Do Pair Bonders Need Different Sex Advice?

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Are we training for sprints or marathons?

Fork in the roadWhat if the ideal sexual behavior for those who want to maintain a long-term pair bond is not the same as for those who prefer to change partners frequently? Perhaps there should be two norms for the sexually active—depending upon whether they wish to sustain a pair bond, or engage in sex without forming one.

The passion that is so effortless during the "honeymoon phase" of unions fools us into thinking that happy unions are dependent upon continued hot sex. As a result, we currently regard other strategies as dysfunctional. Frequent sex with orgasm for both partners is The Norm. And sexual enhancement pharmaceuticals and mainstream advice prod lovers to conform to it, regardless of their relationship goals.

In my experience, couples can achieve contentment and preserve the sparkle in their relationships without conforming to The Norm. The more I learn about the evolutionary roots of sex, what actually bonds couples subconsciously, and what is hidden in the neurochemical cycle of orgasm, the more sense it makes to codify two norms.

Since orgasm (and producing orgasm in another) feels so great, it seems like a no-brainer that, as Mae West once declared, "too much of a good thing is even better." For pair-bonding mammals like us, this may simply not be the case. Not only may frequent orgasm be less than the panacea it feels like it is, it may actually speed habituation between mates and trigger longings for novelty.

Unfortunately the lovers' honeymoon high—nature's two-year-maximum neurochemical grace period—wears off. That's when observant mates may notice that sexual satiety actually fosters subsequent emotional distance and amps up frustration. Homosexual partners in long-term relationships report that the same habituation creeps into their unions as well. Restlessness typically shows up well after any orgasm, so it's hard to match cause with effect.

Most of us blame this shift on anything but sexual satiety. Usually, when habituation sets in, too much orgasm seems the least of our worries. Nevertheless, the source of the phenomenon is likely to be closely related to perception changes brought on by sexual satiety, i.e., exhausting sexual desire. After all, ninety-seven percent of mammal species engage in sex to satiety—and then lose interest. This is a genetic program. Evidently, tension between this older program and our newer pair-bonding inclination serves our genes, even if it strains our romances.

Today's "orgasm is the cure" advice simply may not work for many long-term relationships (more's the pity). Perhaps we humans need to accept that we aren't the typical, promiscuous mammals who mate in a frenzy and then part to recuperate (unless a novel mate happens by). We are pair bonders. For us, romantic love (pair bonding) can even be a stronger urge  than the drive to have sex. A harmonious pair bond ranks as the top determinant of human happiness and well-being.

We have evolved to benefit both physically and psychologically from close, trusted companionship and daily affectionate touch. Interestingly, other pair-bonding mammals don't engage in a lot of fervent sex. Most of their time is spent hanging out, mutually grooming, snuggling, and so forth. Perhaps for us, too, long-term comfort lies in frequent close contact, lots of gentle intercourse and rare orgasm, rather than vigorous orgasmic sex with little affection in between.

It's useful to keep in mind that neither very frequent / intense orgasm nor affectionate contact are mere physical events. Both trigger neurochemical changes in our primitive limbic brains that alter our moods, drives and priorities—including our desire to remain bonded (or not).

Granted, orgasm always feels like the cure to any problem in the short-term. Yet sexual satiety paradoxically increases subsequent dissatisfaction and a search for more stimulation. It may also make us yearn for a fresh start so we can get high on temporary drug-like honeymoon neurochemistry. In contrast, daily Couple watching plant growaffection is a cue for contented pair bonding. It soothes the nervous systems of both men and women, acting as a natural anti-anxiety, anti-depressant. It eases cravings, lessening the need for frequent orgasmic relief

Now, I know you're saying, "Well, we can have both." Yes, but for how long? Remember, lovers who orgasm frequently are sending each other mixed subconscious cues:  one for "I've had enough; you now look like that fifth slice of pizza," and one for "You are adorable; getting even closer feels good." No wonder mates often feel like they're falling in and out of love as the neurochemical cycle of orgasm produces highs and lows, attraction and aversion.

So how did we come to collapse our sexual advice into a Single Norm for all lovers, whether or not they want a long-term relationship? My theory is that we train our experts to conform to The Norm, so they view "sex" as synonymous with "orgasm."  Their mission becomes: more and better orgasms. To carry it out, they counsel intense sexual stimulation and novelty (short-term libido fixes).

Their research focuses on what arouses lovers and what produces climax—not on what happens after climax. They realize that sex is good, but assume that orgasm somehow bonds lovers without actually investigating which behaviors best sustain harmonious, satisfying pair bonds.

A fundamental distinction between strategies for pair bonders and those not seeking pair bonds could save everyone a lot of confusion and discouragement. Sex partners could steer their behavior toward sprints or a marathon with confidence. Tips for more frequent and hotter sex would be for "sprinters." Tips for careful cultivation of sexual desire and promoting closer bonds would be for "marathoners." Two norms would also reduce antipathy between groups who perceive their particular version of The Single Sexual Norm as either divinely inspired, or unjustly under attack.

And for science buffs: Growing evidence of a lingering post-orgasm cycle (links to studies)


Love More Powerful than Sex, Study Claims

By Robert Roy Britt, LiveScience Senior Writer

posted: 31 May 2005 ET

Sex and romance may seem inextricably linked, but the human brain clearly distinguishes between the two, according to a new study. The upshot: Love is the more powerful emotion.

The results of brain scans speak to longstanding questions of whether the pursuit of love and sex are different emotional endeavors or whether romance is just warmed over sexual arousal.

"Our findings show that the brain areas activated when someone looks at a photo of their beloved only partially overlap with the brain regions associated with sexual arousal," said Arthur Aron of the State University of New York-Stony Brook. "Sex and romantic love involve quite different brain systems."

The study, announced today, will be detailed in the July issue of the Journal of Neurophysiology.

Left side, right side

The study was small, however, involving 17 young men and women, all of whom had recently fallen madly in love. They filled out questionnaires while their brains were hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) system.

Romance seems to steep in parts of the brain that are rich in dopamine, a chemical known to affect emotions. These brain regions are also linked by other studies to the motivation for rewards.

"To our surprise, the activation regions associated with intense romantic love were mostly on the right side of the brain, while the activation regions associated with facial attractiveness were mostly on the left," said Lucy Brown of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

The study also revealed that as a romance matures, so does the mind.

"We found several brain areas where the strength of neural activity changed with the length of the romance," Brown said. "Everyone knows that relationships are dynamic over time, but we are beginning to track what happens in the brain as a love relationship matures."

Love wins

The processing of romantic feelings involves a "constellation of neural systems." The researchers -- neuroscientists, anthropologists and social psychologists -- declare love the clear winner versus sex in terms of its power over the human mind.

"Romantic love is one of the most powerful of all human experiences," said study member Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University. "It is definitely more powerful than the sex drive."

Fisher said the study might suggest some of the physiology of stalking behavior. Other studies suggest that up to 40 percent of people who are rejected in love slip into clinical depression, she said.

"Rejected men and women in societies around the world sometimes kill themselves or someone else," Fisher said.

Animals, too

There are hints in the study that romance is not a uniquely human trait.

Some of the changes seen with mature romances were in regions of the brain also associated with pair-bonding in prairie voles. Other studies have found that expressions of attraction in a female prairie vole are linked to a 50 percent hike in dopamine activity in the brain region that corresponds to the location where human romance is processed.

"These and other data indicate that all mammals may feel attraction to specific partners, and that some of the same brain systems are involved," Fisher said.

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