Relationships can be stressful at times and those who are unfortunate to have their closest relationships also be their primary source of stress are likely to be experiencing corrosive effects on their health. Shelley Taylor and her colleagues have summarized a that demonstrate how the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone are deeply linked to the stress response. Most of our understanding for how both humans and animals reacted to stress was from the classic “fight or flight” model.
What we now know is that women are more likely to seek out social support and engage in care giving when stressed whereas men are more likely to engage the fight or flight response. You can start to see that what women and men start out with biologically might be a source of misunderstanding when couples are under stress.
Once an argument starts, the stress response engages. She wants to affiliate, draw closer, and talk about the problem. His body is preparing for increased aggression and since modern society discourages spousal abuse he may tend to be more inclined to seek avoidance by disengaging.
Again, oxytocin is involved here but as the points out the pathways are complex and somewhat contradictory. Oxytocin appears to work together with endogenous opioids, our own feel good neurochemicals, to make social bonding pleasurable. Sex hormones play a critical role since androgens inhibit the stress-induced release of oxytocin, while estrogen enhances the stress buffering effects of oxytocin.
Interpersonal situations matter such that when her affiliative efforts are unsuccessful, the biological stress response increases by way of the sympathetic nervous system and HPA axis activation. When support seeking is reciprocated the opiod system engages to reduce sympathetic nervous system and the HPA axis limiting the amount of cortisol and other stress hormones in the bloodstream.
Oxytocin can therefore be at high levels when we are bonding with loved ones and also when we are feeling rejected, perhaps as a signaling system to increase efforts to seek out secure relationships. Often times when we fight with our partner there is no one else to turn to for satisfying the body’s need for compassion and caring. Perhaps this is the reason we turn to alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and comfort food when we are stressed, especially when that stress involves our closest relationships.