The Coolidge Effect can trump our best intentions.
A few years ago German researchers reported that as the duration of partnership increases, sexual desire generally declines in women—while desire for tenderness generally declines in men. Usually the more frustrated partner (of either gender) quite logically assumes he would be perfectly happy if only he could have as much sex as he wants.
In fact, the situation is a bit trickier than that. Mates are actually up against a rather nasty subconscious genetic program, which often pushes them out of sync sexually—and even onward to novel partners.
Consider what happened when male monkeys were paired repeatedly with the same females (who were always in the mood, thanks to daily hormone injections). Monkey heaven, right? Nope. The males copulated less and less frequently, and with declining enthusiasm, over a three-and-a-half-year period. Not only that, when novel females showed up, these slackers hurriedly rolled into action with their original zest.
So what would happen if your mate were always in the mood? Chances are good that you soon wouldn't be...at least with her/him. The sad truth is that if your spouse isn't having orgasmic sex with you as often as you'd like, he or she could be preserving your union by preventing you from satiating yourself sexually too frequently. This is not an ideal situation, however, because without frequent affectionate contact, the emotional bonds between couples weaken, and, unfortunately, many couples drift into engaging in conscious affection only when pursuing orgasm.
How can sexual satiation drive mates apart? When scientists looked into the brains of mating rats, they discovered that a neurochemical called dopamine (the "I gotta have it!" substance) was behind the phenomenon of mate fatigue. As a rat copulates repeatedly with the same partner, less and less dopamine is released in the reward circuitry of its brain.
Yet when a novel potential mate shows up, dopamine surges again. It's the same mechanism that causes you to say "yes" to a sugary, fat-laden dessert even when you're full of turkey and mashed potatoes. Dopamine surging in your reward circuitry can override your feelings of satiety, regardless of what your rational brain may think about overeating or infidelity. Surging dopamine is a "yes!" while low dopamine is a "not so much." As we'll see in a future post, dopamine also naturally drops after orgasm, which plays right into this phenomenon. Our genes can be heartless puppeteers.
Scientists call the tendency to tire of a mate with whom one sexually satiates oneself, while mechanically perking up for a new one, the Coolidge Effect. They have observed this phenomenon widely among mammals, including females. Some female rodents, for example, flirt a lot more—arching in inviting displays—with unfamiliar partners than with those with which they've already copulated. In keeping with this phenomenon, when couples divorce because their sex lives have gone out of sync, the formerly uninterested spouse is often startled by a raging libido when a new lover enters the picture. This woman is now seeking her twenty-third husband.
Even those without real partners experience the Coolidge Effect after sexual satiation:
I watched a documentary on guys with extremely expensive and realistic "love dolls." One guy had like ten of them. He had so many that he was running out of room in his home. Even though these were dolls, he had already started to see them as girls he had spent enough time with and was now ready for new (fake) genetic opportunities. Probably why guys collect so much porn... we think we have found the greatest porn of all time but after seeing it a few times we never go back. I have tons of jpeg images that I collected, thinking I was amassing some wonderful database of pleasure. But I can't remember ever actually going back to them again. The compelling part is the NEW image, the novel image, or maybe, the novel love doll.
Why would biology cause a regular partner to look more and more like Brussels sprouts and a new one to look like rich chocolate mousse? So more offspring with greater genetic diversity are produced (on average across populations). Your genes prefer to sail into the future on as many different boats as they can clamber aboard. Monogamy is as risky as putting all eggs in one basket.
Want proof? No mammals are monogamous (in the sense of being sexually exclusive), and only three percent even bother pair bonding. These pair-bonding outliers (including humans) are known as socially monogamous. They readily form long-term attachments and often raise their offspring together, even if they still experience urges to fool around thanks to the Coolidge Effect.
Our genes want us primed to pursue promising genetic opportunities even if we risk not "living happily ever after." Even if mates manage to stay faithful, this neurochemically induced dissatisfaction can make them see each other somewhat like another serving of "Hamburger Helper." Sure enough, research shows that spouses tend to find each other more irritating the longer they are married. (The Coolidge Effect becomes more evident after lovers' initial booster shot of honeymoon neurochemistry wears off, so new lovers inevitably believe they are immune—as do people who are not getting enough loving.)
Some couples cope with this sneaky primitive mechanism by cranking up the dopamine using porn or acting out sexual fantasies with their partners. In both cases, they attempt to fool the brain that a new mating opportunity has arrived. Others raise their dopamine by artificially generating intense feelings (as with bondage), or swapping mates. However, it can be exhausting to have to orchestrate a dopamine surge every time you want to make love. And what happens when one partner wants a "fix" of sexual excitement and the other is not ready to invest so much effort, or run the proposed risk, to get a thrill?
Are we doomed to allow biology to make us restless? In future posts we'll look at an option that various cultures throughout history employed: a way to make love that helps stave off habituation. It's based on the idea that exhausting our sexual desire frequently speeds up the Coolidge Effect by setting us on recurring quests for surges of dopamine to counteract the periods of low dopamine that naturally occur after sexual satiation.
When dopamine levels aren't bouncing around with intense highs and lows, more subtle pleasures can register as surprisingly enjoyable—and partners tend to retain their sparkle. So, if the Coolidge Effect creeps into your union, don't panic. You may have options you hadn't considered.
And for science buffs: Growing evidence of a lingering post-orgasm cycle (links to studies)