Sometimes when you break up with someone it can feel like you are physically going through withdrawal without them in your life. You can be super intelligent, pretty independent and otherwise emotionally stable and still have trouble with a break up. Even if that person wasn’t very good for you. Why does this happen?
Well in the scientific world there is this chemical called, oxytocin, which is released during orgasm. Even cuddling and affection can release this chemical which supposed to help bond the relationship. It is the same chemical that causes mothers and their babies to bond. The more time you spend cuddling and having sex with someone, the more emotionally bonded you will feel.
This is a good thing for long term relationships because it helps the couple want to put in the effort to make the relationship work. Oxytocin tends to bring out feelings of contentment, lessens anxiety, and can increase trust in a person. This is why a break up can seem catastrophic. Even if this person has emotionally hurt you, if you’re still having sex with them, you may still feel very bonded. It then becomes easy to see why you might freak out if your boyfriend or girlfriend tries to leave you. Your friends and family are quick to encourage you to move on, but you still feel like you’d do anything to get this person back.
You aren’t crazy, you just feel less anxiety initially when that person texts or Facebook messages you after you break up. You feel calm and think all is right with the world. However, tension and conflict can quickly increase again because the chemical oxytocin isn’t a miracle worker. It won’t fix the problem or conflict, but it makes it hard for people to walk away from each other even when there is a ton of drama and conflict involved.
This is also why friends with benefits doesn’t always fly. If you start having sex with someone often even though your intention is to keep it casual, your brain and heart could get mixed signals. You may feel you really miss this person once they stop sleeping with you. This is because you accidentally bonded with them. If they were able to find someone else to “bond” with then you can feel like you were abandoned out in the cold. Your head says you have no right to be upset because you knew the rules about keeping it casual. However, your emotions didn’t quite get that message because oxytocin got in the way!
It is also true that men and women feel the effects of oxytocin in different degrees. It is said that men’s levels of oxytocin rise 3-5 times higher during orgasm. However, women’s rise even more plus continue to rise during subsequent orgasms. Women also have more oxytocin neural receptors in their brain, so the effect can be more intense. Women may feel somewhat down after casual sex. This happens because of increased levels of oxytocin due to orgasm makes them want to stay bonded with the person, but there is no one to cuddle with afterwards. One study implied women may also have more addictive relationship patterns because they feel love and loss in relationships more intensely due to increased oxytocin.
Does this mean women can’t have casual sex? No, but it does mean you want to be informed about what can happen. Be aware that it may be easier for women to become attached during casual sex. Be firm with your boundaries and be smart about the risks you want to take. It is also true that not all men and women are alike. Some men may produce more oxytocin than normal, some women may produce less. Know yourself and learn from your past relationships. If you play, sometimes you’ll pay. Sometimes you may feel a little sad. Sometimes it’s worth it. Other times it isn’t.
Also, be aware that break ups take some time to get over for this reason plus other complicating factors I’ve discussed in other posts. If you hug your partner at least 20 seconds a day you will feel more bonded. That is about how long it takes for the chemical to be released in your system. If you’ve had that in your life for awhile and then suddenly it’s gone, it is going to hurt. You will feel some withdrawal symptoms. Give yourself some time to adjust and don’t be afraid to ask friends and family for a hug instead of advice when you are going through a break up. A hug may help a whole lot more than them telling you to just get over it.
If you want to read more about oxytocin, this article in Psychology Today may be helpful to you.
Excellent article Becca. I will pass this on to a few clients who are struggling with break ups…and the withdrawals.
Thanks for reading Deb! I appreciate the positive feedback!
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