Are Power Over Relationships Inevitable?

Relational neuroscience suggests they are not!

Posted Jan 09, 2016


          If power over dynamics is just one way to organize differences within society, why do they happen so often?  The pervasiveness of the dominate-subordinate dichotomy in the world is impressive.  While the United States, with its highly paid CEO’s, obsession with material goods, and ongoing difficulty with “race relations”, may be seen as a caricature of power-over dynamics, countries all over the world bifurcate along power lines.  There are plenty of alpha-males (and occasionally alpha-females) leading countries with the competitive attitude of “bring it on”.  Does the fact that power over relationships reinvent themselves cross-culturally generation after generation make them biologically inevitable? 

Lisa Langhammer used with permission
Source: Lisa Langhammer used with permission


  Time to look more closely at nature or biology’s contribution to how we form groups and what we do with difference. “Neuroaffiliative hormones” are chemicals running through your body 24/7 that help shape your experience of being in human relationship. Two of the primary, human, neuroaffiliative hormones are oxytocin and vasopressin.  While neither acts independent of the other hormones or chemicals in your brain and body, each has a specific and important role to play in how people interact and groups are formed.

     Developmental biologists believe that vasopressin and oxytocin were once part of one larger hormone.  As primates evolved more complex societies, this larger hormone split into oxytocin and vasopressin.  Men and women both produce oxytocin and vasopressin, however, their interactions with the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone help shape stereotypic gender behaviors.  Vasopressin and testosterone work synergistically in men while oxytocin and estrogen work synergistically in women.  The levels of testosterone and estrogen vary dramatically between men and women significantly influence the expression of oxytocin and vasopressin in each gender. When oxytocin levels rise in a woman’s estrogen rich body, she experiences a pleasant decrease in anxiety and tension and an urge to connect with others.  Animal studies support this human observation - when given a shot of oxytocin, mammals tend to cuddle, groom and focus on their offspring more.

      A few months ago, as I was happily imagining women changing the world through their estrogen/oxytocin driven ability to embrace everyone and everything, I heard Dr. Dan Seigal (well known for his work on Interpersonal Neurobiology) share some interesting news about oxytocin.  Colleagues at UCLA, Eisenberger and Leiberman  (you will learn more about them when we discuss SPOT theory in chapter 4) have discovered that as the level of oxytocin rises in a female’s body, it’s role switches.  Their studies indicate that as oxytocin begins to rise, it facilitates connections within a group, but once the group is formed, the higher level of oxytocin helps a woman protect the group against outsiders. Hmmm. Changing the world is going to be harder than I thought.  I felt a quick sock in the gut as I began to wonder if my “world saving” oxytocin might be fueling chronic conflicts at every societal level – from middle school girl clicks to Rwandan genocide – a classic example of the right-brains ability to catastrophize.

     Much of what is known about vasopressin, a primary player in a man’s relational world, comes from studies of the prairie vole – a cute, little rodent chosen for his monogamous behavior and loyalty to family.  Once a male prairie vole identifies family, vasopressin travels through his body causing him to fiercely protect the family from outside intrusions.  Vasopressin, along with a shot of aggression enhancing testosterone, is just what the vet ordered - the perfect one-two punch needed for male prairie voles and men to protect their loved ones from harm.  Like oxytocin and estrogen, it is not difficult to imagine the biological contribution vasopressin and testosterone have made to the stereotypical male behavior of protecting women and children.

     While it seems clear that vasopressin and oxytocin, and other neuroaffiliative hormones and chemicals contribute something to the prevalence of inclusion and exclusion in groups, we must be careful when making biological assumptions about complex human behavior.  Not so long ago, when homosexuality was still a mental illness, scientists tested the theory that gay men behave more effeminately and had sex with other men (the ultimate female role play) because they lack adequate levels of testosterone.  Essentially, if they got more balls they would be normal men.  The cure, testosterone supplements, was successful in altering the gay men’s sexual behavior – they had a lot more sex – with men. 

     So, while oxytocin and vasopressin play a role in forming and maintaining groups, reducing complex human behavior to the simple cause and effect of a few hormones is reductionistic.  A closer look at these two neuroaffiliative hormones makes it clear that their levels are in constant flux based on internal and external life events.  For example, oxytocin levels rise when a woman breastfeeds, producing a feeling of calm and connection with the infant.  A win-win for mother and baby.   A man also has a surge in oxytocin and a decrease in testosterone when he first becomes a parent.  In the short run, this prevents a father from eating his children – a problem that plagues many species on the planet. In the long run, it allows the formation of a deep parental bond that has the power to shape future neural pathways for relationship in both – a clear win-win for father and child.  And for both men and women, oxytocin is released during orgasm – a win-win-win for the two partners and the survival of the species.  The bottom line is that these neuroaffiliative hormones are just one good example of the way the human nervous system is responsive and adaptive, both shaping and being shaped by the world around it.   Nature and nurture in concert.