Beware the brain numbed to pleasure.
Are you gauging the value of your relationship by how often you have sex? Is your mate starting to react to your every gesture of affection as pressure to "get it on?"
If so, you may be victims of a primitive brain mechanism that promises satisfaction—but delivers its opposite. It can put couples out of sync sexually. (This is especially likely after your one-time booster shot of honeymoon neurochemistry has worn off.)
Let's say you act out a sexual fantasy or try a hot, new foreplay technique. You briefly recapture some of the drug-like buzz that characterized your early romance, right? But here's the sinister bit: intense stimulation appears to have the power to trigger lingering changes that can leave mammalian brains like ours more dissatisfied soon afterward.
How? By temporarily dampening the pleasure response of the brain's primitive reward circuitry. For those affected,1 what goes up must come down—and doesn't return to baseline for a while. Deep in the brain, it's as if the scales are tipping until the brain recovers.
There's much still to learn, but it looks like a number of reward circuitry events bouncing around after climax have the potential to desensitize us for a time. First, androgen receptors decline after ejaculation, and take up to seven days to normalize. (That means the effects of testosterone on the reward circuitry are probably blunted for a while, quite possibly affecting outlook.) In addition, opioids released during copulation hang around for a while, apparently causing lingering declines in oxytocin, which hamper sexual responsiveness. As noted above, there is also likely a drop in responsiveness to a neurochemical vital to our sense of well-being: dopamine. In effect, the brain has changed. It now requires more stimulation to get the same pleasure response as before, and sometimes no amount of stimulation will truly satisfy until it returns to equilibrium.
Whatever the precise mechanisms, any decrease in the pleasure response of the brain is bad news for lovers. For one thing, not everyone experiences the recovery from an exciting wallop of neurochemicals precisely the same way—thanks to genetic and gender differences, childhood trauma, or their own habits.
Some of us are simply uninterested in sex until our brains return to their natural sensitivity and orgasm once again seems like a great idea. In others of us, however, the temporary neurochemical (or receptor) drop-off can soon make us feel like we are missing some essential ingredient for our happiness. We are: our ideal sensitivity to pleasure.
The resulting angst strongly motivates us to seek relief now (when discomfort strikes). Due to this "mini withdrawal," we may feel anxious and emotionally distant—and want to ease our tension with another orgasm as soon as possible. Or perhaps we are needier than usual, craving additional proofs of our mate's love—on our terms. Strategies such as these are attempts to stimulate feelings of well-being in a now-sluggish reward circuitry.
Unfortunately, unless you both happen to choose the same "meds" for your discomfort, on the same schedule, your love life can go out of sync. If your mate rebuffs your advances, it may seem like your mate doesn't care enough to ease your distress. Or it may seem to your mate like all you care about is "getting some." Now, you could be seeing the worst in each other, and, perhaps, doubting each other's devotion—all because your mindless, primitive reward circuitry is giving you imperfectly matched impulses as your brains return to equilibrium. Bummer.
These days, you may be advised to become a better lover to try to heat up the partner who's "not feeling it yet" with spicier foreplay, fantasizing during sex, acting out kinkier scenarios, watching porn together, sexual enhancement drugs, or even swapping partners for an evening. One husband remarked,
I was going on the assumption that if she could just enjoy sex more, i.e., have more orgasms, we would have sex more often and my needs would be better satisfied. So, I was always trying to give her a good pounding. Instead she moved out of our bedroom.
In short, logic may result in less overall satisfaction. It may even dim your chances for long-term contentment with your current relationship. Here's why:
"Heat ‘em up" tactics reap short-term results—and hidden costs.
More intense stimulation produces quick orgasms but can further desensitize the brain, so this tactic can increase distress over the following days. Remember, an over-stimulated brain is a desensitized brain. And a further desensitized brain is even harder to satisfy for long. In fact, perpetual over-stimulation may turn your brain into a neurochemical black hole that urgently demands more and more jollies. At the same time, your recovering partner may feel an even greater need for soothing affection...only, or emotional distance.
Although it may seem painfully unfair, negotiating a middle ground may not help. You could need time to restore your brain(s) to normal sensitivity. Allow nature to take its course. Meanwhile, choose activities that comfort without further over-stimulation: exercise, friendly interaction, meditation, time in nature, service to others, and so forth. If possible, engage your mate in generous non-foreplay affection; it will help bring you back in tune.
Desensitization makes infidelity more tantalizing.
Novelty offers a rush of enlivening dopamine—and a novel potential sex partner is one of the most thrilling forms of novelty. That colleague, that person in the online chatroom, or that porn star all look better when your brain is desensitized. And you won't have any idea that all you're really seeking is a dopamine fix. (Our genes use this mechanism to improve their chances of cruising into the future.)
The lure of novelty for a desensitized brain is especially problematic today. We are surrounded by an inexhaustible array of enticing, if often synthetic, sexual stimuli. When we keep "medicating" our recovery discomfort with intense stimulation, our brains can't return to balance. One result is that the grass often looks greener outside a relationship.
Desensitization can interfere with bonding between mates.
Daily affection is normally very soothing and rewarding for pair bonders like us—even if we don't climax. (Even the casual bonobo chimps don't climax each time they get it on.)
But what happens when we're not able to feel subtle pleasures due to temporarily blunted brain sensitivity? The thought of mere affection isn't appealing. It may even register as disagreeable. Instead of tenderness, we may want cave time. Or perhaps we want rougher, or more daring, sex—which is exciting and releases tension, but perpetuates the desensitization problem.
Some of us naturally attempt to equalize out-of-sync libidos by turning to potent sex-aids and masturbation. Unfortunately, today's vibrators and extreme porn videos do their jobs with such intensity that they can further over-stimulate and desensitize the brain. After a time, the thought of normal sex with a familiar partner may no longer power up the urge to merge.
What to do?
Intense cravings for sex are stressful, but loving mates can also suffer over how best to comfort an insatiable sweetheart. Some couples beg, bicker and develop headaches. Some negotiate date nights and sexual favors. Some take jobs in different cities or jobs that require lots of travel, so their brains have time to return to balance. Said one man,
I once worked in a remote fly-in fly-out job, two weeks on, two weeks off. As a result, my wife and I enjoyed the best sex life of our marriage. The homecoming was a moment to be savored, especially whenever I caught the flight that got me home before the kids got home. But we also savored the moment of departure. As she said, "I like it when you get home, and I like it when you go away."
Obviously, the curse of sexual stimulation leading to desensitization and discontent is not a new challenge. Two thousand years ago, Roman poet Ovid advised this cynical cure for love: "Enjoy your girl with complete abandon, night and day—and loathing will end your malady." This may be why sages across the globe developed techniques for managing sex to keep lovers in balance and help sustain the harmony of their unions. Kosher sex, for example, prescribes almost two weeks a month in separate beds.
Remember, your mate's apparent indifference (or single-mindedness) may be nothing more than some sleepy nerve cell receptors caused by too much of a good thing. If so, then your out-of-sync libidos are not anyone's fault. Try addressing the challenge where it arises. Allow your brain to return to its ideal sensitivity. See if greater balance makes subtler pleasures delicious—and by extension, you and your partner look good to each other.
And for science buffs: Growing evidence of a lingering post-orgasm cycle (links to studies)