Scientists who study couples have concluded that the key to relationship stability is spending time together through rituals, routines, and recreation. No one is sure why this works, though some scientists have a hunch that there’s a biological reason that couples who do things together stay together. New research on the “love hormone” supports this idea — and reveals that there are some key activities that couples can do to enhance its powers.
The so-called “love hormone” is oxytocin, a hormone secreted by the pea-sized pituitary gland at the base of the brain. Oxytocin gets its nickname from research showing that it influences social interaction and sexual reproduction. Levels of the hormone increase when people hug or kiss, suggesting that it also influences pair bonding — biology’s term for “becoming a couple.”
Wondering whether certain activities can increase the amount of oxytocin released by the brain, scientists studied the amount of oxytocin released during different recreation activities. They published their study published Tuesday in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
The Baylor University study involved 20 heterosexual couples from a mid-size city in Texas, 95 percent of which were married and 5 percent of which had cohabited for at least one year. Each was randomly assigned to go on one of two couple dates: a game night or an art class. For game night, couples played games they already knew in a “home-like setting.” The art class couples went to a community art studio, where they “painted a simple beach scene with their initials in the sand.”
To measure oxytocin, researchers took urine samples before and after the dates, really setting the mood.
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The team hypothesized that the board game — they call it a “core-joint” experience — would cause more oxytocin to be released for women and men. That’s because previous research has shown that a relationship can deteriorate when there’s a lack of predicability (this is called “entropy”), and board games are a familiar, predictable activity compared to painting. Additionally, couples would probably interact more when playing a game than when painting on their own, creating even more opportunity for oxytocin released.
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The results, however, were a little more complicated than the team predicted.
“Our big finding was that all couples release oxytocin when playing together — that’s good news for couples’ relationships,” co-author and child and family studies professor Karen Melton, Ph.D. explained Tuesday. “But men in the art class released 2 to 2.5 times more oxytocin than the other groups. This suggests that some types of activities may be more beneficial to males than females, and vice versa.”
When it came down to it, oxytocin levels in the urine samples released the that the hormone released most for men in the art class, followed by women playing board games then women in the art class. The group that had the lowest rise in oxytocin were men playing board games.
Art class might have rocked the socks of men in particular, the researchers venture, because of the role of a new environment and the sense of touch. The men in the art class might have released more oxytocin as a biological response to a novel activity, the team suggests, noting that those men rated their experience as “slightly more novel” than the women after the class. “For couples,” the authors write, “this may potentially translate to finding new and challenging activities for date nights rather [than] falling into regular routines, as has been illustrated in other couple relationship findings.”
The team also noticed that the couples in the art class touched each other more and their interactions were more focused on bonding. Sometimes they would put an arm around each other or would simply encourage each other with a “Good job.” Meanwhile, couples playing the games were, well, more focused on playing the game.
All activities, however, generally heightened levels of the “love drug.” Though the findings were specific to 20 couples in Texas and different groups of people could react differently to other types of stimuli, in the end, Melton says, this study shows that the strength of a couple is linked to their ability to find small, meaningful ways to interact with one another, sometimes in new ways. Touching and talking, no matter what activity we’re doing, releases the chemical that bonds us, and doing so in novel environments is even better.