When you’re in a distance relationship, time seems to go by so quickly.
Even when you’re apart, you look forward to seeing your partner again so much that it doesn’t seem like too long to wait until you are reunited. But how does distance (and time) affect hormones? And how does that impact your relationship? You might be surprised by what the research shows about how both time and hormonal levels impact your relationships over time!
People in long-term relationships have different levels of dopamine, prolactin and oxytocin depending on how far away they are from their partner. The further away they are, the more depressed they become. Prolonged exposure to these hormone changes can alter our behavior—causing a person to act differently around their partner. When we’re with our significant other, we’re actively trying to bring down those negative emotions as much as possible—and it all has to do with dopamine.
Dopamine is one of our pleasure hormones—associated with things like sex, eating delicious food, and when we win a big award. If someone is separated from their partner for a long period of time, they will feel depressed, lethargic, agitated, or sad. The dopamine level has decreased in their system to such an extent that they aren’t feeling well.
But getting back together with your significant other raises their dopamine levels again. That makes them happy and gives them a natural high. This cycle continues as long as you’re close to your partner—and helps explain why couples who have healthy separation & reunion and live together tend to be happier than those who don’t. For example, living together 24/7 can have detrimental impacts on the hormone system leaving feelings of resentment, boredom, and frustration.
When you’re apart from someone you love, your dopamine levels tend to lower. That’s just how it works—and that’s a good thing. A study published in Nature found that when you are in a long-distance relationship, there is a corresponding drop in dopamine.
A lot of people assume that long-distance relationships are doomed, but there’s some good news for long-distance lovers. If you manage to make it through months or years apart from your partner, dopamine & prolactin are usually restored to normal levels.
Since your brain recovers when you finally see each other again, you get that euphoric high—or extreme low if things don’t work out.
High levels of dopamine and a related hormone, norepinephrine, are released during attraction. These two trouble makers (not all the time) cause us to be giddy, energetic, and euphoric, even leading to decreased appetite and insomnia. This translates to being so “in love” that you can't eat or sleep.
During a long-distance relationship, your prolactin levels can increase. Why is that? A study published in Endocrinology found that feeling apart from your partner for long periods of time could be stressful. If you’re having trouble dealing with a long-distance relationship, your body can start to produce more prolactin as a stress response. The hormone oxytocin also declines during a long-distance relationship but increases when you actually see each other again.
Long-distance relationships can be stressful. And when stress levels are high, prolactin levels are higher, too. When you’re with your partner, on the other hand, your oxytocin levels increase. As a bonding hormone, it reinforces feelings of security and attachment with your partner.
A study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found that partners who maintained close physical contact experienced increased oxytocin levels—and reduced stress hormones—compared to couples who were distanced while trying to solve relationship conflicts.
The hormone oxytocin also declines during a long-distance relationship but increases when you actually see each other again. However, this decline can lead to a loss of bonding and feelings of attachment.
This is because oxytocin is released in large amounts during hugging, touching, and orgasm. When it’s not being released as often in your relationship, it may cause a decrease in trust or attachment. Recent research has suggested that VR-type Facetime calls could be helpful due to the increases in oxytocin they saw in subjects during the research.
When it comes to long-distance relationships, many people experience a huge drop in oxytocin levels. But what about when you’re apart for more extended periods of time?
For example, even when a couple is apart for two months, as opposed to two weeks, they can experience reduced physical attraction, negative feelings like anger or hurt, and decreased sexual desire.
As anyone who’s had a long-distance relationship knows, time apart can leave you feeling lonely, stressed out, and missing your partner a lot. As we've learned above, these emotions have a direct effect on your hormones—including testosterone and estrogen. Testosterone is typically associated with more positive emotions (in men, at least), so low levels can lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even anger.
Estrogen levels, on the other hand, are typically associated with more negative emotions like anxiety, sadness, and guilt. When you’re feeling a wide range of negative emotions for extended periods of time, your estrogen levels can drop, leading to symptoms of depression and even an inability to feel pleasure. Estrogen is also heavily linked to your libido. A long-distance relationship can result in a loss of interest in sex as well as vaginal dryness.
While too much time apart can change your levels of testosterone and estrogen, an extended period of togetherness may also have a negative impact on your hormones. One study from 2016 found that women who are in long-term relationships show a significant drop in their sexual desire after one year.
This happened even when both partners were highly satisfied with their relationship. Researchers think it’s because people become comfortable with each other over time, lowering emotional arousal—which ultimately decreases sexual desire.
While long-distance relationships aren’t always ideal, they can prove beneficial in terms of our physiology. New research out of Tel Aviv University indicates that being in a long-term relationship actually impacts how much oestrogen we produce. Oestrogen is one of three main types of sex hormones - known as ‘gonadal steroids’- responsible for many biological processes and plays a role in reproduction.
After taking a sample of saliva from 44 heterosexual women who were either in relationships or single, they had each complete questionnaires relating to their relationship satisfaction. After just one month, they found that women in long-distance relationships produced 15% more oestrogen than those who weren’t.
The researchers of Tel Aviv University found that being in a long-distance relationship actually impacts how much oestrogen we produce. The exact physiological reason for why being in a long-distance relationship caused such a change is unclear, but scientists believe it has to do with a woman’s tendency to ‘protect’ herself from possible future hurt by reducing her sexual availability.
But male physiology was also impacted by being in a long-distance relationship. The saliva from men who were not in relationships produced 13% more testosterone, a hormone responsible for sex drive, than those who were. However, there wasn’t as much variation when it came to oestrogen. Men who weren’t in relationships still produced high levels of oestrogen - indicating that being single had no effect on their hormone levels.
Time spent apart is good for relationships. Whether you’re in a long-distance relationship or simply can’t see your significant other due to work schedules, there are several ways to take advantage of time apart for a healthier relationship.
Start by allowing yourself to be vulnerable with your partner through constant communication. Send daily texts, chat on Skype every night before bed, or use social media to post pictures together—these methods show that you care about each other more than seeing each other face-to-face.
These long-distance habits may seem simple, but they work. Focusing on your partner can help you feel closer and more secure in your relationship. You’ll also be less likely to take them for granted—and wonder what would happen if you were suddenly separated from your significant other for an extended period of time.
Focus on yourself when you’re apart, too. Long-distance relationships can be draining, especially if one partner is working hard to maintain a relationship. Take time for yourself by going to a yoga class or enjoying a glass of wine at home. These are small things that can make you feel more secure about your relationship—and even more connected to your partner.