A diagram of hormones influencing relationships

The Complex Connection: How Hormones Influence Relationships

Our hormones play a crucial role in life. From maintaining a calm mood to our physical well-being. Surprisingly, they also influence our decisions, which include our relationships.

As a life coach for entrepreneurs, I am obsessed with understanding the science behind our decisions. It helps answer the question of, “If it doesn’t make sense logically, why are we doing it?”

In this article, we’ll talk about how hormones affect our ability to end bad relationships. We’ll explain why sometimes we struggle to leave even when we know it’s not good for us.

Firstly, we need to define some terms. We are going to talk about neurotransmitters and hormones and how they affect your thinking.

Neurotransmitters: How the Brain Speaks to Us

Have you ever felt like moving your hand away quickly when you got close to a flame, because you were afraid you might get burned? Or felt a shivery feeling in your back when you talked about a new project? Your body has a natural reaction to these things, and it has to do with the chemicals in your brain that help your body work. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that send signals in the nervous system, allowing communication between nerve cells or neurons. 

Neurotransmitters: Your Speedy Chemical Messengers 

These chemical messengers send messages from neuron to neuron, back to your brain, and based on what is happening, your brain jumps into action. And it works fast! Non-pain reactions can travel as fast as 70-120 meters per second (m/s) (156-270 miles per hour [mph]), while pain receptors travel at speeds ranging from 0.5-2 m/s (1.1-4.4 mph).

Let’s say it another way. Imagine your nervous system as a messaging system in a city. Non-pain reactions are like express messages that zip through the city at speeds of 70-120 meters per second, equivalent to the fast lanes on a highway. On the other hand, pain receptors are like slower messages taking side streets, moving at speeds of 0.5-2 meters per second. So, it’s like having two types of messages in your city – the quick ones for non-pain reactions and the slower ones for pain signals.

In addition to alerting you to potential situations (painful or not), neurotransmitters can also impact feelings, emotions, and overall mental state.

Neurotransmitters vs Hormones – Similar, Yet Different 

Often times, we think that neurotransmitters are hormones, but that’s not quite accurate. The table below compares and contrasts hormones from neurotransmitters.

 What it doesWhat it doesn’t do
NeurotransmittersNeurotransmitters transmit information quickly between nerve cells using electrical impulses.Cannot move through blood or control body processes like growth, reproduction, and handling stress.
HormonesHormones are chemicals that help control different body functions, like growth, digestion, reproduction and how we handle stress.Cannot quickly communicate with the nervous system. 

Neurotransmitters and hormones have different jobs but sometimes they do similar things. For example, some neurotransmitters can also act like hormones when our body goes into “fight or flight” mode. 

Hormones can also affect how neurotransmitters work in our brain. Sometimes, hormones can influence our behavior in ways that are not intelligent and may pose a risk. In the following section, we will discuss how certain hormones, when elevated, can be harmful to our bodies.

Stress Hormones: Scary. Crazy Love.

Think about going to an amusement park and going on a roller coaster ride. You know it is going to involve an element of surprise, shock, and excitement. There is also risk. You also know there is a risk of riding on an apparatus that can break down or, in some cases, kill you or your baby if you are pregnant.

The same theme occurs goes in destructive, pain-filled relationships. You know that the person you are involved with has maladaptive tendencies. Also, you know they only care about themselves, but you enjoy the excitement of being with a reckless person.

You aren’t to blame – stress hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine can play a significant role in the dynamics of painful relationships, serving both as catalysts and consequences. They get you revved up and ready to go. You may become addicted to the adrenaline rush produced by stress-related chemicals like cortisol, but these hormones can and will kill you in high doses.

What doesn’t kill you will make your immune system weaker

Cortisol, a hormone that is essential in small acute doses for heightening heart rate, sharpening our senses, and increasing physical strength when facing potential threats can be detrimental when its levels are chronically elevated.

Prolonged exposure to stress can will result in a range of physical and mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, digestive disturbances, headaches, muscle tension, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, sleep disturbances, weight gain, and impaired concentration. But just like a crack head to a pipe, some of us are absolutely hooked on cortisol. 

In the next section, we’ll discuss specific neurotransmitters that act as hormones which make us do the most inexplicable things in the name of “love,” or rather, fear of being abandoned and rejected.

Emotion-Inducing hormones

Oxytocin: The Love Hormone

Oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone”, is responsible for bonding and attachment in relationships. Elevated levels of oxytocin can lead to attachment to an abusive or toxic partner and impact our perception of trust and safety in a relationship, even when it is harmful.

Dr. Pat Allen, a former child and family therapist, is well-known for her statement, “As soon as a man puts his penis into your mouth, anus, or vagina, you’re hooked.” Although it is crude, it is a fact.

Looking back to my single years, which were often painful, I remember my expectations for giving and receiving love in romantic relationships with men. These relationships should never have begun. Due to a lack of communication and premature intimacy, I remained in emotionally harmful relationships for an extended period.

The 3 year emotional prison sentence 

Ladies – have you ever wondered why it takes years to stop having romantic feelings for a man even after only dating for a few months? The reason is that when a penis penetrates our bodies, it creates the production of the bonding chemical, oxytocin, causing us to become attached to men who may or may not treat us well. And this chemical bond can last for up to three years. 

The duration of three years makes sense because our bodies were designed to mate and help rear the young. It takes about 3 years for a child’s mirror neurons to fully develop. This is nature’s way of trying to make sure a family unit is present.

Nature doesn’t care if you are in a bad relationship or not; it wants you to have babies. I cannot tell you how many “entanglements” I stayed in for years because of this chemical bond.

Dopamine and the Pleasure-Seeking Brain

Dopamine links to pleasure and reward and is known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. 

Anticipating pleasurable moments with a partner can lead to addictive behavior in painful relationships, and this has been associated with the neuroscience behind the “on-again, off-again” cycle in toxic relationships.

When we focus on the good things while ignoring obvious relationship problems, we experience cognitive dissonance, trying to deny the reality  our relationship. All the brain wants to do is reinforce those positive thoughts that keep us in a blissful state of denial. 

Serotonin and Obsessive Thoughts

Serotonin is known for its role in regulating mood and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Low serotonin levels can lead to obsessive thoughts about a toxic partner. It is challenging to break free from a relationship when obsessed with an partner is in high gear. 

The best way to explain how serotonin can go haywire is through a pop culture reference. In the 1987 movie “Fatal Attraction” starring Glenn Close and Michael Douglas, Close plays a jilted lover from an extramarital affair who exhibits psychotic behaviors. In one particularly memorable scene, she boils up Dan Gallagher’s (played by Douglas) family pet rabbit.

Endorphins and Emotional Resilience

It may seem counterintuitive, but the release of endorphins in response to pain can sometimes enhance emotional resilience.

Endorphins are natural pain relievers created by the body in response to stress and pain. These natural pain relievers trigger the brain’s pleasure centers, effectively numbing physical discomfort and replacing it with feelings of euphoria and contentment.

For people dealing with chronic stress or trauma, endorphins can provide brief relief from the intensity of their emotions. However, this mechanism can lead to a dangerous cycle in abusive relationships. The surge of endorphins that occurs during or after a bout of physical violence can complicate the process of leaving for victims, perpetuating a cycle of abuse and trauma.

Almost dying for attention 

I remember a distressing incident where a woman returned to her husband after he had inflicted severe injuries on her, which required hospital treatment. She declined to press charges, claiming that his actions were not his fault and were due to “job-related stress.” 

One cannot help but wonder about the endorphin-induced high she experienced while enduring her husband’s violent assault, even to the point of losing consciousness.

The image below is a summary of the hormones we discussed. In the next section, we will discuss how you can heal from the hormone effects of being in a pain-filled relationship.

A diagram of hormones influencing relationships

How to heal from the hormonal effects from a painful relationship 

Healing from painful relationships is a complex process. Here are some things that can help you regain balance and emotional well-being if you are in or trying to leave a difficult relationship.

  • Engage in creative and artistic activities. Consider joining an art class, writing poetry or playing an instrument. Artistic activities can help regulate your nervous system and provide pleasure without stress.
  • Drop the drama everywhere. You cannot try to calm your nervous system down while engaging in stress-inducing activities – passive or active. For example, now is the time to cut the cord to shows that are highly suspenseful, dramatic and scandalous. All those shows reinforce the idea in your mind that pain is good.
  • Engage in mindful, intentional nutritional habits. Your diet plays a significant role in regulating your hormones and processing trauma. Engage in mindful and intentional nutritional habits by taking the time to think before you eat and enjoying the taste in your mouth. 

By taking these steps, you can reclaim your life after painful relationships. Next, I will share my final thoughts.

Final Thoughts 

Understanding how hormones influence our decision to stay in painful relationships can shed light on the complex interplay of biology and psychology in human behavior. While hormones can make it challenging to leave such relationships, awareness, support, and self-care are key to breaking free and finding healthier, more fulfilling connections.

If you need help, don’t hesitate to contact me.

If you want to delve deeper about building a healthy and meaningful relationship, click here to listen to this episode from my podcast or press the play button below.