Beyond the Flush of Love: The Science Behind Long-Term Attachment

February 11, 2016

There’s no mistaking the chemical high of lust and infatuation, a potent mix of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin that has been compared to being under the influence of cocaine. If you’ve had the pleasure of experiencing the rush of falling in love, you’re well aware that, at some point, you need to break free of these addictive chemicals in order to get your work done.

Enter attachment. Once a couple has bonded through the experience of intense chemical attraction, and perhaps reproduced in the process, new hormones influence the brain in an attempt to preserve the long-term attachment of the pair, and thus the success of their offspring.

Oxytocin, released by the hypothalamus during childbirth, cements the strong bond between mother and child. But it is also released by both sexes during intimacy. Not simply sexual intimacy, but emotional intimacy, such as gazing lovingly at a partner, showing appreciation and giving hugs.

Vasopressin is also influential in the ability of a pair to remain attached and monogamous. This has been demonstrated most notably in our mammalian cousin the prairie vole. Prairie voles are monogamous and mate for life, while their close relatives the meadow voles are promiscuous and never settle down to cooperatively child-rear. Why?

What scientists found was when voles have sex, they all release vasopressin. But prairie vole vasopressin receptors reside closer to the pleasure centres of their brains. When a prairie vole becomes sexually active, that first partner is the be all, end all. Conversely, meadow voles have weaker vasopressin receptors and those appear to reside closer to the area of the brain that processes anxiety and fear.

Theories and studies on humans and the science of attachment vary widely. Do our genes affect our ability to stay faithful? Do cultural norms create epigenetic changes in our code, driving us to pair up for the long-term? We don’t yet have clear answers. But most research agrees there are specific activities humans can practice which boost levels of oxytocin and vasopressin in the brain.  So if you want to improve the long-term bond of your primary relationship this Valentine’s Day, consider these:

  • Touching – This needn’t be sexual, although orgasm is known to release a large jolt of oxytocin. Science has found hugging to be almost as effective at flooding the system with feel-good chemicals. Long hugs are key. So even if the pressures of work and kids leaves you bereft of sexual energy, simply embracing your partner will go a long way towards preserving your bond.
  • Laughing and Crying – Releasing strong emotions, especially in company of your partner, creates chemical connection. Laughter releases oxytocin. Withholding emotions, such as the desire to cry, can actually create a negative association with your partner. Crying with empathetic company increases feelings of trust, a key element for long-term bonding.
  • Expressing Appreciation – Telling your partner what you appreciate about them can light up the brain of both people. Seek ways to habitually find something new on which to compliment your partner. Even the smallest things such as, “Thank you for putting the toilet seat down” can create a positive reinforcement pattern that could lead to all sorts of domestic harmony. (On that note, this essay from the New York Times ‘Modern Love’ column is a must read.)

We’ve only scratched the surface of the science behind love and attachment. But applying what we do know to our everyday lives, and this upcoming holiday, is a start toward becoming more connected in all our relationships.


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