"I think I suffer from terminal dick brain," confessed a friend recently, after engaging in casual sex he later regretted.
He is not alone; humans are built for promiscuity. The advent of DNA testing has all but extinguished the myth of the sexually monogamous mammal (or bird). For millions of years evolutionary biology has molded us to engage in "extra-pair couplings," as science terms them. So valuable are the rewards of wantonness (from evolution’s perspective) that biologists now describe monogamy as a major risk factor for extinction.1 (For an excellent discussion of just how un-monogamous we are, see Deflating The Myth of Monogamy by David P. Barash. Also see a more recent article, The Shelf Life of Bliss.
Our innate lack of sexual restraint poses a nasty impediment to lasting harmony in long-term relationships. Clearly, advancing life-long companionship is not in Mother Nature’s job description; her task is the propagation of genes. As Burnham and Phelan point out in their book Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food, Taming Our Primal Instincts, we receive an enticing brain chemistry "buzz" for various behaviors that furthered our forbearers’ chances of passing on their genes - but which do not serve us as individuals.
For example, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were best served by grabbing whatever came by without dwelling on the risks. Today, this short-term thinking too often translates into "buy now, pay later." Reaching for high-calorie foods once meant survival; these days too many extra fries can shorten lives. High-risk ventures sometimes paid big dividends; gambling seldom does. And, of course, having impulsive sex with a new mate once sustained scanty populations; now it fosters unwanted pregnancies, overpopulation, and the spread of disease.
Worse yet, that enticing buzz does not truly benefit us. Instead it sets off an addictive cycle consisting of "brief thrill followed by uncomfortable period of increased discontent." If the inevitable letdown in turn primes us for new amorous adventures, Mother Nature is especially pleased.
The intense sensation we experience when pursuing and having sex with a new lover is in part composed of dopamine. The dopamine lure is so powerful that rats will cross an electrically-charged metal plate to get the equivalent of a dopamine buzz, although they will not cross it to get food…even if they are starving. This penchant for sexual enticement lurks in all mammalian brains. No wonder lovers committed adultery even when the punishment was to burn at the stake.
By means of this effective, well-hidden mechanism deep in the brain, Mother Nature persuades us that any sacrifice (including death) is worth the chance of gene propagation. Perhaps you are beginning to see just how big a challenge we face when we vow to remain monogamous. Given our two-timing blueprint, is it worth it to wrestle against this powerful programming? And if it is worth it, what’s the best way to go about it?
Why Fight It?
Why strive for monogamy at all? Certainly polyandry, polygyny, or polyamory appear to offer the paths of least resistance. However, just like our longing for extra fries, the urge to abandon monogamy is a product of our innate short-term thinking. It serves our genes, not us.
Let’s look at how Mother Nature’s plan to keep us bed-hopping hurts us as individuals. The dopamine "reward" mechanism, triggered when we mate with a new partner (or satiate ourselves sexually), sets off a neurochemical cycle that touches every aspect of our lives. After the intense high, our neurochemistry shifts into a low-dopamine, or hangover, mode. Some of us predictably react by reaching for substances or activities that send our dopamine soaring again: alcohol, Internet porn, high-calorie foods, reckless spending.
We are soon on a treadmill of dissatisfaction, punctuated with brief highs - wondering how the joie de vivre went out of our lives. The fast-food industry makes billions (and lots of obese people) marketing food with lots of fat and sugar to our vulnerable reward circuitry. Eventually the periods of discontent outweigh the benefits of the brief thrills. We make unsound decisions in pursuit of our self-inflamed desires.
In the long run we would be better off with the innate happiness that comes with equilibrium. (Think of children who haven’t yet fallen into this cycle; simple pleasures truly delight them.) When our neurochemistry is in hangover mode, we tend to project our feelings of disillusionment onto those around us. The unfortunate result? Our partner just doesn’t look as appealing. Often we react by pulling away from (or driving away) our lover. In this way we erode our intimate relationships.
Scientists suggest that, for most couples, this seemingly irreversible emotional distance creeps in within a year of two of marriage (ending the "honeymoon period"). As a result, mates often split up - or add a lover (or addiction) on the side.
In the process, they lose the benefits that come from genuine intimacy. Repeated studies associate close, trusted companionship with increased longevity (HIV patients with a partner, for example, live longer and develop AIDS less rapidly), faster healing (wounded hamsters paired with another hamster recovered twice as fast), and lower rates of illness, depression and alcoholism. (See, for example, a report, "Marital Status and Health: United States, 1999-2002".)
Regardless of Mother Nature’s priorities, genuine intimacy is better for us as individuals than genetic success (especially on an overcrowded planet). As Dean Ornish wrote in Love & Survival, "if love and intimacy came in pill form, doctors who failed to prescribe it would be guilty of malpractice." He says trusted companionship is a more powerful determinant of health than more exercise, better diet, genetic make-up, stopping smoking, or prescription drugs.
The bottom line? Yielding to our promiscuity programming offers not the bountiful bliss it promises, but quite the opposite: roller coaster ride after roller coaster ride of an addictive search for more dopamine highs to counter the inevitable hangovers…and fragile, even shallow, relationships.
Finding True Satisfaction
To be sure, stagnant monogamy is itself a recipe for misery and hypocrisy. Although humans may be somewhat better off statistically if they remain married - living an uneasy stalemate, perhaps punctuated with open hostility, is hardly a recipe for wellbeing. For many it is unbearable.
We recommend a solution that goes right to the heart of the problem by neutralizing the mechanism that actually splits couples apart. Making love differently allows lovers to master the reward center in the brain. In this way they elude the cycle that so often propels them into "extra-pair couplings" or bleak stagnation.
To be sure, passing up an attachment to regular blasts of dopamine in the form of intense orgasmic experiences initially appeals to those on Mother Nature’s plan even less than passing up chocolate appeals to a chocoholic. However, this other way of making love is far more satisfying than one would imagine. This is because, when it is done carefully, one’s brain chemistry actually shifts away from the ultimately unfulfilling hunger/satiation cycle. Operating on a different, oxytocin-rich, brain chemistry, lovers rediscover a childlike zest for simple pleasures even as their mutual attraction intensifies.
The keys to this other way of making love are lots of caring affection and an approach to lovemaking that lets us "tiptoe" around Mother Nature’s secret weapon - the dopamine trigger in the primitive part of the brain. The ancient Taoists, the Gnostic Christians, and others throughout the ages all apparently practiced this gentler, but more satisfying, way of making love. Deeper union, rather than fertilization-driven sex, is the goal. Lovers thereby elude the typical cycle of infatuation-followed-by-discontent.
Partners report complete satisfaction using this technique, after a gradual adjustment period. They also report contented monogamy. Oxytocin heals cravings (including sexual hankerings) while increasing sexual receptivity in males and females. This combination makes authentic monogamy surprisingly effortless once the transition period has passed; one's partner looks better and better. At the same time, oxytocin counteracts stress, heals depression, improves immunity to disease, calms, and connects us deeply with others. It is associated with all the gains that trusted companionship yields. Some couples also report that relationships with their children also improve.
Puppeteers or Biology's Puppets?
Warm-hearted monogamy serves us better as individuals. Multiple partners serve us better as gene machines. Unlike animals, we humans have a choice. Before you make your choice, consider the following bit of biological trivia: at mating (in captivity, at least), the female praying mantis chomps the head off of the male. In the process, he delivers his packet of sperm to the next generation. Mother Nature smiles benevolently on this "successful" behavior. Yet it makes for very short relationships, and promptly extinguishes all other ambitions of the hapless male.
Perhaps it’s time to outsmart Mother Nature, learn to sustain harmonious monogamy, and free additional energy for creative pursuits on other levels. Both ancient wisdom and modern neuroscience suggest that with clear vision, a conscious approach, and a bit of practice, this goal is within our grasp.