In talking with my English composition class about literature and the media, we discussed binge watching and shows that hooked them. Predictably “Gossip Girl” and “Friends” were high on the list because these tackled issues of relationships -- girlfriends, boyfriends, and love. I then said there would be a Valentine’s Day assignment that would encourage them to look past popular culture links and into the research on love. As such, I asked: “What do you think is the secret to life-long love?”
Their answers were just what one might have expected in a class of freshman and sophomores – as well people of all ages: Attraction, chemistry, honesty, respect, and trust. These were all good answers. However, if you are wondering if the love in your life is here to stay, scientific research has already given us the answers. Words and body language are powerful predictors of happily-ever after. However, for initial attraction, that elusive god of desire and love, Cupid, might be oxytocin in disguise.
Oxytocin is a bonding hormone said to be responsible for parent-infant bonding. Also called the “cuddling” hormone, a study reported in January 2012, in the journal “Psychoneuroendocrinology,” had two interesting findings. Researchers determined that “the people in new relationships had oxytocin levels that averaged nearly double those of singles. For couples who stayed together, oxytocin levels remained stable over a six-month period.”
OT correlated with the couples’ interactive reciprocity, including social focus, positive affect, affectionate touch, and synchronized dyadic states, and with anxieties and worries regarding the partner and the relationship, findings which parallel those described for parent–infant bonding. (1)
The Love Lab
In 1986, researchers studying love looked for tangible signs. At “The Love Lab,” University of Washington, John Gottman observed couples interacting. After hooking them up to electrodes, results were analyzed. Readings indicated that rapid heart rates, blood flow, and sweating were predictors of a doomed relationship.
Later, at the University of Washington campus, researchers created a bed and breakfast retreat at their laboratory. They invited 130 newlyweds to spend a day there, with the understanding that they would be observed. The discovery was science-based, however, even from a common sense perspective, it was understandable. As husband or wife made what researchers called “a bid” for connection, it was the spouse’s response that predicted success or failure in the marriage.
This is how it worked. A husband may make a bid to his wife to share the experience of a looking at a goldfinch that just came into his view. How his wife responds plays a crucial role in the relationship. If she reacts with kindness, she might accept her husband’s bid for connection. On the other hand, she might ignore him, or even retort with hostility, “You and those birds.” Or it might have been a wife who made a bid to her husband and was ignored or rejected. "Welcome to the Love Lab."
Gratitude, Kindness, and Happiness
Gratitude studies from the lab of psychologist Robert Emmons, the University of California, Davis, found that if you practice acts of kindness – expressing gratitude that you do not necessarily feel -- eventually you will find yourself becoming a more grateful person. Perhaps by smiling more often at your spouse or partner, even when you are angry -- by taking the higher road you might begin to mimic the gratitude concept.
Think of the act of smiling as connecting the dots of attitude and emotion for the purpose of creating loving intimacy.
While the benefits of gratitude are being investigated scientifically it was intriguing to find the connection between gratitude and kindness in the Journal of Happiness Studies: "Happy people become happier through kindness." Researchers from Japan and the United Stated determined that “Gratitude is an important human strength that contributes to subjective happiness." (2) It seems that weaving an inner tapestry of gratitude and kindness, can be life enriching.
Schneiderman, Ina et al. “Oxytocin during the initial stages of romantic attachment: Relations to couples’ interactive reciprocity.” Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2012 Aug;37(8):1277-85
Otake, Keiko, et al. “Happy people become happier through kindness: A counting kindness intervention.” J Happiness Stud. 2006 Sep; 7(3): 361–375.
The Empirical Basis for Gottman Couples Therapy