There’s a Vole in My Heart…

Sometimes love – the romantic, squishy kind of love – can be pretty frustrating. I’m not even talking aobut the vagaries of trying to deal with another person on an emotional level. I mean the very basis of love, the “Oh, my, I’m having these feelings for that person? Well, that’s durned inconvenient…

It’s well documented (and often entertainingly explained) that the basis of attraction and the emotions we tend to bundle around the word “love” are based in neurochemistry. We really have very little control over who “feels” right to us – although there are some indications that meds such as the pill can make the exactly wrong person feel right.

Worse, the neurochemicals are consistently variable – causing things like the “honeymoon period” and the “seven year itch” and more. At some point, if you pay attention to your friends and acquaintances, you can start to see patterns in the rise and fall of relationships. The members of a community pair-bond, seem to thrive, and then somehow drift apart, leading to despondency until everyone does a kind of “shift one partner to the left” and the do-si-do starts again.

Like I said, it can be frustrating. Sometimes it feels like we are all doomed to be castaways on a sea of endorphins and oxytocin, inconstant as the tides (yet just as predictable).

In-Vole-Untary Breakups

Perhaps a jealous vole?

Of course, if  being in love makes you feel helpless, how much worse is it when the relationship is over – for some completely legitimate, logical, rational reason like infidelity, religion, finances, distance, or Obama’s birth certificate – and yet you still have that feeling for the absent partner? You can do the smart thing, the intelligent thing, and still feel like it’s just the end of the world for you – despondent, foods have lost their savor, etc.

Here’s the good news: you’re not pitiful for feeling that way! Recent research shows that stuff is also part of the neurochemical process.

The research is done on the prairie vole, an animal relationship scientists love to study because they act the way most human dramatists like to pretend we do. That is, they pair bond – I mean, really pair-bond, til-death-do-us-part monogamy. The way that conservative marriage proponents believe humans are supposed to (at least, the heterosexual ones).

The tests were on three groups of voles:

  1. One group had formed “fraternal” bonds, with same-sex (male) voles.
  2. One group had formed pair-bonds with heterosexual mates, and was allowed to stay with them.
  3. The third group was the Broken-Hearted Vole group: they’d been allowed to pair-bond, and then had been torn asunder from their mates.
Yeah, science is cruel. But it gets crueller.

The Pit of Despair, and More!

They subjected the male voles (no mention is made of the females, and I’m not sure why; perhaps the book would explain why) to a series of survival-based tests. Things like: you’re drowning! How hard will you paddle? Or You’re being dangled over a pit! How hard will you try to climb up your own tail and escape? 
I think the equivalent would be me being presented with a room in which there is nothing but one big red shiny button, with the clear label: don’t push this.
The fraternally and happily-pair-bonded voles fought like hell to survive. The broken-hearted ones? Just kind of gave up. No paddling, just lay there, waiting to drown (turns out even that was frustrated, as voles float). Pit of Despair? Just dangled there “like old laundry.”
Watching the videos of them bob limply, it’s easy to imagine them moaning out “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” with their tiny vole voices.

It’s Not Your Fault. It’s Chemistry

In short, that time when you feel totally worthless because you can’t bring yourself to move off the couch or out of bed just because you aren’t with that special someone any more? NOT YOUR FAULT. It’s just as much a part of the neurochemical sea as that initial attraction.
At least, it does if you’re a male prairie vole. Unfortunately, humans have more in common with bonobos, but we’ll just leave that to the Sex At Dawn folks to explain some other time.
What’s even more interesting to me is that they found that both of the pair-bonded voles had a higher amount of the stress hormone corticosterone than the fraternally-bonded voles. The sundered heartbroken voles had the highest, and by blocking those receptors scientists were able to “cheer up” the heartbroken ones.
But even the pair-bonded voles had a higher amount of the stress hormone – they just didn’t seem to have it affect them as long as they were with their partners. It’s like they were infected with a poison at the moment of pair-bonding, but their partner was also the antidote. As long as they were together, they could function normally.
Isn’t that romantic? It might help explain that whole “why the heck do they stay together?” question you know you’ve asked a time or two. It may be that the fear of letting go is more than psychological; it may be a survival mechanism against drowning or Pits of Despair.
At least, if you’re a male prairie vole.


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