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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Nack

How do hormones and the brain play a role in relationships?

Love is an integral part of the human experience, and people have explored what love means and have expressed that in many forms over the last few thousand years. Now we have research that sheds light on what that actually means for the body and for hormones. Love is often labeled as an emotion, but some prefer to define it as a motivation system that is geared toward pursuing something specific such as an intimate relationship. This has evolutionary roots in the way of needing to raise offspring and two parents working together being crucial to success in that. Now that humans have grown and changed, research has found that love and relationships have other benefits as well. In fact, there is a correlation between high levels of intimacy and decreased depression, increased immune function, and better cardiovascular health (Seshadri, 2016). The forming of intimate connections has been reported as one of the most important motives for humans, and in some cases takes importance over basic needs like obtaining food and water. Research has found that partners who were married or in long term committed relationships live longer than those who are not (Wardecker et al., 2015).

Did you know that hormones can promote social bonding? Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, is present in higher levels in people who are in love, such as what occurs with the beginning stages of a relationship. This stress response in the body seems to be connected to the formation of attachment and social contact. Norepinephrine, both a neurotransmitter and a hormone, may also play a role in relationships and love. It activates the body into increased attention, better memory for new things, alertness, and sleeplessness. It also has an impact on heart rate, sweating, and trembling. All of these play a role in new relationships. The hormone oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the love hormone, can relieve stress during pair bonding and positive social interactions. This can help with security and support. The oxytocin released at the beginning of a relationship and the stress response that comes with it is then quelled by the deep love and connection that comes with a relationship (Seshadri, 2016). One study examined 34 young married couples and found that higher quality of relationship was associated with higher levels of oxytocin (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2014).

Love also has an impact on the brain’s reward system through a reduction in emotional judgment, a decrease in fear and depression, and improved mood. It also deactivates places in the brain that mediate the negative emotions, avoidance behavior, and critical social assessment. It triggers pleasure and motivation to satisfy bodily needs. The activation of certain receptors within the brain’s reward system seem to be a key part of pair bonding in a relationship. Sexual activity is an important part of reinforcing this reward system as well as attachment. Increased levels of testosterone and estrogen promote the release of dopamine, an important neurotransmitter in the reward system. The opposite seems to be true as well in that increased dopamine activity seems to be linked to an increase in testosterone and estrogen levels (Seshadri, 2016). In sum, the body and love have a lot of interaction with each other.


  • Holt-Lunstad, J., Birmingham, W. C., & Light, K. C. (2014). Relationship quality and oxytocin: Influence of stable and modifiable aspects of relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32(4), 472-490.

  • Seshadri, K. (2016). The neuroendocrinology of love. Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, 20(4), 558-563.

  • Wardecker, B. M., Smith, L. K., Edelstein, R. S., & Loving, T. J. (2015). Intimate relationships then and now: How old hormonal processes are influenced by our modern psychology. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, 1(2), 150-176.

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