Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter associated with bonding love. It is involved with erotic love, like orgasm in sexual intercourse, but appears to have a more profound influence in the bonding of a mother and child (released in high quantities after child birth and while nursing) or a couple cuddling.
Using oxytocin and the common experience of bonding love, I’d like to quickly examine three questions. (1) Does knowing the biology of love reduce the experience of love to an animal instinct? (2) What would be the benefits and detriments if there were an oxytocin nasal spray? (3) What practical implications can we draw about marital romance based upon our knowledge of oxytocin?
First, I do not think knowing the biology of love should reduce it to a purely physical experience – “I’m not in love, I’m just experiencing an oxytocin surge… It’s not you, its my oxytocin level.” But we can easily feel this way as we learn the mechanics behind something special. A similar experience often happens to seminary students. As they begin to study the Bible as a textbook, something precious becomes sterile as it is dissected.
This is one of the main dangers in an era where we are learning so much about the biology of emotions. We reduce emotions to our biology. That is the equivalent of reducing art to ink or music to notes. We can learn some important things, but it misses the most important elements for the most tangible.
That leads into the second questions. What if you could squirt a little love potion up your nose and recapture that lost spark with your spouse (or anyone else who happened to walk by while you were snorting infatuation)? Beyond the biological parody of Cupid’s stray arrow, would that be a good thing? Could it be used as a “treatment” for the loneliness of single adults or neglected children?
Doubtless, if such a medication were available, many would use it as a form of biological pornography (instead of visual or narrative) seeking the façade of closeness without risking the vulnerability of real relationship. Others would use it as a substitute or compensation for not adequately investing in their marriage – like a multi-vitamin taken by those who don’t eat healthy. These would (in my opinion) be detrimental uses of this hypothetical medication even if it “worked” as they propped up dysfunction with the emotional sensation of healthy.
I would be intrigued about whether doses of oxytocin could help with the development of neglected or orphaned children. But even in such a case, it could not be a substitute for involved parents or adoption as the only means for prolonged health during the formative years.
Yet I think we quickly realize something very important – an artificial replacement of a neurotransmitter cannot replace the actual relationship that was intended to produce it. Even if a nasal spray could help a child’s social and neurological development, it would not be as good as that child having loving parents.
But the most profitable discussion seems to be the third question. What can knowing about oxytocin, its effects and triggers, teach us about marital romance? What I’ve found, in my reflection on the subject, is that it can reinforce “common sense” relational advice with an additional layer of scientific explanation.
Oxytocin is triggered by prolonged skin-to-skin contact (among other ways). The effect of oxytocin (evidenced by studies where it has been artificially elevated) is that it creates a sense of closeness and trust with other people. So what does that mean for married couples?
- Holding hands and cuddling are important even after marriage.
- Couples should not rush foreplay before sex and rely solely on orgasm for closeness.
- Physical touch is not merely a “love language” some people speak and others don’t.
These are not “profound” new insights. Hopefully they are not new at all. But I suspect for many people, particularly in a day when there is so much curiosity about the neurology of emotions, knowing this information will help reinforce some basics of what it means to steward God’s gift of marriage and honor our spouse.
 Curiosity caused me to do a Google search for “Oxytocin Nasal Spray” and sure enough there is already a product available called “Liquid Trust.”