Published on November 30, 2022 Updated on April 6, 2023
Oxytocin is called the love hormone for a reason; it plays Cupid with our heartstrings, tugging every time we hug or kiss that “special someone.” Yet, oxytocin isn’t just the puppet master in our romantic attachments – it also helps us bond with all the significant people in our lives.
For a long time, researchers have speculated that oxytocin shares an intimate relationship with attachment. This level of interest begs the question of what the relationship between attachment and oxytocin actually is.
To help answer this question, in this article, we’ll explore:
Safety, acceptance, and support: these are the factors that form the basis of secure attachment. When caregivers are attuned to their child’s needs and provide a safe and comforting environment, the child will likely develop a secure attachment style. However, when these conditions aren’t met, a child may form one of the insecure attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, or disorganized.
Anxious attachment arises from inconsistent, unreliable caregiving. The infant may become unsure of the dependability of their caregiver and fear being abandoned. As a result of such a childhood, an anxiously attached adult typically transitions their intense fear of abandonment to their relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners. They may also see the world as an unreliable, untrustworthy place.
Conditional love is a common characteristic in the development of the avoidant attachment style. The primary caregiver may be unable to accept, and even reject, the infant’s emotions – both positive and negative. Consequently, the infant’s needs are left unmet, which can result in the expectation of rejection and shutting down of the attachment system. As an adult, avoidant attachers prefer to construct boundaries within their relationships and are uncomfortable with displays of intimacy and emotions.
Disorganized attachment forms when a caregiver doesn’t offer a safe, secure space for their child but is instead a source of fear to them. The infant quickly learns that their caregiver’s behaviors are unpredictable – no one behavior repeatedly elicits the same response. This makes the world feel chaotic and anxiety-provoking. Adults with a disorganized attachment style often alternate between fear of abandonment and discomfort with intimacy in their relationships.
If you don’t yet know your attachment style, you can take the quiz on our website and avail of a free attachment style report.
As one of several body chemicals we call “happy hormones,” oxytocin acts as a messenger in our brains. It’s produced in the hypothalamus and released into the bloodstream, which triggers various effects on the body after stimulations such as touch, music, and exercise.
Oxytocin is most commonly known as the “love hormone” because it has a role in parent-child bonding, childbirth, and breastfeeding. It can help us to form trusting, empathic relationships, and our brains specifically release it when we experience physical affection. Oxytocin also dramatically impacts our behavior – specifically sexual arousal, trust, recognition, and early attachment.
Furthermore, oxytocin is what we call an anxiolytic; it helps us to keep calm. When we face a stressful situation, oxytocin lowers our blood pressure and reduces the levels of hormones that make us feel more stressed.
Over the last decade, there has been much speculation about whether oxytocin and attachment are linked. Despite this, scientific studies focusing solely on this relationship are few and far between. Yet, what we do know is that oxytocin and attachment are related. Let’s explore how:
When looking at the brain chemicals of secure attachers, they have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher oxytocin levels compared to their insecurely attached counterparts. This demonstrates a potentially strong relationship between oxytocin and secure attachment.
The same effect can be seen in securely attached mothers. Pregnant women with high oxytocin levels in their first trimester have been found to be more likely to connect securely with their babies. This may be to do with oxytocin’s association with more affectionate parenting – filled with caresses, soft hugs, and baby talk.
Securely attached mothers also feel more of a rewarding sensation when their infant smiles than insecure attachers. Oxytocin is partially responsible for this sense of reward, further demonstrating that oxytocin levels for securely attached mothers are high.
When it comes to fathers, those with higher oxytocin levels typically display more warmth to their young infants. Oxytocin also promotes stimulatory parenting in fathers. So you’ll often see fathers high in oxytocin throwing their babies up into the air, catching them, and trying to get them to laugh by being silly.
Furthermore, the high levels of oxytocin in securely attached caregivers help to carry the line of stable, secure attachment into the next generation. If you would like to learn more about this effect, check out our article on the transgenerational effect of insecure attachment.
People who experience early trauma are more likely to have lower oxytocin levels and therefore become insecure attachers. This may be to do with the bidirectional nature of the relationship between parenting and oxytocin. While mothers with higher levels of oxytocin experience a rewarding sensation from their children, their expressions of joy stimulate signals in their childrens’ brains to release oxytocin in return. Essentially, the release of oxytocin goes both ways.
Unfortunately, a further effect of the combination of insecure attachment and low oxytocin in many insecure attachers is often an intense fear of social situations – and even avoidance of social situations altogether.
Increased oxytocin levels lead to more feelings of secure attachment in insecurely attached people. These individuals end up more willing to trust significant others to provide care, safety, and protection. Of all of the attachment styles, anxious attachers show this trend the most.
Oxytocin also helps to strengthen new romantic relationships by reducing our interest in others and lessening our emotional bond with our mothers. Its effects on gazing, empathy, positive relationship memories, and trust, further enhance romantic attachment.
We see higher oxytocin levels in strong couples who:
What’s more, the love hormone makes certain people more trusting in their partner fidelity-wise. However, this isn’t always the case for people who had highly rejecting caregivers – such as some avoidant attachers.
People with higher oxytocin levels are more likely to trust and cooperate with others, even if they have an insecure attachment style. For people with avoidant attachment, oxytocin reduces the fear of being exploited by others. This effect potentially makes the avoidant attacher more open to healthy, long-term relationships.
But what works for some may not work for others. Anxious attachers struggle predominantly with trust in their relationships, so healthy oxytocin levels may not be enough to mitigate this difficulty. Therefore, this effect once again demonstrates that oxytocin levels may impact attachment styles in differing ways.
People who are less avoidant in relationships and have high oxytocin levels are more likely to cooperate with others – even with those who may have previously rejected or excluded them. In contrast, people high on avoidance tend to notice more negative social cues like disgust and neutral faces, making them less likely to work with and trust others.
Contradictorily, there appears to be a burst of oxytocin release when things aren’t going well in social relationships. A group of psychologists from the University of California provided a possible explanation for this finding using their Tend-and-Befriend model.
The Tend-and-Befriend theory describes our natural instinct to seek connection in response to stress because we have more chances of surviving a threat if we’re part of a group. According to this model, when we experience gaps or difficulties in otherwise positive social relationships, oxytocin levels increase. This boost helps us to reach out and restore friendships.
Therefore, raised oxytocin levels in insecure attachers may cause them to respond to interpersonal conflicts in adaptive ways instead of turning away from friendships or attention seeking. However, we may have to take this concept with a pinch of salt, as research in the area is tentative and in its early stages.
Oxytocin is associated with attachment in more ways than one. Secure attachers characteristically show higher levels of oxytocin, making stable emotional bonds with their children, friends, and romantic partners more likely. And the relationship appears to be bidirectional, as mothers’ parenting style predicts oxytocin levels in their children.
Moreover, the love hormone helps us to feel closer to and more trusting of our partners, which enables us to form and maintain new secure attachments. It makes us more resilient in the face of rejection and exclusion and can actually encourage us to mend bridges when social relationships hit bumps in the road.
However, it’s important to be mindful that the relationship between oxytocin and attachment is complicated as it can be influenced by individual differences such as attachment style, age, social situation, gender, and mental health.
Yet, even though more research in the area is needed to understand the link between these two complex phenomena, what we do know is that love, care, and affection, go a long way.
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