Orgasm's Hidden Cycle

Printer-friendly version

You're finished...but your brain has just begun.

throbbing brainOrgasm feels great, and if climax were the end of the story, partners would project the good feelings generated in the bedroom onto one another—and effortlessly dote on each other forever. Few do.

One challenge is that orgasm—especially that "I'm definitely done!" feeling after sex—isn't an isolated event. It's the beginning of a much longer cycle, which often includes subconscious neurochemical signals of discontent that tarnish lovers' perceptions of each other. Consider this verse from the ancient Greek Anthology, which long ago captured the essence of the Coolidge Effect:

Once plighted, no men would go whoring,
They'd stay with the one they adore,
If women were half as alluring
After the act as before!

If you are familiar with the work of Masters & Johnson, you probably think of the "cycle of orgasm" as a brief series of observable genital events: arousal, plateau, climax and refractory period. The experience of orgasm, however, is produced in a primitive part of the brain. Without these neurochemical fireworks, the Big "O" wouldn't feel like an orgasm regardless of what happens in your genitals.

But assuming you're not trying to patent the next billion-dollar sexual enhancement drug, why do you care about the neurochemical aspects of orgasm? Here are two reasons:

1. Neurochemical events can have powerful effects on your behavior, mood and perceptions without your awareness. You probably don't think of sexual arousal as correlating with rising dopamine, or orgasm as equating with surges of endorphins, adrenaline and so forth. Chances are you also don't think of your feelings over the days after orgasm as being linked to a cascade of neurochemical events (fluctuating dopamine and prolactin levels, testosterone receptor declines, etc.).

2. There is growing evidence (details in The Passion Cycle) that this complex neurochemical sequence after orgasm is much longer than the physical events after climax. It may even continue for up to two weeks after you roll over and snore, or look around for more. During this slow, somewhat erratic, return to neurochemical homeostasis after orgasm, it's not unusual to experience intermittent sensations of lack, neediness, irritability, intense horniness and so forth. Most people climax again before the brain brings itself back to homeostasis. Interestingly, evidence suggests that the more thoroughly you sexually satiate yourself—that is, the more intense or numerous your orgasms—the more acute the overall effects on your outlook. For example, it has been observed that the more orgasms women have over a 30-day period, the more unattractive they perceive pictures of unknown men.

The point is that orgasm may innocently be influencing your subsequent moods, cravings, choices, and perceptions—and for longer than you would imagine possible. This hidden cycle and the subtle feelings it brings up are likely to be a factor in the Coolidge Effect. Scientists already know that, after sex, dropping dopamine (the signal for "less rewarding") plays a role in habituation between mates, just a spike of dopamine ("rewarding!") plays a role in the neurochemically induced attraction to novel partners.

Another consequence of the hidden phase of orgasm is the risk of getting caught up in an escalating cycle of seeking more and more intense sexual stimulation to "medicate" the lows in the sequence. But even if you elude this risk (lots of daily affection helps, for example), this hidden cycle may produce ripples in the harmony of your relationship.

Limbic brain

Let's say your neurochemistry hasn't yet bounced back to equilibrium after the great sex you had on the weekend. Because it's normal to project your subconscious mating-induced feelings onto your mate, you may be convinced that you would feel just fine if only your mate would, for example, show some appreciation for all you do, engage in more of your preferred foreplay, or simply put the dang cap on the toothpaste tube. Or you might find the thought of a novel partner (even a two-dimensional one) unusually enticing. As these feelings recur week after week, you may even wonder if you should have married that other person. You know, the one who realized how wonderful you are.

Why would our perception shift for the worse as we satiate ourselves sexually? To make sure we don't go extinct. Inclinations that tend to pass on more genes are conserved. Maybe annoyance in our love lives, with fooling around on the side, or serial romances are ideal scenarios for our genes, whatever they cost us and our families. (Remember, we evolved in tribes, where romantic turnover would have been less harmful to kids.)

Instead of moving to a novel mate, many of us cope with this programmed restlessness in other ways. When your dopamine is low (as it can be from time to time during the post-orgasm cycle), you may feel something is missing, even if you can't put your finger on what it is. Perhaps you console yourself with some self-indulgent spending, too many drinks with pals, or a carton of Häagen-Dazs. Such things automatically reward you with brief surges of dopamine. They are especially seductive when you're feeling flat for reasons you can't fathom.

It's rare for people to see the truth of this underlying cycle's influence on their lives until they experiment. However, couples can usually spot its effects after the high-dopamine honeymoon "booster shot" wears off. To do so, they make love for several weeks using a technique like karezza (lots of bonding behaviors without sexual satiation), and then go back to conventional sex with orgasm. During the first part of the experiment they often grow more sensitive to playful affection, snuggling or gentle intercourse. When we experimented, my husband remarked, "Our kissing reminds me of my first teenage kisses."

Eight years later, he interprets those same feelings as "I haven't fertilized you yet, so my limbic system is still enchanted." No fertilization attempt; no Coolidge Effect. And I continue to look cute (at least to him).

After orgasm, however, there tends to be a subtle shift. Here's what one husband observed (who had assured me he experiences no fallout after orgasm):

Things have been good between my wife and me recently (lots of bonding behaviors and increased closeness), but about 12 hours after a night of great lovemaking, I'm feeling really needy around sex. I HATE that feeling. It is so energy depleting, worse than being sick. Only later did I realize, "Okay, THAT'S what this neurochemical cycle does."

It makes a ton of difference to know what's really going on. I can totally see how this feeling would affect a relationship, particularly if one person felt it while the other didn't, or if they felt it at different times. The touch of a needy person is so different, and quite possibly the opposite of sexy for their partner, and it's so hard NOT to project the feelings onto your partner. "Why doesn't she want to meet my needs?"

The truth is that no partner can fully meet a need that is born of a neurochemical low. No wonder it sometimes seems that we just can't please our mate no matter how hard we try, how much Viagra we invest in, or how many orgasms we deliver.

The passion cycleEvery recovery cycle is unique, which is one reason couples' sex drives may go out of sync. Often, men roll over and snore—and then over the days following experience some irritability or brain fog (forgetting to take out the trash, perhaps), and feel unusually horny. But orgasm catches up with women, too. Said one woman, "After three orgasms last night, in which my man was delighted to be affirmed of his stamina, I feel grumpy, guarded, and as snappy as an alligator." Personally, I notice (or, at least my husband notices) more mood swings in my second week, when I tend to become judgmental and sharp of tongue.

Despite the glories of orgasm, and the many benefits of close, affectionate contact during intercourse, this hidden cycle after orgasm can evoke surprisingly powerful mood changes, which lovers haven't been connecting with the Big "O." That may be changing. Not long ago, psychiatrist Richard Friedman demonstrated that neurochemicals kicked in by orgasm, are apparently behind the depression and irritability of some patients, even those with no sexual hang-ups. When he gave SSRIs to suppress the intensity of his patients' sexual response, their symptoms promptly disappeared (even before the drugs would have influenced emotional disorders).

Could more subtle versions of these neurochemical effects be at work in the rest of us, clouding the sunny skies of our romances? Perhaps striving for balance in our sex lives by adding to our lovemaking repertoire is more beneficial than we've realized.

So, what's going on between our ears after climax? Although scientists haven't been looking for this "passion cycle" directly, researchers questing after the next lucrative sexual enhancement drug have turned up evidence of it. In a future post, I'll share what little is known.

Also of possible interest:

2015 study found half of women have experienced post-coital blues.

Postcoital Dysphoria: Prevalence and Correlates among Males

Men: Does Frequent Ejaculation Cause A Hangover?

Women: Does Orgasm Give You A Hangover?

More on why the healthcare profession has been so far behind the curve with respect to human sexuality

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