I love dogs, and dogs typically love me. Maybe it is because I give them so much attention, but they tend to find me very interesting.
In my reading the past few years about attachment and neurology, the hormone oxytocin keeps popping up. This morning, as I was petting my dog, Keeva, I wondered again: do dogs produce oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone/neurotransmitter (technically a nonapeptide) produced in the brain (thalamus area), then transported to the pituitary gland where it is secreted. Originally identified in 1906, oxytocin was found to facilitate childbirth and breastfeeding, however, in the past few years oxytocin’s role in relationships has been studied more intensely.
Oxytocin is variously called the hug hormone, the cuddle chemical, and the moral molecule. In humans, researchers have found that cuddling with a significant other stimulates increased production of oxytocin resulting in higher feelings of closeness, empathy, and trust. Giving subjects a shot of oxytocin in their noses resulted in more generosity with money and more compassion in conflict. Oxytocin has been implicated in mother-child bonding as well as pair bonding in adults. New treatments using oxytocin are being explored for treating the social deficits for individuals on the autism spectrum.
Oxytocin not only seems to result from nurturing and bonding behavior, but alsointensifies feelings of connectedness and bonding. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, oxytocin production also calms the amygdala—the threat detector, the first alarm center of the brain. This explains in part why, when we are scared, the first person we want to talk to is our primary attachment figure. When we receive the desired response from the loved one, we feel calmer.
So what about dogs? Do dogs produce oxytocin?
A report last year in the magazine Science found that simply gazing into each other’s eyes produced higher levels of oxytocin in both dogs and their owners. They also found that dosing the dogs with oxytocin intranasally resulted in longer gazing, more oxytocin production, and more reported feelings of connectedness and bondedness in the humans.
This is something I have suspected for a while, that when I love on Keeva, I increase both her levels of oxytocin and mine and I strengthen the trust, bond, and connection between us. The more I love on her, the more she trusts and loves on me.
But more importantly, how do we use this information to strengthen people relationships?
The attachment folks tell us over and over about the need to focus on attachment behaviors—specifically eye contact, attachment touch, attachment voice, and leave-taking & rejoining rituals—all activities that stimulate oxytocin production.
1. Eye Contact: If you watch couples in love, close friends talking, or mothers and babies, you will see them making intense and prolonged eye contact, like the dogs in the Science study. Sadly, as our children (and our marriages) get older we often make less eye contact, and sometimes only in conflict. A practical suggestion is to spend one on one time with your spouse, child, or friend face to face, focusing on making extensive eye contact while listening, with and without words.
2. Attachment Touch: This includes non-sexual caresses, gentle touches on the shoulder as you pass, hugs, kisses, unnecessary touch throughout the day, every day that says, “I see you, I hear you, I know you are there, I love you, I am committed to you”. Pet your kids, your spouse, and your friends as much as you pet your dog.
3. Attachment Voice: Ever notice that when you talk to your dog or your baby you use a special tone of voice? It is not necessarily baby talk, but is a way of speaking that is distinctly different. Usually it is a higher tone, more musical and expressive, maybe including nonsense sounds, nicknames, etc. Try using an adaptation of this voice with your loved ones. If they ask what you are doing, tell them you are trying something new to help them to feel how important they are to you.
4. Leave-taking/Rejoining Rituals: Whenever you leave your loved ones, whether for shorter or longer periods of time, it is vital that you say, “Good-bye” with intentionality, attention, and presence. When you come back together it is also vital to do so intentionally, with attention, and presence. Often in the busyness of life we neglect leave-taking and rejoining rituals, and do subtle damage to our relationships. When you say “Goodbye” and “Hello again” intentionally, you are communicating, “I see you, I hear you, you matter to me, I love you, and I am committed to you”. When you neglect such expressions, you subtly communicate the opposite, “you are invisible to me, you don’t matter, I don’t have time for you, and I am not committed to you.” You may not be intending to communicate these things, but they come across non-verbally. In this same vein pay particular attention to bed-time rituals. Marriage researcher, Stan Tatkin, is famous for stating that everyone, child and adult,needs to be put to bed at night.
As you begin working on these behaviors, notice the emotions that come up. It is likely the feelings will be positive. Enjoy them, prolong them, sit with them, and let them seep deeply into you. But you may find some negative emotions mixed in with the positive feelings: do you sense anger, resentment, hopelessness, fear, or worthlessness? These feelings may be markers of unresolved hurts in you or the relationship and they block your full enjoyment of the lovely effects of oxytocin. Take note of negative feelings and journal and pray to identify and begin resolving them. Once resolved you will be able to delight in the fruits of all of the hard work that you have put into your relationships.
And do not neglect Fido! We all need as much oxytocin as we can get.
An alarm grabs your attention, and focuses you on a possible threat. It propels you to address a danger: to get out of a burning house, or to let your nurse know you need urgent attention.
Relationships have alarms too, but relationship alarms can be confusing. They do not usually sound like alarms at all, which makes them easy to misinterpret. A relationship alarm may make you think your loved one is upset with you, you might experience an alarm if his/her words sound like an attack. You sense an urgent need to defend yourself. When you defend yourself, however, rather than making things better, things get worse. Even though there is a desire for love and connection, suddenly you are having a fight.
An example: Amber notices that Ethan did not greet or kiss her when he came home from work. She is already feeling emotionally distant from him because she just worked twelve hour shifts, three days in a row. The emotional disconnection sets off a “loss of relationship” alarm in Amber. Amber, in quasi-automatic response to the alarm, complains, “You never take me out anymore.” Ethan feels attacked and defends himself by listing all the times he offered to go out but she said she was too tired. At the end of this interchange, Amber feels un-listened to, blamed, and alone. Ethan feels criticized and hopeless. They both go to sleep hurt, scared, wondering why marriage is so difficult and if it will ever get better.
Not only are relationship alarms easy to misinterpret, but they are often false alarms, or at least mostly false. Since primary attachment relationships are vital to a person’s emotional, social, and even physical well-being, the relationship alarm system is sensitive and is designed to give off false positives. Like a smoke detector in a home, better a false positive from cooking than a false negative when the house is on fire. God has designed us to survive and thrive in close relationships: "It is not good for man to be alone" (Gen. 2:18) . Isolation is not only emotionally painful, it can be physically and psychologically dangerous. The lone human in the jungle is not as safe as in the company of his/her tribe. Infants and children obviously need parents to survive. Adults thrive and even heal faster physically and have lower mortality rates when embedded in a web of caring relationships. We know instinctively that without close relationships we are vulnerable. Attachment relationship problems are a contributing factor in most mental illnesses. We need a sensitive system with built-in redundancies to protect our life-enhancing, and life-giving relationships—hence, false alarms. Better a system that alarms too quickly than not quickly enough.
When Ethan failed to greet Amber, she felt disconnected and thought, "What does this mean for our marriage if he so totally takes me for granted and ignores me?” Amber’s alarm system activated to decrease the emotional distance between her and Ethan. Unfortunately, her fear was reflected in her voice. Rather than sounding like an invitation to reconnect, Ethan heard her attacking his performance as a husband and began defending himself. In turn, Amber felt pushed away, alienated, and began pressing more intensely to emotionally re-engage, which only made Ethan feel desperate (his loss of relationship alarm was now sounding too). In this story, the alarms were mostly false—Ethan was preoccupied and did not notice that Amber was home. Ethan and Amber were indeed somewhat disconnected because of divergent work schedules but it was nothing a bit of face-to-face talking, snuggling, and sleep would not rectify. Their relationship was solid, just slightly neglected.
One of the best indicators that a relationship alarm is a false alarm is that it is turned off with relatively minor expenditures of emotional energy: re-engagement, apology, listening, eye contact, physical touch. But false alarms, if not addressed skillfully, can become true alarms—distance can grow, hurtful things can be said and done, and the relationship can be damaged. If Amber and Ethan interpret their feelings of danger for what they are, a loss of relationship alarm, and turn toward each other to reconnect emotionally, they can use the alarm to strengthen their relationship.
In counseling one of the most effective ways I help “alarming" couples turn off their alarms and reconnect is to coach them to confess their wrongs to each other and ask forgiveness. The New Testament writers repeatedly assert that confessing sin and forgiving each other is central to healthy relationships with God and each other (Mk 11:25; James 5:6). Forgiving each other our grievances is the foundation of relationships characterized by compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and unity (Col 3:12-14). Forgiveness keeps the toxic root of bitterness from growing up and poisoning our relationships (Eph 4:31f; Heb 12:15). And it can start with paying attention to “relationship alarms”.
Learn what your loss of relationship alarms "sound" like. Think back over a recent conflict with a loved one. You probably felt alone, misunderstood, neglected, even abandoned, and your best efforts to fix the problem made it worse. What if the primary problem is not that your loved one is uncaring? What if the primary problem is that you are emotionally disconnected and your loss of relationship alarms are sounding? Learn to recognize how you feel when you are out of step with a loved one and find ways to skillfully turn toward each other to reconnect. I think you will find that when you take care of the disconnection problem, the “alarm” indicator will take care of itself.
"With a chemical alarm, you're going to build one that is oversensitive because you would rather the alarm go off and give you a false alarm than to err on the other side." ~Norman Schwarzkopf
"...put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony." ~ Col 3:14