Open Letter to Sex Researchers

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Submitted by Marnia on
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alienated coupleSee Forbidden Sex Research: The Orgasm Cycle for some updated information about the points made here.

I am very interested in the attraction-repulsion dynamic in intimate relationships — and I am wondering what role, if any, the neurochemistry of orgasm (sexual satiation) may play. Various recent studies have demonstrated a "fall off" in mutual attraction between intimate partners at about two years. For example, testosterone levels diverge in men and women over that period, nerve growth factor drops off at about two years. 1

Yet it is not uncommon for partners to experience an almost immediate desire to get away from a lover after sex. Think of Billy Crystal talking to a male friend in When Harry Met Sally, "30 seconds after I make love to woman I want to run away." I've heard similar statements from some women: "After orgasm I don't want my husband to touch me; I retreat to my side of the bed."

An Ohio State University study 2 showed that, even among the most well-adjusted newlywed couples, the glow had faded by the second year of marriage. Helen Fisher found that actual divorce peaked in year 4 across 58 cultures, except in Muslim cultures where divorce was acceptable…there it peaked much sooner.3 Clearly many relationships erode early on. For the purposes of this discussion, never mind possible individual psychological explanations. What could be going on in our mating neurochemistry that might account for this phenomenon? And could it also be affecting the long-term health of our relationships? Is it possible that the "two-year" drop off is avoidable?

Post-orgasm neurochemistry

Oxytocin - One thing that usually happens in both men and women at orgasm is a sudden rise (and swift fall) of oxytocin, "the bonding hormone." Within minutes of orgasm it returns to baseline levels in both sexes. What purpose does this spurt serve? Journalists often imagine that it bonds us. But if the purpose of this orgasmic burst of oxytocin is to bond us, it seems to create a very undependable bond - unlike the parent/child bond, guru/devotee bond, or even a bond with a pet, all of which are activated neuronprobably also dependent upon oxytocin.

Some researchers have surmised that this orgasm-related jump in oxytocin has little to do with bonding, and is rather related to orgasmic contractions (oxytocin is associated with other smooth muscle contractions like labor and milk letdown). 4 Or, perhaps, that this jump creates feelings of satisfaction, or even satiation. Why then is it so brief?

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Prolactin - Although oxytocin usually rises at orgasm, there is one neurochemical event that is considered an even more reliable marker of climax in both sexes: a rise in prolactin. 6 Prolactin levels remain high for as long as they have been tested (60 minutes). Prolactin, of course, does many things in the body, but after orgasm it appears to act as a sexual satiation mechanism. (It does not rise following sexual activity without orgasm.)

I find it intriguing that other research about prolactin (not in connection with sex) reveals that high prolactin is associated with many symptoms that match exactly what lovers complain of as their romances go sour: declining libido, mood changes, weight gain, hostility (in women). (The hostility was particularly noted in women who did not have tumors in the pituitary. 7 I wonder if these women were suffering from relationship stress — more on that below.)

Prolactin is also associated with long-term stress and despair. Newly-caged wild monkeys showed high cortisol levels, but as the hopelessness of their situation caught up with them, prolactin began to rise. It was highest in those caged longest, even seven months later. 8 neurochemical

Women whose relationships are not going well show surprisingly high levels of oxytocin, which do not counter their stress. 9 (Generally, oxytocin has been shown to counter the effects of cortisol, as well as depression and addiction.)

I wonder if it will turn out that the prolactin levels of these women with relationship distress are also abnormally high. Oxytocin and prolactin interact a lot in pregnancy, birth and childrearing. Perhaps they do here, too. (Post-orgasmic prolactin surges have now been found in women.)

Dopamine - A third neurochemical event that accompanies orgasm is a dramatic rise in dopamine in the reward circuit, which drops sharply after orgasm. Low dopamine can produce uncomfortable psychological effects. 10 And dopamine and prolactin have an inverse relationship. As my husband puts it, "dopamine seems to be the foot on the gas, prolactin a foot on the brakes."

Low dopamine is a key part of any addictive cycle. After an intense high, it drops unnaturally low. At that point, the addict often desperately seeks relief, usually in the form of another dopamine-elevating activity or substance (orgasm, alcohol, gambling, drugs…). It appears that we have evolved to remain in an addictive cycle of highs and lows where sex is concerned, unless we learn to make love in a more deeply satisfying way.

Testosterone - Testosterone receptors decline for up to a week in sexually-satiated male rats. 11 Perhaps humans experience similar, long-lasting changes. I believe that the sexes have much in common in their post-orgasm neurochemistry…but I also think there are different tendencies, perhaps due to the fact that women make more oxytocin naturally, and the fact that men have more testosterone. (More on this point)

The problem of projection

Whatever the gender, our theoretical post-orgasmic lover sees the relationship through a neurochemical haze: high prolactin, low dopamine, baseline plasma oxytocin, and (possibly) fewer testosterone receptors. It is worth noting here that healthy levels of both dopamine and oxytocin seem to be required to maintain a strong pair bond, so when dopamine drops it may affect a couple’s emotional tie. Certainly, this neurochemical combination feels vastly different from the pre-orgasmic neurochemical cocktail of high dopamine and low prolactin.

This brings me to the most critical point that researchers tend to overlook. How we feel has the potential to change how we perceive our partner and thus how we behave toward our partner. anxietySo for example, if post-orgasmic low dopamine and high prolactin leave us feeling depleted or needy for a time,12 then we will tend to see our partner as overly-demanding or selfish and insensitive. (And if our partner is in the same state, he or she may actually temporarily be selfish or needy.)

I wonder if this perfectly natural change in perception - brought on by projection stemming from the neurochemical changes inherent in fertilization-driven sex - is at the root of the "repulsion" phase of the "attraction-repulsion" phenomenon.

Over time, as the amygdala begins to associate one's lover with these unfortunate perceptions, one may even naturally become defensive and resentful toward a lover. Perhaps this explains why the honeymoon generally only lasts a year or so. Mankind assumes that the orgasm cycle is "foreplay and orgasm…end of story." But having observed our own behavior for years (in connection with exploring Daoist lovemaking in which orgasm is avoided), my husband and I believe that the orgasm cycle is far longer at a neurochemical level. We have noticed mood swings, emotional friction, and addictive cravings as far out as two weeks after orgasm.

We have also noticed that when we are consistent with the practice, our relationship is remarkably harmonious, cravings are less, and my husband's chronic depression is absent (he was able to stop a six-year course of prescription antidepressants a year after we got together, over a decade ago).

While no tests have been done on the neurochemical effects of orgasm as far out as two weeks (it would be very difficult to do so, given the many variables that affect levels of the key neurochemicals), we did find research showing that prolactin surges for two weeks in female rats after mating, whether or not they become pregnant.13 Also, addicts withdrawing from cocaine (high dopamine activity) have unusually high prolactin for about two weeks.14

Since brain scans of men having orgasm resemble brain scans of people shooting heroin, 15 and testosterone receptors decline for up to a week in sexually-satiated rats, 16 it is quite possible that the body does take a while to return to homeostasis…and that partners' perceptions of each other often suffer, off and on, throughout that period. Our best guess is that prolactin may be one of the chief culprits, at least in women, and that it may surge up and down before returning to baseline levels, which would account for mood swings during that time. Also see Men: Does Frequent Ejaculation Cause A Hangover?

Why a built-in separation mechanism?

Why would evolution neurochemically engineer us to sour on our partners after engaging in fertilization behavior? To improve the genetic variety of our offspring - as is the case for almost all other mammals on the planet. Mankind assumes that it's designed to form stable pairs to make us better parents, but our brains evolved while we lived in tribes. Pair-bonds may have presented little advantage where children were raised, in effect, by an entire tribe.  (Certainly two hunter-gatherer tribes, the Kung! And the Mehinaku, show the pattern I'm describing: lots of romance and sexual relationships…and lots of churning in relationships and heartache.)17

It's also likely that we evolved from species that had fixed estrus periods, and it would not be surprising to discover that prolactin — a neurochemical closely tied to pregnancy — is still, indirectly, the mechanism that moves us on to new (or additional) partners by turning us off of old ones. (We believe that the neurochemistry behind this mechanism is behind the Coolidge Effect. 18) Indeed, perhaps this mechanism that tarnishes our perception of a partner after particularly intense sexual stimulation is part of an old "binge trigger" related to mating season from before our ancestors became pair bonders.

Finally, I’ll crawl way out on a limb and admit that I wonder if prolactin may play a role in some people's urge to move toward seeking increasing sexual stimulation. Research shows that prolactin rises 400% more after penile-vaginal intercourse than after other types of orgasm. This was hailed as proof that it was more satisfying. I think a better Nietzsche description might be "more satiating." If one is sexually frustrated, then "relief" might seem like satisfaction, but too much such "satisfaction" may actually decrease libido at least toward one's partner — due to the projection problem mentioned above. Perhaps Friedrich Nietzsche was onto something important when he said: Ah, women. They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent.

Sex play without penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) may feel less depleting (and therefore more appealing), because it does not produce the same dopamine-suppressing neurochemical "hit" as fertilization-style sex. (Is it because the "job" isn't done yet that prolactin levels don't rise as high?) Sexual play sans PVI could still be addictive with a novel partner partner (due to the addictive dopamine high/low cycle), but the aftermath might not be as…unsettling…at a gut level due to less prolactin.

Anyway, there you have my question:

Could the neurochemistry of orgasm (via projection) play a role in the attraction-repulsion dynamic so often experienced in intimate relationships?

Thanks in advance for any thoughts that anyone may have to offer below.

Comments

I saw "Harry, Sally," I

I saw "Harry, Sally," I found it disturbing he could only have a close relationship with a woman if he wasn't having sex with her. And that was portrayed as normal. I think she could do much better than that. Couples leaving immediately after sex- not in love, no? Welcome your thoughts on this Marnia.

Thanks for your comment

After talking to people for 15 years, I'm not so sure you're right. I think some people really have a VERY powerful reaction to the dopamine drop-off (or other neurochemical changes that follow orgasm). This doesn't mean they aren't loving. It just means that their perception shifts radically, and they feel like bolting. I had lovers like that...and weeks later they would often be back, telling me how much they loved me. They meant it...but generally hot sex would set the SAME cycle in motion. Why do you think I got so interested in trying to figure this out???

It may be that as more and more kids are raised without warm, loving extended families, they rely more and more on the dopamine (instead of the oxytocin) reward system, mistaking it for well-being. This leaves them very vulnerable to dopamine swings. (Oxytocin appears to counter the distress of dopamine drop off.) This is just a theory, but I think science will one day see its validity.

Meanwhile, my real point is that I am increasingly less judgmental about the Billy Crystal characters of the world. Many ARE trying to love. They just aren't doing very well, and the way they manage their sexual energy may be contributing to the ugly phenomenon portrayed in that movie.

Feed back

Hello, Marnia,
My name is Orlin Baev, Bulgarian.
My live story is rich in events, different job positions in my country of origin, Bulgaria, and abroad. I was a sailor for three years in “Royal Caribbean” company, agriculturist in the Canadian Rockies for two years, etc.Now I am finishing my second higher education - Psychology (the first one was agriculture ). My inner journey is going on already 16 years, including interests in various esoteric fields. Already for 10 years I am practicing meditative sex with control on orgasm. That's why I understand every word in your site in its true sense!
Sexual energy, libido, kundalini, doesn't matter how we name it, is the force that leads every aspect of our lives: emotional, intellectual and behavioral! The proper understanding and mastering of this power is the key to prosperity and well being! I can write a lot about this, but let me answer to your question: “Could the neurochemistry of orgasm (via projection) play a role in the attraction-repulsion dynamic so often experienced in intimate relationships?”
Actually, you have given the answer in details all over through the articles in your site – and, what is the most valuable, you have strengthen the olden wisdom of the ancient knowledge with the facts of the contemporary biochemistry! My personal answer is: Yes, the kind of sexual act and orgasm reflects immediately on the overall emotional atmosphere in the interactions of the couple! Not unlike the majority of the human population, I have also experienced the crude negative aspects of the “normal” orgasm for many years. Even now, when I am not very strict with the practice, or have to make kids :) , I still experience it. It is loss of the ability to feel the beauty, loss of the enchanting sense of life, lack of subtle tenderness and completeness. Instead of that after ordinary ejaculation I feel depleted not only hormonally, but also emotionally and spiritually! And, as you have noticed, for complete recovering is needed about two weeks (I am astounded to see conformation of my own observations), and for partial, at least 3-4 days. And, during this time, the partner becomes mere reflection of ones inner state of mind! It's terrible!
From another hand, the sex of valley orgasm, or meditative uniting, as I prefer to think about it, has made me feel such a states of mind, that can be experienced otherwise only through the meanings of meditation or artificial stimulation through drugs. In the Transpersonal Psychology such a states are described as “Dual Unity” and “Identification”. Identification with ones inward true Self, the whole being and the partner – simultaneously! This kind of sexual unity makes me as happy and balanced, as no static meditation or any sensual pleasure can! And, as you have perfectly explained, it brings enthusiasm, brings back the child feeling of simplicity(here and now) and bliss. The mere sexual urge becomes fuel, that propels my mind toward exceptional states of mind, beyond the ordinary logic and perception. The tiredness of the usual sex vanishes, replaced of virility and harmony. These states of mind are being directly projected in the interpersonal social interactions and the exchanges with the partner - as love, tenderness, acceptance and agreeableness!
A lot of words can be written about that! :)

Be Healthy!!!

I am guessing that the fact

I am guessing that the fact that people want to be "left alone" by their partner after experiencing intimacy is due to the fact that these hormones and emotions of "connectedness" are released during orgasm and need a little while to recharge. I do not think it has to do with human evolution, just the simple fact that serotonin is released at a enormous rate during the act of love making and both partners experience a "low" of serotonin after the act (think of a drug user).

Andrea

The point is

that over time these subconscious shifts (and the projections they engender) can drive lovers apart at an emotional level. This usually happens within two years...at some level...even if partners stay married.

Clearly, we have to do something differently, if we want different results.

Guyland

Hi Marnia,

I'm convinced that sexual energy and creative energy and intellectual energy and even spiritual energy are all the same energy.

A book called Guyland is being reviewed right now. One such review says the author, Kimmel "makes a persuasive case" that the very bedrock of Guyland is an effort on the part of every unmarried man to prove "constantly and repeatedly" that he's not gay.

If that's true, I'd like to supply the following exerpt from a Ruth Prawer Jahabvala novel--the main character narrating is a Western woman in India:

"Of course, she had got used to seeing boys and men everywhere strolling around with their hands intertwined and interpreted it as a friendship more high and lofty than anything known in the West. Besides, Ravi was not in the least inclined that way, as Marietta well knew from her conversations with Sujata. Sujata loved to confess everything and what she confessed was astonishing to Marietta, especially as she never saw the least flicker of anything between her and Ravi--who indeed called her Auntie and comported himself toward her with the respect due to the mother of his friend. But when Sujata spoke of him to Marietta, she was sometimes sly and sometimes shy, and she looked down to play with her bangles and then up again to laugh. She managed to make Marietta understand that, in spite of his youth, Ravi was a cunning and a daring lover. Sujata thought that she would probably burn in hell for what she did with him, but for the time being it was worth it."

Such healthy erotic yet platonic friendship going on here, which I so admire, I thought I'd share. Wink

-Galileo

I always enjoy your contributions

I, too, believe that our life force energy is our sexual and spiritual energy. In fact, it seems to me that the more people "awaken," the more critical it becomes to handle their sexual energy with respect. Kind of a one-way street....