Fear of intimacy among women now has a physiological explanation, according to new research from the University’s Department of Psychology.

The study, led by Robin Edelstein, assistant professor of psychology, measured the hormonal responses of students who were exposed to videos with emotionally intimate content. The results found women who avoid romantic intimacy emitted lower levels of estradiol — a hormone linked with bonding and caregiving — when they watched videos depicting affection. Conversely, women who were generally more intimate showed higher estradiol levels.

While Edelstein explained that other studies have shown a correlation between estradiol and attachment, she hoped that in her experiment she would be able to manipulate the levels of the hormone released and subsequently identify a cause of its increase.

Rackham student Bill Chopik, who worked with Edelstein on the study, said an interesting implication of the research was its ability to challenge commonly held beliefs.

“There’s an assumption that whether it be intimate movies or action movies … we assume they affect people the same way,” Chopik said. “Action movies exhilarate us; intimacy movies make us feel certain feelings, but what’s interesting is that’s not the entire story for everybody… Individuals differ from each other.”

The study was conducted using a sample of 229 male and female undergraduate students who responded to questions regarding their abilities to be intimate in romantic relationships. They were then shown one of three videos that acted as potential stimuli for the estradiol — a film of ocean life, a video depicting children dancing, or a clip portraying a close father-daughter relationship. The participants’ saliva was sampled before and after the film viewing as a way to detect the hormonal changes.

Edelstein and her team chose an intimate clip that portrayed a close, but not romantic, relationship with a father and daughter as a way of eliminating the sexual hormones and focusing on the emotional ones.

“We got the research showing that there are a lot of hormone changes that come along with viewing sexual kinds of images, but not this specifically intimate quality,” Edelstein said. “We thought that using a parent-child interaction would separate that sexual component and get that out of it.”

However, Edelstein predicts that the findings would also be relevant to romantic relationships.

While both men and women participated in the study, there was a dramatic difference in the hormonal activity of each gender. Even men who reported to be intimate in relationships showed virtually no change in estradiol levels when exposed to the videos.

While the study did not offer an explanation for the discrepancy between men and women, Edelstein speculated that the difference could be due to different estradiol sensitivity levels between men and women.

“We’re wondering also though whether woman identified with the video clip more,” Edelstein added, referring to the father-daughter relationship depicted. “So that’s another thing we might like to try is maybe (use) a different kind of clip that would elicit the same response for avoidant men.”

Considering the findings of the study, Tim Davis, associate director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University, said personality types also have a large influence in determining how an individual approaches relationships. He also stressed the role that socialization and life experience play in shaping attitudes towards intimacy, citing the effect trauma may have on one’s ability to form attachments.

“Sometimes that might just mean a really severe emotional letdown on the part of someone who’s close to them,” Davis said. “Sometimes it means a real violation of trust or sexual abuse that makes it hard for people to trust enough to be emotionally intimate as adults.”

However, according to Chopnik, the early childhood socialization approach and the hormone responses found in the study are by no means exclusive of each other. He said attachment theory — which examines the impact of childhood experiences on subsequent relationships and interactions — was an important consideration and basis for the study.

He added that early socialization affects hormone responses in later life, describing it as a bi-directional relationship.

“Hormones influence how we behave, and how we behave influences hormones,” Chopik said.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.