April 29, 2024

Jewish Matchmaker Journal: The Neurochemistry of Jealousy and Oxytocin

Jealousy is a complex emotional cocktail of insecurity, possessiveness, and fear of loss. From literature to psychology, jealousy has been explored extensively. It’s a common relationship issue that can quickly become a relationship problem. Recent research into the neurochemical underpinnings of jealousy has uncovered a fascinating connection to oxytocin, the hormone attributed to feelings of love, bonding, and closeness.

For those who fight their own strong feelings of jealousy, this news might bring some relief. Maybe it’s not just about being insecure and needy, maybe it’s an inevitable side effect of getting close to another person - the “dark side” of oxytocin, if you will.

Understanding the connection between jealousy and oxytocin might take the onus off of the jealous partner, and lead to a better understanding of feelings and emotional reactions that might truly be out of our control. In this month’s blog, I undertake a layman’s exploration into a scientific theory that sheds some light on how brain chemistry influences our emotional responses.

What is Jealousy?

At its core, jealousy arises from a perceived threat to a valued relationship or possession, be it a romantic partner, friend, or material possession. Evolutionarily, jealousy might have served as a mechanism to protect vital resources and ensure reproductive success. In contemporary society, it often manifests in less tangible forms, such as envy of someone's success or attention.

Jealousy can become a challenging emotion to navigate in a romantic relationship. Jealous feelings are uncomfortable to both the person feeling jealous, and the person who deals with the accusations - which may often be unfounded. Repeated jealous blow-ups usually lead to the breakdown of romantic relationships. Those who suffer from jealous impulses may find themselves in a series of broken relationships, not knowing how to get their jealousy under control.

Oxytocin Pros and Cons

Oxytocin, a hormone associated with childbirth, nursing, and the mother-infant bond has drawn attention for its role in creating feelings of closeness, trust, and empathy. Released by the hypothalamus, oxytocin floods the brain during moments of intimacy such as snuggling, hugging, and sexual climax.

The release of oxytocin creates feelings of closeness and attachment which extend beyond romantic relationships, influencing interactions with friends, family, and strangers. It’s also released when snuggling with and petting animals. Yes, it’s also the chemical that helps form the bond between humans and their pets.

Recent studies have begun to explore the relationship between oxytocin and jealousy, uncovering intriguing findings. While oxytocin is typically associated with positive social interactions, its role in jealousy is more nuanced. Research suggests that oxytocin may heighten sensitivity to social cues, particularly those related to potential threats to relationships. In other words, elevated levels of oxytocin might amplify the emotional response to perceived romantic or social rivals.

One study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), found that participants who received intranasal oxytocin reported greater feelings of jealousy in response to imagined scenarios involving romantic infidelity. The researchers theorized that oxytocin may intensify the emotional impact and response of perceived threats to a valued relationship.

Attachment Style

Oxytocin's influence on attachment styles may also contribute to jealousy. Individuals with anxious attachment styles, characterized by fear of abandonment and heightened sensitivity to relationship threats, may be particularly susceptible to oxytocin-induced jealousy. Conversely, those with secure attachment styles, marked by trust and confidence in relationships, may exhibit less pronounced effects.

As mentioned earlier, oxytocin’s role in jealousy extends beyond romantic relationships. Envy, a form of social comparison rooted in feelings of inferiority or resentment, may also be influenced by oxytocin. Research published in the journal Emotion suggests that oxytocin administration increases envy and schadenfreude (pleasure derived from others' misfortune) in response to others' success. These findings highlight oxytocin's multifaceted role in shaping social emotions, encompassing both positive and negative aspects of social interaction.

Oxytocin's effects on jealousy may be modulated by individual differences, such as gender and personality traits. Studies have found that women, who typically have higher baseline levels of oxytocin than men and are more attuned to social cues, may experience more intense jealousy in response to relationship threats. Similarly, personality traits such as neuroticism and extraversion may influence susceptibility to oxytocin-induced jealousy, with neurotic individuals exhibiting heightened emotional reactivity and extraverts displaying greater sensitivity to social rewards and threats.

Understanding the Chemistry

Understanding the neurochemical basis of jealousy offers valuable insights into human behavior and relationships. Research into the role that oxytocin plays in jealousy may lead to targeted medical interventions. For instance, taking an oxytocin receptor blocker might alleviate jealousy-related distress, offering hope to individuals who stuggle with pathological jealousy.

The connection between jealousy and oxytocin highlights the intricate interplay between brain chemistry and emotions. While oxytocin is traditionally associated with love and bonding, its involvement in jealousy reveals a more aspect of its effects on human behavior.

By unraveling this complex relationship, researchers come closer to unraveling the mysteries of the human mind and the intricacies of our social interactions. For those in relationships with a jealous partner, understanding the biological component of jealousy may allow for a more sympathetic response from the accused parter. All that may be required to counter the destructive nature of intense jealousy is the desire of both parties to navigate the waters of an emotion that naturally arises through bonding with and loving another.