Biology's Mandate to Separate

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couple kissing in bedcouple arguingHave you ever fallen in love? And then, just as quickly, fallen out of love? Well, perhaps it wasn't due to something you did…or even something your partner did. More likely, the culprit was something you both have in common…namely the chemical changes that mating behavior naturally triggers in the brain's limbic system.

This system is found in all mammals. It governs our drives, our emotions, our gut reactions. It determines whether we fall in and out of love. It is the seat of the reward circuit, which motivates much of our behavior. It's not the home of higher thought processes. You can't think your way into a deep emotional bond, or stay in love by force of will.

Your limbic system's influence on your love life often causes chaos, but it is not operating at random; it has an agenda. It's why humans - like virtually all mammals - are not naturally 100% sexually monogamous. We are programmed to fall in love. But also to fall out of love…or at least to pursue multiple relationships.Reward circuit in limbic system of brain Why? Because biology would prefer that we have children with different partners. This improves the genetic variety of our offspring…and our genes' chances for immortality.

In other words, romantic attraction - that compelling drug-like high that anthropologist Helen Fisher writes about - is not simply the precursor to bonding us to enable us to attach emotionally and live happily ever after. Just as often it serves to get us out of existing relationships - or pull us toward secondary ones.

This built-in separation impulse is behind a lot of things we don't like about human sexuality: the one-night-stand, the emotional friction that often builds between intimate partners, infidelity, and even sexless marriages. Perhaps you saw the Newsweek article "No Sex Please, We're Married?" It appears that only 13% of couples are natural "swans." The rest of us seem to experience this subtle shift in one form or another, even if we stay together as couples.

These days we may be using birth control, but our behavior is still motivated by the part of the brain that evolved to propel genes into the future. So, if you experience intense symptoms when you fall in love, or easily get hooked on hot sex, or quickly lose interest in your partners, you can thank your ancestors and all the fooling around they did. You are the product of their inadvertent breeding program. True, some couples stay together longer than others, but experts estimate that, on average, we're only designed to stay with a partner for the time it takes to get a child on its feet - less than 4 years.

What touches off erosion in our relationships? Have you ever had a wonderful friendship with someone you liked and admired that turned into a love affair? Did the easy harmony between you deteriorate not long after you became intimate? What on earth happened? This is a perfect example of the neurochemical shift I'm talking about.

Your passion over-stimulated your limbic systems. Mission accomplished (after sex), that intense high then triggered a neurochemical low, or "hangover." What you felt influenced how you saw each other. So at first you saw "Mr. or Miss Right." Days later you saw "Mr. Hyde," or perhaps, "Medusa."

The key insight is that there's a neurochemical hangover built right into conventional sex. When it kicks in during the days after an encounter, it can alter your perception of your partner for the worse, and your behavior. And you're not aware of it. It's subconscious. In my experience this hangover can distort perception for up to two weeks - producing feelings of annoyance, or even repulsion toward one's lover, weepy over-reactions, and wild attraction to others. It's the bad news about mammalian sexuality.

neurochemistry of sex chartBecause the worst effects can be delayed, the link between cause and effect is well-hidden. All we know is that after a while - as this pattern repeats itself and things deteriorate - our "honeymoon ends." Our biological blueprint simply does not often support the Western ideal of "they lived happily ever after." In fact, when anthropologists studied primitive, sex-positive societies - believed to be the best representatives of our ancestors - such as the !Kung of the Kalahari and the Mehinaku of Amazonia, sure enough, the underlying biological pattern I'm describing showed up. Lots of impulsive sexual behavior and romance - and constant churning in intimate relationships, with much attendant heartache.

Obviously some couples seem to withstand this neurochemical assault better than others, but, as the old saying goes, "the honeymoon lasts less than a year." Indeed, a study at Ohio State confirmed that this is true even among the most well-adjusted couples with everything going for them.

After this predictable honeymoon period, many couples part. The Census Bureau predicts that one in two new marriages will end in divorce. Other couples stay together, but they haven't solved the problem; they philander, or lose their sexual desire and stagnate. Other couples seem all right, but rarely have sex due to professional or child-rearing demands, incompatible sleeping habits, chronic ailments, and so forth. The separation problem I'm talking about is more widespread than it first appears. This software is installed on most everyone's hard drive. It just shows up differently.

Cupid's Poisoned ArrowThe good news is that there is a way to foil Cupid, a way to tiptoe around biology's separation programming, a way to make intimate relationships sustainable. It's an unfamiliar solution, because we're all physically designed never to stumble upon it - and to reject it as absurd, if we should. However, it has surfaced repeatedly over thousands of years, in quite different cultures, and I think it's time humanity gave it serious consideration.

These sages all recommended another way of making love, but before I get to that, let's look at the way we currently try to cope with this built-in separation mechanism. Although we deny the existence of a post-passion "hangover," we certainly write a lot about potential cures for it. Here are examples of two familiar suggestions:

First - there's the "John Gray" plan. "After intimacy man goes into cave...and don't bother him until he comes out!" Wait out the cycle. Eventually everyone will feel "loving" (or at least lustful) again. (As an historical aside, kosher sex calls for approximately two weeks of abstention per menses cycle. Was this "cave" time?)

In any case, there are 2 problems with the wait-it-out solution:

--There's no guarantee that you will feel ready at the same time as your partner. You may be out-of-sync for some time. Someone will feel unloved and frustrated; someone will feel drained and resentful. Not good.
-- A burning desire to have sex doesn't mean your equilibrium is restored. It may just mean you're desperate for a "fix," and using your partner to self-medicate. Equilibrium means that you're enthusiastic when the occasion is right, and at peace when it's not.

hot sex coverSecond - there's the "Dr. Ruth" plan. If you felt "in love" when you were in the over-stimulated part of the cycle, then obviously all you have to do is deliberately fire up with hot foreplay so you feel "in love" again. Most of us try this, and most improve-your-sex-life" books recommend variations of this: more novelty, more intense stimulation. In my experience, this works…for about as long as the traditional honeymoon period. But it doesn't work over the long haul because with every high you force, you also trigger a subsequent low. The classic result is intense mood swings - irrational fighting followed by passionate making up followed by irrational fighting…until something cracks.

Resulting mood swings can also show up as Not-tonight-Dear-headaches, selfishness, nagging, depression, defensiveness (which fuels quarrels), or chronic fatigue. Or the may manifest as extreme cravings for whatever will goose your brain chemistry again - be it alcohol, chocolate, compulsive shopping or internet porn. Note that with both of these approaches, there are frequent periods of time when partners are out-of-sorts, and also missing out on the non-sexual benefits of being together.

So what am I proposing? I think of my proposal the "middle path." It runs right between the two horns of humanity's dilemma: biologically-driven indulgence and discouraged celibacy. This middle path:

  • doesn't throw you onto the hot dopamine high...followed by the recovery low,
  • doesn't trip biology's separation mechanism, and
  • actually has benefits that go far beyond relationship harmony.

loving coupleYou learn to make love with an arousal pattern that is wave-like rather than erratic. You keep all your other favorite things about intimacy: physical affection, close companionship, pleasure, and a sense of fulfillment. But you don't make orgasm your goal, because that would pull you right back into the destabilizing cycle of highs and lows. That's right: Orgasm is not the goal! And yet sex is still fun.

If your pleasure isn't going to come from that rush of passion you're currently hooked on, where will it come from? You train yourself to produce a steady supply of another neurochemical: oxytocin, also known as "the cuddle hormone." You can read more about it here, but just to let you in on a few of its many gifts…oxytocin heals cravings (which strengthens willpower); it promotes emotional bonding (so your partner looks better and better); and it increases sexual receptivity (which makes everything more fun).

I learned this other way of making love through much trial…and a lot of error, over the course of a decade. In those days most of the research at this web site hadn't yet been done. All I knew was that when I stayed with the recommendations of the ancient sexologists, the harmony in my relationships was amazingly effortless.

alienated coupleBut when I (or my partner) slipped back into those good old, familiar behaviors of conventional foreplay and orgasm…separating behaviors inevitably showed up during the subsequent two-week period, though not always right away. These behaviors took various forms, at different times, in each of us. Examples: that classic "I need my space," short tempers, iciness, martyrdom, intense attractions to third parties, a sense of stagnation, demanding, jealous, or clingy behavior, cravings for substances, or simply a sudden conviction that we were clearly in-com-pa-ti-ble. Notice that the symptoms vary, but all are separation-producing behaviors. In other words, biology always won.

How can a mere shift in neurochemistry change our feelings toward each other so radically? One word: projection. When we project the ecstatic highs from a new potential partner onto each other, we're in love. But when these natural hangovers kick in, we see giant character flaws…and often believe we've fallen out of love.

Sadly, the separation problem seems to gather strength over time. Perhaps this is the work of the amygdala - the part of the limbic system that records emotional memories. Its job is to keep us from making the same mistakes over and over by encouraging us to avoid things that hurt us in the past. But if it begins to associate intimacy with these hangovers…bingo! The part of your brain that is designed to react to snakes and predators is now being activated by your partner. Without knowing why, you may begin to regard ongoing intimate relationships as a threat to your personal wellbeing. Very logical. dangerous snakeAfter all, the fallout from these hangovers most often shows up as disharmony…days after the great sex. This is how love and defensiveness get tangled up in our subconscious.

Meanwhile, the actual culprit - fertilization-driven sex - still registers as a splendid experience, a pleasure so intense that it's positively addictive. We can easily become hooked on sex, while being increasingly uneasy at the thought of ongoing intimacy. Know anyone like that? That person is just where biology wants us all.

The most unfortunate repercussion - when we drift apart - is that we cheat ourselves of the best gifts of intimacy. Studies have shown that close, trusted - and especially, harmonious - companionship is associated with increased longevity, faster healing, and lower rates of illness and addiction. So biology asks us to make a huge sacrifice just for another shot or two at genetic immortality.

In Love and Survival, Dean Ornish makes the point that love and intimacy are more powerful determinants of health than improved diet, stopping smoking, genetic make-up, more exercise, or prescription drugs. If companionship came in drug form, doctors who failed to prescribe it would be guilty of malpractice. Research suggests that the neurochemical oxytocin is behind many of these gains. alienated coupleAnd experience shows that lovers can train themselves to produce steadier supplies of oxytocin, while eluding biology's separation cycle.

In short, as I have experimented over the years, I have concluded that the sages were right, and Dr. Ruth and I have more to learn.