The addiction of pair bonding

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As many of you know, our book is about the brain chemistry of sex and why the neuroscience of addiction is relevant to lovers. After all, the reward circuitry that the experts are studying to understand the mechanisms of addiction is also at the heart of bonding and mating. Here's more research talking about the overlap between these functions. IMHO, humans need to integrate this information before they can manage their sexual relationships for best results. Otherwise they often tend to keep amping up the stimulation (and the hangovers/desire for separation), which lets biology push them toward novel mates - and  discourage them.

The behavioral anatomical and pharmacological parallels between social attachment love and addiction.

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2012 Aug 11. [Epub ahead of print]

Burkett JP, Young LJ.


Center for Translational Social Neuroscience, Division of Behavioral Neuroscience and Psychiatric Disorders, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, 954 Gatewood Road, Atlanta, GA, 30329, USA,



Love has long been referred to as an addiction in literature and poetry. Scientists have often made comparisons between social attachment processes and drug addiction, and it has been suggested that the two may share a common neurobiological mechanism. Brain systems that evolved to govern attachments between parents and children andbetween monogamous partners may be the targets of drugs of abuse and serve as the basis for addiction processes.


Here, we review research on drug addiction in parallel with research on social attachments, including parent-offspringattachments and social bonds between mating partners. This review focuses on the brain regions and neurochemicals with the greatest overlap between addiction and attachment and, in particular, the mesolimbic dopamine (DA) pathway.


Significant overlap exists between these two behavioral processes. In addition to conceptual overlap in symptomatology, there is a strong commonality between the two domains regarding the roles and sites of action of DA, opioids, and corticotropin-releasing factor. The neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin are hypothesized to integrate social information into attachment processes that is not present in drug addiction.


Social attachment may be understood as a behavioral addiction, whereby the subject becomes addicted to another individual and the cues that predict social reward. Understandings from both fields may enlighten future research on addiction and attachment processes.


Marnia, I am so glad you posted this. I have revisited how to broach this topic over and over again for months. I am very tentative about getting entangled in a relationship. One of the great joys of getting orgasm out of my life has been feeling so free of compulsions. This article basically says what I feel - a relationship is another compulsion. Besides that, oxytocin colors thinking so much that it makes things (and people) seem better than they are. I'm enjoying the sincerity and authenticity I'm experiencing in relationships right now, and don't want to muck it up with lots of oxytocin or the compulsive nature of pair bonding.

I know this line of thinking runs completely contrary to your advice to find a partner ASAP. It feels right for me, though. I am getting plenty of touch through massage, so maybe I am a special case. I have been dating, and having fun, but without the pull of orgasm or lots of consistent oxytocin, nobody pulls me into the vortex.

And another thing

I hadn't thought about this aspect until reading this - the idea of bonding neurochemistry being the basis of addiction itself. I'm not sure I totally buy that, but it's fun to play with. It makes me think of the Buddhist ideal of nonattachment.

It's true I believe there's

an amazing synergy in relationships that can only be tapped fully via intimate exchange and trusted companionship. But that doesn't mean I "disapprove" of people finding whatever works for them. I just like to remind people that there's untapped potential there. Smile

The religious folk tried to sell the idea that oxytocin's bonding properties are addictive a few years part of a warning to women not to fool around before marriage. But there's no science to back that up. By that I mean that if you pump lab animals with oxytocin they don't show signs of addiction or withdrawal. So oxytocin isn't the culprit. In fact, it's just the opposite. Oxytocin eased their use of addictive substances and their withdrawal symptoms if they were hooked on something. The addictive potential in relationships is more about high dopamine and low serotonin (when it's low, as in a new romance, it makes you obsessive). And it often gets worse the greater the neurochemical chaos after too much passion.

A bond requires both dopamine and oxytocin...which is why climax can cause ripples, as both of those neurochemicals drop after climax leaving us feeling a bit...empty and often craving another fix. As Gary explains, "Dopamine is the gotta-get-it part of bonding and oxytocin is the gotta-have-THIS-person part of the forumla." So it's relevant, but not the addictive part of the you're finding.

The human ego loves being "self-sufficient." That's why many of us often dismiss bonding and think everyone would be better off without it.

Here's my thought on this: There's a bell curve for most human traits - including bonding. By that I mean that people at one end of the spectrum will not care that much about bonding, while people at the other will be "ga-ga" about it. Most of us will be in the middle. Why? Humans are pair bonders - because it benefitted our offspring/genetic success more than single parenting. This means our brains register bonds as very valuable...and even "reward" us with lots of genuine wellbeing. These good feelings tend to show up in our lives as less stress, better health, greater abundance and lots of other benefits. "Inner state helps shape external reality" after all.

Not sure if you've read Sex At Dawn, but it's the new polyamory bible and it dismisses the idea that humans are pair bonders (confusing the term with "sexually exclusive" when it really means "socially monogamous"). Dawn is based on a serious misrepresentation of the evidence. If you're interested in a thorough, calm dismantling of its many errors, have a look at Sex At Dusk ( Sex at Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapping from Sex at Dawn: Lynn Saxon)

All that aside, I'm glad you're finding your own path and that it's working for you. A lot of polys like the karezza ideas, and they probably benefit a lot because they don't overload their circuits so much when they pass on the orgasm. That means a lot less exhausting emotional drama too.

thanks Marnia and Clarity

interesting thread. 

I think passages in life are key.

There is a lot of truth to the joy and pleasure of avoiding entanglements especiallly at a certain passage.

But after awhile, most people, not all but most, will crave a long term bond with someone special. Some won't but most will but it depends upon your passage in life.

It's not age exactly although roughly I think in 20s is experimentation passage, 30s becomes more urgent "find someone and settle down" and so forth.

The fact is, the feelings that I've had over the last 8 months are so amazing and pleasurable that I've never encountered anything like it in my life. Nothing has come close. I think if people really had this amazing pair bond and did not have orgasm, many would find the pleasure amazing as I do and would love the pair bond "high".