me great difficulty in writing this as I constantly find myself distracted and trotting down fascinating trails of it). There is an increasing amount of research available and I’d encourage anyone who is interested to explore what’s out there, particularly how it functions in the somatic and autonomic nervous systems. In other words, please use this document only as a very rough and brief introduction.
IMPORTANT: I am not a doctor nor do I have any specialist medical or scientific training. I am a journalist. My job is to try to make complicated things more quickly and easily digestible – distill dozens or hundreds of hours or reading, research and interviews in to a 5-minute read.
Oxytocin (OXT) is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is produced in the hypothalamus, released by the pituitary gland and acted on by receptors. It works in conjunction with Serotonin, Dopamine, Norepinephrine/Noradrenaline and Endorphins.
It is present in both males and females though functions quite differently in each.
For her it’s active in four arenas; Friend Bonding, Mate Pair-Bonding, Enabler of Reproduction/Sex/Birth and Mother+Child Bonding. In Reproduction/Sex/Birth it exists outside of the central nervous system and helps in preparing her for intercourse and childbirth.
For him, outside of the central nervous system for the production and movement of testosterone and sperm. How much it functions inside the CNS for him appears much more limited and is somewhat unknown. More on this and his vasopressin later.
She produces about 4-7 times as much Oxytocin as he does and her estrogen strengthens its effect while his testosterone appears to diminish or totally negate it. She also has significantly more OXTR receptors.
It’s most well known role is with the establishment of pair-bonds between her and her mate which is the primary topic here.
Pair Bonding – The Cuddle Drug
Often called the cuddle drug, Oxytocin is one of the four ‘feel-good’ hormones. A release of Oxytocin results in temporarily warm good feelings for her in general along with a temporary lessening of symptoms of depression and anxiety. Longer term it creates pair-bonds that help to cement affection, empathy and trust with the person who triggered the release.
A release of Oxytocin is triggered by any number of actions which can perhaps be divided in to three groups.
Friend Bonding Triggers:
- Talking to someone
- Looking someone in their eyes
- Holding hands
- Brief kiss
Friend Pair-Bonding Triggers:
- Longer or passionate kiss
Mate Pair-Bonding Triggers:
- Oral Sex
- Giving him a peek
- Sending an erotic or nude photo
- Mutual Masturbation
Hugging someone (assuming the hug is somewhat welcomed), a friend thing, will result in a minor release of Oxytocin, a bit of a warm feeling and perhaps very slight and temporarily increased affection towards that person.
A long passionate kiss on the other hand can result in kind of a pseudo pair-bond – a somewhat greater release of Oxytocin, perhaps 10x a friend kiss, a deeper warm feeling and stronger and longer lasting affection and trust.
Mutual Masturbation, a mate pair-bond thing, is in a different world. Perhaps 1000x a friend thing.
Oxytocin does not appear to know what the relationship is but only a binary positive or negative. Or more specifically, negative or other. If the relationship is negative (assault or rape) then Oxytocin creates strong negative feelings. Otherwise, if it’s not specifically negative, then it creates an equally strong or stronger positive bond or pair-bond. Intercourse with someone she just met, a good friend or with her husband appear to create the same pair-bond and increased feelings of affection, trust and empathy even though the three actual relationships are very different.
Friend triggers may be somewhat different though we don’t know for sure. Friend tiggers often appear to be binary, the same result regardless of the relationship, and sometimes more corollated with stronger results based on stronger relationships. More research is needed here.
One way to think about this is that in her brain she has a bunch of pots (dendrites) – one for each person she has any kind of relationship with. Each pot has a bunch of receptors lining it – empathy receptors, trust receptors, affection receptors, etc. On the other end these receptors terminate in a special section of the brain for that person.
When she has an interaction with someone a bit of Oxytocin with that person’s essence (possibly keyed from olfactory information) is released and finds its way to their pot. The receptors in their pot see this, react, and she has a bit of increased empathy, affection and trust towards this person. More interactions result in more oxytocin releases and so more oxytocin in their pot and more receptors that are excited.
Besides causing her to feel very slightly greater empathy and trust towards this one individual, this also shifts her general mood balance a bit towards the positive – there are now more receptors excited positively in relation to the number excited negatively. The ratio of positive (trust, happiness …) to negative (fear, anxiety …) is shifted a bit.
So while hugging a friend might provide enough Oxytocin to excite three trust receptors, cuddling on the sofa for a movie might be enough to excite thirty. She not only feels greater affection and trust towards this person but her overall positive to negative receptor ratio has temporarily changed for the better.
Now, she has one special pot – the Mate Pot. It’s bigger than the others and has more receptors (thousands of times as many) and so it can handle a lot more Oxytocin.
When she has a mate level interaction with someone a much larger bit of Oxytocin with that person’s essence is produced, released and finds its way to the mate pot. A gob of trust, empathy, affection and other receptors are excited by the oxytocin bearing this person’s essence resulting in a wave of trust, empathy, affection and lowered defenses towards the person who’s essence is in her mate pot.
By the way, this is not limited to just guys as it seems to function similarly if triggered by another gal. Oxy-Storm (followed by U-Hauling when the oxy-storm spins out of control) is a common term to describe the effect of two women in a sexual relationship.
This is, BTW, all happening in the autonomic nervous system – it is not under her control.
There does not appear to be a mechanism for dealing with multiple serial or simultaneous pair-bonds. Multiple pair-bonds often result in confusion, increased anxiety and depression. So while doing something sexual with some guy will usually result in a temporary lessening of these, if she has old pair-bonds from others hanging around then when the temporary high wears off she’ll often find herself with greater anxiety and depression than before because of the conflicting pair-bonds now present.
This is perhaps not unlike what happens when we eat something like rotten fish that we’re not designed to handle but instead of an upset stomach we’ve an upset brain.
Besides pair-bonding with her life mate (or mates), Oxytocin also helps to create a bond with her child. Little is known at this point how her mate pair-bonds affect her child bonds and to what extent the conflicts of multiple pair-bonds affect her bond with her child.
A Mixed Mate Pot
One day she does a mate thing with someone other than the first person she did a mate thing with. A big gob of Oxytocin with guy #2’s essence is released and gets added to the big pot.
There is still some Oxytocin with guy #1’s essence in the pot so guy #2’s essence gets added to it. Now some receptors are being activated by guy #1’s essence and other receptors by guy #2’s essence. On the other end of the receptors there’s confusion and anxiety over the clash of essences. This is guy #1’s space, what’s this new and different essence?
The initial rush of Oxytocin causes a high for her but this will wear off leaving her with the increased anxiety, depression and confusion.
Pair-Bond Half Life
How long does a pair-bond last? In what form?
In all cases they appear to remain nearly full strength for about three months. What happens next appears to depend on the presence of new releases of Oxytocin.
With no additional Oxytocin releases a pair bond is nearly stagnant for about 3 months and then appears to decline about 50% every 14 months (appears is a key word here – we’re still learning). For example, if she and some guy enjoy some mutual masturbation and then she does nothing else with anyone for 7 years then that bond will decline something like this.
However, any release of Oxytocin appears to slow the decline of all pair bonds. So her activities with guy #2 not only creates a new pair bond but also slows the decline of the pair-bond she created with guy #1.
Back to our pot example. Imagine that her mate pot has a drain that allows about half of the Oxytocin in the pot to drain off about every 14 months. A release restricts the drain for a bit, likely for about the 3 months that almost no decline has been observed. So for these 3 months, less Oxytocin for guy #2 AND guy #1 drains out. This appears to be somewhat correlated so the drain is restricted more following intercourse than from mutual masturbation or sending a nude selfie but …more research is needed on this.
If she continues doing stuff w/ guy #2 for 12 months then her mate pot drain will remain restricted for that 12 months (plus 3 months). Guy #1’s essence is now declining very slowly and so there’s almost as much of him in her at the end of the 15 months as there was prior.
Some Typical Scenarios
1 – She remains chaste until ‘the one’ – likely cohabitation or marriage. Nothing more than hugging & kissing with other guys prior. This guy is her only pair-bond. No conflicts. No Oxytocin induced anxiety, depression or trust issues. She’s 100% his. Her Oxytocin bond w/ him results in very strong affection, empathy, trust and commitment.
2 – She remains a technical virgin until marriage/cohab/engagement. She sends a nude photo to guy #1 which creates a pair bond with him and then mutual masturbation and other stuff over an 18 month period w/ guy #2 (Blue). A bit later she takes these guys pair-bonds with her in to her marriage resulting in less of a pair-bond with her husband and so weaker affection, empathy, and trust. She may also experience increased anxiety and depression from the conflicting pair-bonds. BTW, it’s important to note that she may or may not realize the strength of the older pair-bonds. Even if she never thinks about those guys the bonds are still there.
3 – Same as above but an extra year between any activities w/ prior guys and her new husband which gives more time for old bonds to decline at the faster uninterrupted pace. Her prior pair-bonds are still hanging around and are still a problem but not as much as above. He’s got an 80% strong bond which is well short of the 100% bond in the chaste situation but much stronger than the 60% above.
Oxytocin and Commitment
After Guy #1 her brain was saying ‘this is The One’. That’s what her brain is programmed to do with that giant pair-bond pot – whomever’s essence lands in there is The One, her life mate. This is all the marbles. Go for him with all the gusto you can.
Guy #2’s essence lands in there. Her brain reacts. Guy #1 wasn’t ‘The One’ after all?
With Guy #3, her life mate, her brain (in the autonomic system that she can’t control) is learning (synaptic pathways are being rearranged) that this whole Oxytocin pair-bond thing may not be so cut and dried. Let’s not do a full-fledged commitment here. We’ve done that before as we were initially programmed to do and got burned.
This correlates quite highly with data that indicate that her prior sexual partners can have a dramatic affect on the stability of her marriage. Anything sexual with any other guys, any other pair-bonds of any type that she forms and abandons, the less stable her marriage is likely to be.
The black lines in this chart are the actual divorce rates after 5 years of marriage. The total bar indicates predicted divorce rate based on current rates relative to 5 year rates. Note that divorce rates have recently ticked down (fewer people are getting married and those that do are those who are also more likely to remain together) so these bars should be slightly lower.
It is likely that from a neurobiological standpoint that her level of pair-bond induced commitment largely follows those pair-bond charts above. No prior conflicting pair-bonds results in near 100% commitment to her partner. She’s committed to him through thick and thin. Any prior conflicting pair-bonds and the pair-bond with her life mate, her depth of commitment to him, isn’t as strong.
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
When she engages in any pair-bond activities and develops a pair-bond with someone then she also develops some level of deeper commitment to them, even with a one-night stand. That’s what Oxytocin is designed to do and it does it well. Whatever the relationship is, negative or not, Oxytocin dramatically enhances it.
The more she does with him the more the synaptic pathways strengthen for his pair-bond, the more of his essence is in her pair-bond pot, the deeper her commitment to him.
One affect is that she finds it much more difficult to evaluate this relationship rationally vs if she had no pair-bonds. Oxytocin seems purposed to create a strong relationship that endures through thick and thin – the enhanced trust and empathy though may cause her to overlook warning signs that would otherwise tell her to bug-off. Good for him, not so much for her.
Brain scans indicate that when a relationship with a pair-bond is abandoned or broken she experiences considerable more pain than if she’d formed no pair-bond. In some cases the scans indicate pain similar to or identical to that of divorce.
On the one hand this creates a lot of pain, anxiety and depression for her to deal with. Much more so than the same relationship without any pair-bonds being abandoned. But it also may result in her becoming increasingly desensitized to breaking pair-bonds and relationships – her synaptic pathways are getting rearranged.
Two things may or likely do result from this.
Her brain has learned that one way to deal with this anxiety and depression, at least temporarily, is a big fat release of oxytocin. How does she get that release?
Her brain appears to increasingly lessen the strength of each succeeding pair-bond. The first one is exceptionally strong but by #5 they’re getting rather weaker and this one is the guy she’s marrying and should have a strong pair-bond with. One problem with this though is statistics. While there is some decreased marital stability with higher numbers of prior pair-bonds, it is not as big a difference as this bit of neurobiology might suggest. So either the weakening of succeeding pair-bonds after the first broken one is not that much or other elements are coming in to play.
Earlier we talked about Oxytocin not knowing what the relationship was but only a binary positive or negative.
There may actually be a third mode that’s not positive, negative nor is it no relationship. It’s a very specific relationship, a transactional relationship – prostitution. This is one case where Oxytocin seems to say “Hey, I’ll take a break and not do anything”.
This is likely any instance where she is willingly engaging in something with someone for other than; her own enjoyment, hopes of creating a relationship or for some attention.
Traditional prostitution is obviously one such instance. A gal giving a blow job to a fellow student to do her homework for her, a teacher to give her a good grade, an employer for a job or promotion, a cop to avoid arrest or a some guy for a line of coke would all fit as well.
We know that there are critical links between our spiritual, mental, and physical health. Each affects the others. Likewise we know that healthy relationships with friends and lovers improves our mental and physical health.
For instance, there is increasing evidence that an Oxytocin pair-bond directly strengthens her immune system but that abandoned pair-bonds weaken it below normal. In this case it may not have been better to have loved and lost.
There is also at least some correlation between pair-bonds and cardiovascular health. To what extent this is directly related to the pair-bonds vs other related bits is unknown. For instance, we know that sexual activity, like exercise, improves our health. Is it the pair-bond, the activity that created the pair-bond or both?
Likewise, we’re now learning that poor gut health, such as from the use of antibiotics, can damage our endocrine system which can inhibit Oxytocin (and possibly Dopamine and Serotonin)
Levels of Oxytocin and its affects decline with age. It is quite present and quite strong from puberty to about mid 20’s or so and then declines, sometimes rapidly.
New bonds are likely less strong. Old bonds presumably either decline faster or at the least their decline is not hindered as much by the presence of Oxytocin.
Is a 40-year-old likely to experience less stress and anxiety from multiple bonds as a 30-year-old? Likely.
For him its very different. Oxytocin in him serves two known functions; outside of the central nervous system it aids in the production and movement of testosterone and sperm and may assist in the repair of muscle tissue. As a neurotransmitter within his CNS it may help with conflict resolution, typically with other males but sometimes females as well.
He does not appear to experience much, if any, of the pair-bonding aspects that she does. While sexual activities leave her with deeper affection and trust in him, they do not with him. As some psychologists put it; She goes home after sex feeling warm and with increased affection and trust towards him and wonders when he’ll text. He goes home and wonders why his pizza order is late while he flips through Tinder.
In Friends With Benefits relationships it is quite usual that she will develop an affection for him and want a deeper relationship while he will usually feel no more affection for her than he did before the sexual part of their relationship began. Now, he may have gotten to know her better and as a result has deeper affection or he may like that she provides him with free sex and so he feels affection for that. He does not however, from what we know, feel any more affection, trust or empathy towards her because of Oxytocin as she does.
There is some belief (or desire to believe?) that Vasopressin is the male counterpart to Oxytocin but thus far there is little to no evidence, from a biology or psychological standpoint, to support that.
She has significantly more oxytocin receptors than he does and these play a key role in how it functions in her and perhaps particularly with monogamy. Between monogamous prairie voles and polygynous montane voles the key difference is not the oxytocin but the density of receptors – greater OXTR density results in greater desire to act as a monogamous partner.
One way to see the differences is with homosexual relationships. Two women having a sexual relationship find themselves in an oxy-storm. Two men do not. Female homosexual relationships tend to be naturally monogamous while male do not.
Finally, if she has these Oxytocin produced pair-bonds that stick her to him and he does not, then what does stick him to her?
 For example, several hours on how antibiotics, via our gut biome, can inhibit m-opiod, oxytocin and vasopressin pathways in our brains. (start here: https://bmcneurosci.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12868-020-00583-3)
 Oxytocin also exists outside of the central nervous system for roles in sexual reproduction and possibly muscle repair.
 Sending a photo is interesting because it is not in person. Olfactory information is believed to play a key role in pair-bond creation and in this case there is no direct olfactory information for this purpose. Some women have reported that they can ‘smell’ him when they send him the photo so perhaps there is some latent element at work.
 The half-life of Oxytocin itself is in reality just a few minutes, not the months and years of the resulting pair-bond. The Oxytocin dies but the pair-bond remains. However, trying to convey what happens with pair-bonds through their electrical charges is much more difficult than this pot example. So I beg you to pardon my bit of creativity here.