The Oxytocin Vortex

by Tom Veatch

To whom do I write? Not to the molecular biologist, for this isn't the very newest of science, but to the man, and to the woman. I am writing to you, the human being in a relationship with another human being. Especially to you, the one who is being torn apart by it: The drama, the expectations, the judgement.

Oxytocin explains this vortex you are in. Listen to me.

Let's start with the facts

Oxytocin is a fascinating mammalian hormone with many functions which are the focus of active research today. The Wikipedia Oxytocin article is rich; evidently we are lucky to know so much about it because rats, our fellow mammals, also have it and because scientists are so cruel to rats. Oxytocin seems to stimulate and regulate contraction of smooth muscle: the intestines use it, as do male sperm pathways during ejaculation, female milk pathways during lactation, the uterus during childbirth, too. Yes, the uterus releases oxytocin when it contracts. A woman in childbirth is bathed in oxytocin. Synthetic oxytocin is called pitocin, which is used to induce delivery. We've known some things about it for a generation or two: I myself was delivered with an injection of pitocin, fifty years less 12 days ago, on the doctor's Friday morning schedule (he would be out of town Saturday, so a batch of mothers under his care all had their babies Friday).

Oxytocin is mammalian, it's part of why we snuggle. You get a blast of oxytocin when someone physically touches you. Women get it during sex: contract that uterus, you get it. Women get it during orgasm, maybe more. Mothers get it from nursing: Nipples do it too. Men get it some too, but they don't have a uterus. A uterus is a big smooth muscle organ, I think of it as essentially a great, wonderful, oxytocin pump.

Oxytocin is the hormone of trust.

Yes, oxytocin is the hormone of trust. I'll prove it to you.

Join a bunch of psych majors in a computer room. They play an experiment game in pairs. You make decision number one, then raise your hand. You are taken into the back room and stuck for a blood sample. Your oxytocin is measured. Come back. Now someone else made decision number one, so you make decision number two. Raise your hand. Do this a bunch, keep track of the head counts and the measurements, run a statistical program on your table of values, and lo and behold, the experiment shows something amazing.

It's a money game. You get ten dollars to start, and an unknown partner. Then you make decision number one. You give your unknown partner zero to ten dollars. Your gift doubles in transit, that's part of the game. Then they make decision number two, and give you zero to ten dollars, and you get double their gift, too.

So if you're both smart, and both trusting, or trustworthy, then you'll both give away ten, and you both end up with twenty, the maximum. But you'll never know who it was. Will they be trustworthy? You can't know. Now they've trusted you, will you be trustworthy? It's your call. To win, one has to trust and one has to be trustworthy.

So what is the relationship with oxytocin? If your oxytocin level is higher, the results show you give more. And if the partner gives you more, then your oxytocin level elevates too. You trust more, you experience the trust of others, and you are more trustworthy.

Turn it around, give them a snort of oxytocin (or nothing). How do they do? Yes, they are more trusting, and they are more trustworthy, with more oxytocin.

So it's not a mere correlated effect of trust. It's actually the cause of trust. Oxytocin is the hormone of trust.

Sex and Trust

Are you with me so far? Oxytocin is about sex and its about trust. And there's a lot of it in the uterus. It's a female thing. Not completely, but with the female of the species it is a big deal.

Now can we just think about this calmly, please? Just consider what does this mean?

As I contemplated these amazing discoveries of science, I came to think of this about it relative to this wild, modern world of pre-marital sex and birth control. What does it mean? Consider how modern relationships seem to go:

You meet. You like each other. You step forward, sniff, listen (or talk). You still like each other. You step forward, again, and again. Moving together, moving forward. Evaluating whether you are serious, whether you are right for each other, whether this is really the one. The one to have my babies with. The one to trust with my life and offspring and what will remain of me in this world lasting unto eternity. It might not be obvious, and even if it is, you want to be pretty darned clear. So you're evaluating, you're exploring, you're moving forward.

Now in the old days before birth control there was a strong argument for marriage before sex, because sex leads to babies and babies need Forever Daddies. But nowadays sex doesn't have to lead to babies, we have a panoply of pills and protection possibilities. And as it turns out, nice girls like it too. Boys in partial contrast have little else on their minds. As is proven by some recent news that Japanese teenage boys have undergone such enormous cultural change that some are actually refusing sex: This couldn't possibly be news if it weren't Out Of The Ordinary.

So it's simple. The man has one thing on his mind, of course he wants it, the woman kind of wants it some too and now it won't actually make a train wreck of her life to have it before she's certain that he's the one, which after all she might never know. So at some point, as they are getting closer and closer to the summit of the Marriage Decision mountain, she decides that it'll be okay to try. Check and see.

He of course is willing and able, anytime, will he refuse? Rarely. So: Bam, wow. Now what has happened? Let's start with him.

He, has he changed his interest level, degree of certainty, amount of commitment? One step forward, just the same as yesterday plus a dollop more of knowledge and hope. He hasn't really changed that much.

She, on the other hand, has had an Oxytocin Blast. Wham, she has entered The Vortex. Bam, she feels, deep in her bones, she knows with unquestioned and perfect conviction: I trust. I trust this. I trust this situation. I trust this man. I trust him with what? Obviously, with what we just did: with sex, with what comes with and from sex: babies and the commitment between partners that makes sex and babies work in this world. I trust that he is my perfect, ideal, at least satisfactory life partner. I feel it and because I feel it I know it.

I have a long list, as you may not yet know, of my personal and emotional expectations of my life partner. He needs to have some shining armor, he needs to ride a white charger. He needs to be a bazillionaire. He needs to be tidier than most other men. He needs to have a great sense of fashion, unlike other men. He needs to be someone I totally understand and who shares all of my values. In short he needs to be just like me. If I were to think clearly about it, a woman in all but anatomy.

Ahh, it just feels so good. Let's not look at the details too carefully. There are lots of hormones in this time, not just oxytocin. But I'm talking about oxytocin. This is oxytocin talking. Your hormones are doing the thinking for you, you could say. Oxytocin says, We trust. You repeat back in monotone, with glazed eyes, "I trust". Yes, now you trust him with your life. If you were to think the detailed thoughts, you would highly assert that the Hidden Him satisfies all your Hidden Expectations. But you don't need to think about it, you just trust. It's all good. For now.

Let's check back in with the man. Now has the man changed? He's still there, wagging his tail, happy to be closer, one step closer. He's getting a little oxytocin, after all he's getting physically touched, it's all to the good. But no, he hasn't suddenly climbed all the way to the summit of Mount Eternal Commitment, he's just got his current needs met for now. It was great. Quality: great, that was great. Quantity? He's hoping for great quantities of the greatest quality, over time, so Life will be Good. And so far, honey, so good. This is great for me, and I'm with you, moving forward. In short, he has the same hope as yesterday, and frankly only very little more information, because usually the quality starts on the low end and ramps up for a while, and the quantity aspect is still a completely open question, but yes he's still in a forward-leaning posture moving up that mountain, nothing different from yesterday. Equally as trustworthy, equally the same mixture of positives and negatives. No different.

Now, back to the woman, watch some time pass. Maybe they keep pushing the Oxytocin Button (that's her uterus, not to forget the nipples), let's have another jolt of Trust Juice. And another. Great, everyone's happy, nothing to argue about here. But eventually, some time passes, and there's a little drought, maybe just a day or two, and a small and very inconvenient fact raises its head.

Oxytocin has a half-life. Oxytocin drains away after a little while, or a little while longer. And so you might not be swimming in the Lake of Trust suddenly, say, after a day at the office.

One response is to push the Oxytocin Button again, push on that uterus and give it a reason to contract. Ahh. Keep doing it yes. But time passes again. And again.

So at some point, the oxytocin level falls off. And then we achieve a new event in the relationship: Oxytocin Withdrawal. Where has my trust gone?!! I don't feel the trust any more! What is going on?! And there is an emotional panic, and because you're in a panic, you jump into an intense intellectual review of all my issues having to do with trusting the man in my life.

Oh My God. Where is the shining armor? Where is the white horse? Where is the financial accountability? The tidiness?! Oh My God. You review all your list of your lifetime expectations. The ones you keep in your heart with your preadolescent diary. You think of each one, I trusted him! And look at him! He's not that!? Oh My God. I am surely an innocent here. So how could this be? He must have, he has betrayed my trust. He has betrayed me.

How could I have thought he was a knight in shining armor, everything my childhood dreams ever contained? I trusted him, and now he isn't that. He must have pretended.

He Must Have Lied.

The Vortex: whose fault is it, really?

So. Welcome to the Vortex. Is this starting to ring true yet? This is the reality of modern human love relationships. Perhaps it's not even limited to modernity and the availability of birth-control; because it happens in marriage too. You've betrayed me. It's Your Fault. I trusted you, and now look at you.

Do you see what is going on here? Whose fault is it really? Is it because he wanted sex? Because he didn't refuse when you allowed it? If refusal is such a rarity that the event in Japan makes the news in the US, then the man's acceptance is a species characteristic that you can't blame him for unless you blame the species. Are you so unwise as to blame your own species? Is the man deciding to go ahead and have consensual sex with you something that makes him some kind of out of the ordinary, bad, betraying, untrustworthy man? Heck no. Men generally are moving forward. It's nothing about this man at all.

No, it's about you, dear one. Dear angry snarky enraged blaming dear. It's you and your Oxytocin Withdrawal. You've worked yourself up to trust him with your Oxytocin Blast, and now you've worked yourself up to mistrust him with your Oxytocin Withdrawal. He hasn't done Anything.

So here's the point of the Oxytocin Vortex. I'm sorry to say, but it's that you are the one who has done something. What have you done? You have the ex-pec-ta-tions. You have carried and nurtured those mad and unrealistic expectations since you were a child. You have decided to impose them all on this situation, typically without discussion or agreement. You are the one with the misperception of reality, thinking that your expectations relate to reality. You didn't negotiate it, you didn't ask if he would go through your list with you and check off the items he would be honestly and realistically willing to be responsible for fulfilling. You did it all. You decided you would pretend for a while. And now you are deciding that you're going to punish him for your game of pretend. Because you want to believe you are so innocent.

No, it's not his fault. It's your fault. It's not his pathetic, loser, contemptible qualities as an inadequate man. It's not his betrayal of you, or of anything. It's your betrayal of yourself, and if you treat him badly, your betrayal of him, from thinking that a temporary feeling of oxytocin has changed anything about the actual world. Playing Impose-the-Expectation. It's your immature, unwise, indeed cruel choice, to impose your childish and overblown expectations on a man who may have never heard about them.

So this is what happens. This is Girl Rage. This is Alanis Morrissette. This is the presumptuous moral authority of feminine snark and outrage, which has really taken over so much of our political and public and of course private universe. This is the modern vortex of relationships.

I've explained this to so many men, and they all say, Wow, you've just captured it exactly. I always wondered why I get such abuse, and why it's always my fault, and why all this drama?

It's all his fault, she thinks. She starts to abuse him, berate him, think terrible thoughts of him, and then of herself for having tolerated it and gotten herself into this mess. And then the more she stiff-arms him to punish him for pulling her into the vortex and to restore her trust in her own judgement, so badly damaged by this experience. How could I not have seen it? How could he have fooled me so badly? The more her expectations are unrelated to reality, and the tighter she holds on to them, irrespective of the oxytocin in her veins, the more the blame and intensity and creativity of moral criticim, the anger and sadness and rage and contempt towards this pig man, it turns out he's just like all the others, and they're all pigs!

No, they're not actually pigs. Not mostly. Okay, men can be pigs, fine, they're the more piggish of the genders. If prison populations are 90% male, then crime might be mostly a male thing. At least the 10 commandments: theft, murder, fraud, that short list, what gets you into prison. But mostly they are honorable, steady, calming, hard-working, upstanding, and yes eager horny dogs, hoping their happiness can be found in this life, with a woman who wants to be with them, as they are. Simple men, simple hopes, hopes enough to live for, to live all our lives for. Worthy and honorable hopes. They'll play the game as you run circles around them, doing their best to satisfy, to not betray, to meet your expectations, trying to stay with you and make it work.

And these non-criminal men frankly don't deserve the negativity you give to them. Spoken, unspoken, the intonation of contempt and outrage. That erroneously carried sense of moral authority. The Vortex has no authority here. You are in charge, it's Your Vortex, and you can get a grip.

So maybe let's take a deep breath for a minute.

In, deep. Out, long. Take it slow, look away for a minute and breathe. Now. Okay? There's a sweet sense of bliss on the willful relaxing, the long letting-out, if you go ahead and repeat that ten or a hundred times, for a while.

Okay, it seems you have come back. What is next? What is the path to a happier, more balanced life here? I have a list of six things to say.

First, of course it has to be said that the woman has to take personal responsibility, let's be clear, for the crap she brings into the relationship. That means all her childish expectations. Give them a ceremonial fire sacrifice, and cry about them. And then please come live in this real and actual world that you actually live with him in. Let them go.

Second, stop blaming him. If it's not one of the 10 commandments, maybe it's actually just your own vortex, and has nothing to do with him.

Third, have more sex. If you really want to remain committed to your oxytocin feelings, then jolly well have sex every single day this month and then keep it up and up and come back to it and keep it up, till you're a couple of old folks winking at each other over the cafeteria table. Oxytocin is grand, there's nothing wrong with making a habit of it, if you can act responsibly at the same time. Enjoy life. And also act responsibly.

So, fourth, get yourself some solid ground to stand on of your own. That means, take some time by yourself to decide what world you want to live in -- and I hope you will decide you want to live in the world where actual real people are with you -- and if so, decide to make some tougher minded, more intellectual, certain, permanent, and reliable decisions about what you trust and what you don't trust. Write things down. Here's my list, here's what I need to trust in, here's what I will decide to trust by verifying through recordable concrete observations of this man and this life together with him. Does he beat me? No. Does he get up and go to work? Yes. Well what are you complaining about then? That he isn't a woman? You didn't sign up for a woman, you signed up for a man. You could actually try to reason about it, and a calm reasoned moment will help you to withstand the Blast and the Withdrawal waves. Because facts are facts and the truth is permanent and reliable and trustworthy, irrespective of hormone levels in the blood. Am I just being a man, asking you to be more of a man, saying this? Perhaps. But it needs to be said: trusting behavior and trustworthy decisions can be, and need to be, carried out without hormonal support. Because Grownups do the Right Thing.

So, please, start to learn that trust is not about having hormones pumping around your body, it's about having correct vision of people's behavior and habits. If you can't trust your visceral sense of trust, then you need to at least learn to make good decisions. So yes, please wean yourself intellectually from the hormones a little bit, and grow yourself a little plot of tough-minded ground where you can make responsible decisions using actual observations and verbalizeable criteria. If the man is acting like a man, well, that's probably normal for our species and you actually had probably better accept it, allow it, even go along with it or even find a way to enjoy it, for the most part. Please allow a little bit of your feeling of trust to come from the thoughts that show reality conforming to reasonable independently-justifiable criteria. Is shining armor really that reasonable? Come on, get real. Your girlfriends who also want shining armor are not an independent justification for that item on your list. Think a little bit harder, please? Ask another man, not just your girlfriends.

Fifth, you may be surprised to discover that this is really, ultimately, an argument for postponing sex until after marriage! Shocking, coming from a most modern man, me. But maybe you should consider going back to some really old fashioned values. What would it mean? If you didn't have sex until after marriage, then you have decided to marry him first. Before the hormones kicked in, before both the Oxytocin Blast pushed you deeper, and before the Oxytocin Withdrawal pulled you away. Without the unbalancing influence of unreliable hormones, in the calm light of day, you have really decided and committed that this man is really going to be satisfactory for you, that with all his blemishes and flaws, you'll take him, you can live with him, and on the whole you can stand him being himself.

You're not going to consider it a betrayal that he makes what he makes, that he likes what he likes, that he doesn't understand or much care about feminized values, the flowers, the doilies, the perfumes and the color combinations. You're not going to blame him for being himself. And you are going to keep a lid on your own imposed expectations and hopes because you looked, and saw, and thought, and evaluated, because you see what you're getting and you calmly decided, okay his armor isn't shining, but he drives a white Dodge Charger, I'm going to take my life in my hands and accept him for what he is.

The memory of a calm decision is a great anchor in the wintry storms of Oxytocin Withdrawal, I believe.

And if it turns out that I really have to re-evaluate, then I'm going to put down in the Betrayal column, what actual reasons I have for thinking he should be different from this, reasons that Men would Approve. That Oxytocin Blast of inchoate certainty, followed by that Oxytocin Withdrawal vortex, these are not reasons to accuse, berate, and torture an honorable, steady man who doesn't live in your vortex.

I'm saying, please, take some responsibility. Show some forgiveness, at least, to him. And soothe yourself. Soothe yourself.

And get yourself some more oxytocin. I know you're not in the mood, but do it anyway and you'll get in the mood, and the Oxytocin will come, and the good feelings will begin again to wash over you.

So Sixth, and Last of all, this is an argument for regular, frequent sex, for the emotional health of the woman. Daily is a good minimum frequency to aim for. If you're keeping it down much below that, say weekly, you've already spent five days in that absolutely predictable vortex of your exclusive creation, resenting that Untrustworthy Bastard (that you've concocted on your own, and imposed upon that basically decent man who so unfortunately is stuck with your irrational rage flaming at him), and you, the No-Sayer, are the cause, the one who is at fault. The poor man stands ready to serve. Come on, come around, get to it. Let yourself be persuaded. Ask him to persuade you. And submit a little bit. It'll be good for your relationship, over and beyond him, it'll be good for your connection with him.

Postscript

I have to mention the whole headache argument. Migraine pain is reduced significantly by sex. Look it up. So if you have a headache, don't throw up a defense, don't push him away, let your man help you out.

Okay? Okay.

And thank you for that deep breath.

 

Copyright © 2000-2013, Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved.
Modified: September 20, 2011; August 13, 2013