The neuropeptide oxytocin can reduce jealousy in established romantic partners when administered intranasally, according to new research published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. The findings provide further evidence that oxytocin influences the brain in a manner that promotes the strengthening of romantic bonds.
“Jealousy is a widely experienced emotion in romantic relationships and can result in domestic violence and break-ups. In extreme cases romantic jealousy can become pathological leading to a morbid condition termed ‘Othello syndrome,’” said study author Xiaoxiao Zheng, a postdoctoral fellow in the Brain Cognition and Brain Disease Institute at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
“However, relatively little research has been conducted on the causes of jealousy and potential ways of reducing it. The neuropeptide oxytocin has sometimes been referred to as the ‘love hormone’ and is important for the formation of both parental bonds and ones between couples. However, in humans there is increasing evidence that it may also help to maintain bonds by reducing couple conflict and reducing interest in attractive strangers of the opposite sex.”
“My colleagues and I therefore decided to investigate whether we could show that administering oxytocin intranasally might help in maintaining existing bonds by reducing feelings of jealousy towards a partner in a laboratory controlled context where romantic jealousy is evoked in response to imagined or real contexts of partner infidelity.”
The study included 70 heterosexual couples in a stable intimate relationship. The participants first completed a set of validated psychological assessments. They were then randomly assigned to receive a dose of oxytocin or placebo before completing two related tasks in the laboratory.
One task involved imagining their partner committing various acts of emotional or sexual infidelity and then rating their emotional reaction. In another task, the participants were asked to play a virtual Cyberball game with their partner and a stranger. Unbeknownst to the participants, the game was a pre-programmed scenario designed to evoke jealousy by systematically excluding them while the person who they believed to be their partner and the stranger played together.
The researchers found, in both tasks, that participants who received oxytocin tended to report feeling less jealous compared to participants who had not received oxytocin.
“Our study provided the first evidence that an intranasally administered dose of oxytocin can help reduce feelings of jealousy in both sexes and in both real and imagined contexts of partner’s infidelity,” Zheng told PsyPost.
“This further supports a role for oxytocin in helping to maintain romantic bonds but also demonstrates that it may have therapeutic application, particularly in pathological cases. Importantly, oxytocin is released normally in response to warm contact between partners so hugs and touching and kissing may help to prevent a partner from succumbing to the ‘green-eyed monster’ in social contexts involving others.”
The findings are in line with a previous neuroimaging study, which found that oxytocin reduced activation of the anterior cingulate cortex when imagining infidelity.
It is possible that the intranasal administration of oxytocin could be used to treat pathological jealousy. But the researchers cautioned that more work needs to be done.
“At this stage a major caveat is that so far we have only shown a positive effect of oxytocin administration on reducing jealousy in a laboratory controlled context,” Zheng said. “Clearly it will be important going forward to determine whether oxytocin treatment can help alleviate the extreme symptoms of pathological romantic jealousy and also whether encouraging behaviors which promote natural oxytocin release can help to reduce romantic jealousy in everyday contexts.”
“It will also be important to establish the neural mechanisms underlying the effect of oxytocin on romantic jealousy using brain imaging approaches. Given that some individuals are more prone to jealousy than others it will also be important to establish modulatory influences of early negative or positive experiences of attachment and love attitudes.”
The study, “Intranasal oxytocin may help maintain romantic bonds by decreasing jealousy evoked by either imagined or real partner infidelity“, was authored by Xiaoxiao Zheng, Xiaolei Xu, Lei Xu, Juan Kou, Lizhu Luo, Xiaole Ma, and Keith M. Kendrick