Even though I think John Gray is overlooking the most fundamental cause of the disharmony that builds between intimate partners (namely our mammalian mating program, which urges us on to new mates), I always fall in love with him a little bit when I read his books. I find his sincere desire to help men and women stop tearing each other apart endearing, and his folksy wisdom has a lot to recommend it.
Why Mars and Venus Collide is another of his valiant efforts to help men and women accept that they are different and cope with those differences. In this book he interprets a lot of (mostly) second-hand science to back up his advice, and some of his interpretations show a bit too much imagination. For example, he concludes that the reason women make endless "to do" lists is that they have more body fat than men, and so their brains have more energy to think things up. On the basis of this logic, obese people would have the most energetic brains in the world - not the case. Moreover, brains runs on sugar, not fat. So body fat can't feed women's brains...at all...ever.
He also says that men have more testosterone at the beginning of a relationship1 and that's why they're more romantic. In fact, Italian researchers found that during the honeymoon phase of a relationship, men have lower than normal testosterone, and women have higher than normal testosterone. As things go out of sync, men's testosterone tends to rise again and women's to fall again. As a result, their libidos also go out of sync.2
Gray definitely recognizes that men and women are feeling drained, and he cautions women to go easy on their exhausted men:
You will deplete your energy supplies and increase the stress in your relationship if you expect your partner to be the primary source of your fulfillment.3
Sound advice on the surface, but are we really looking to our partners to be the primary source of our fulfillment - or does it just feel that way to someone who has not been using sex in a way that balances and energizes? Are our feelings of exhaustion and being unsupported due to the stress of modern life as Gray suggests? Or is our external stress a manifestation of our internal state of energy depletion?
Wouldn't a subconscious sense of depletion - when projected onto the opposite sex - predictably result in a belief that one's partner is either an uncaring, selfish blob, or a high-maintenance, needy shrew?
It may be that Gray is addressing symptoms bubbling up from a deeper source. Gray casts his basic thesis in terms of testosterone, which he equates with maleness, and oxytocin, which he equates with femaleness. In his view, women traditionally met their critical needs for oxytocin from activities like taking care of babies and foraging (and chatting) together, while the men met their needs for testosterone with group activities like hunting, competing and warmongering. Sometimes Gray seems to long for the good old days when men and women led largely segregated lives, with each gender looking after its own needs, except, presumably, during mating events.
Gray suggests that modern life is especially stressful for women because women cannot easily meet their needs for oxytocin (at least not without draining their mates), because they are designed to handle stress by “processing,” rather than “doing” and “solving.” When women have to “do” and “solve” all day long – as in the workplace - it drains them more than it does men.
Gray says men are designed to “do” and “solve,” so they suffer far less emotional and physical wear and tear in the workplace. However, when they get home and their mates want to "process things" in order to recharge, the men become exhausted. He claims that men need their down time in front of the TV in order to recharge their testosterone [his code word for "allow their dopamine levels to recover"] for the next day. Due to their different methods of recharging, Mars and Venus collide.
Gray then endeavors to teach women to leave their men alone to recover as much as possible, and to ask specifically for what exactly what they need their mates to do, as many times as necessary (without getting nasty - no matter how brain-dead a mate may be behaving). Such requests should be in the form of small discrete jobs at which the men can confidently succeed.
Gray also advises men to give their modern frazzled, jabbering women more oxytocin (touch, connection, listening), since their wound-up mates can't nurse, babysit or gather veggies with the gals as much these days.
To hear Gray explain all of this in his own words, watch this news journalist's interview with John Gray on YOU Tube. His book also contains a lot of helpful communication advice to ease friction between the sexes.
However, in our experience, such careful communication is not necessary when neither partner is feeling drained. With clearer perception, born of feelings of wholeness and satisfaction, candor is more refreshing than triggering.
More of the Story
It's impossible to discuss hormones (neurochemicals) like oxytocin and testosterone without oversimplifying. We'd like to flesh out Gray's observations a bit, even though we, too, will oversimplify. Like Gray, we are concerned that the sexes are draining each other, and still not meeting their respective needs for vitality and wellbeing.
This reality is somewhat obscured during the initial honeymoon period of a relationship, as both sexes temporarily subsist on a heightened neurochemical cocktail designed to ensure that they find each other slightly intoxicating – and then bond for long enough to procreate.
Like Gray, we believe men and women can easily nurture each other in a way that enhances the wellbeing of both, without feeling drained and irritable. However, far from believing that greater segregation is the ideal solution ("Look outside of the relationship for 90% of your feelings of well-being," advises Gray.), we think there's a hidden synergy in male/female union. Couples can tap it by learning to cultivate their sexual energy in a way that doesn't leave them feeling emotionally distant, exhausted, or needy.
Life itself becomes rewarding, and partners can spend the majority of their time together (if they choose to) and still not feel drained. Inner balance leads to external balance, which means that both have time and attention for other objectives, too.
Here's a bit more neurochemistry to flesh out Gray's testosterone-oxytocin thesis. Testosterone is not just a male hormone. In fact, testosterone is behind sexual arousal in women, too.4 Oxytocin also plays a role in sexual arousal in both sexes.5 Yes, men have more testosterone and women more oxytocin, but both sexes have both. These hormones are both critical players - for men and women - in the glue of attraction between the sexes.
Women are designed to find social connections and mothering especially rewarding.6 Men may be designed to find novelty and action especially rewarding.7 Both are designed to find courtship, mating, and (non-draining) companionship rewarding. In each of these cases, oxytocin and testosterone are only two of the neurochemical dominoes involved.
The last domino in any rewarding activity is always dopamine. Without enough dopamine, which equates with desire and the conviction that something is rewarding, the bond between a couple begins to erode.8 This erosion typically continues throughout a marriage unless something intervenes.9 This may be part of Mother Nature's plan to move people on to new mates, in order to increase the genetic variety of their offspring. After the neurochemically-enhanced honeymoon period, the dopamine domino becomes less reliable between mates, and their bond tends to weaken.
We believe that couples actually bring this erosion upon themselves by means of a subconscious mating program shaped by evolution's inevitable conservation of behaviors that result in genetic (as opposed to relationship) success. Briefly, the program calls for intoxicating sexual thrills, followed by increasing alienation between mates, and then an urge to move onto a new mate to repeat the pattern. Scientists call this pattern the Coolidge Effect. If partners don't obey this biological command and move on, or change the way they make love to stop the subconscious drained feelings, they are left in a sort of pressure cooker of growing alienation - neurochemically based, but projected onto each other - which pushes them apart emotionally. Both tend to feel drained or needy, and often irritable.
Sexual thrills themselves contain the seeds of subsequent emotional separation. For example, scientists studying rat brains surmise that there is a “specific ejaculation-related subcircuit,” which may serve a “sexual-satiety function.” 10 When the primitive brain says, "enough" after orgasm, our partner no longer looks very rewarding to us, no matter how attractive or charming others might find him or her.
We think the story goes something like this. Dopamine surges at orgasm (assuming adequate testosterone is present) and then drops. Exactly how this drop occurs is just coming into focus in the relevant research, although there is no doubt more to learn. So far researchers know that
- After orgasm, neurochemical shifts occure, which suppresses dopamine and seem to act as a sexual satiation mechanism11 Indeed, in female rats, natural opioids produced by vaginal stimulation during mating, or possibly the brief spike of oxytocin that accompanies orgasm, signals the rise in prolactin.12
- The nerve cell receptors that testosterone activates decrease for a period of time. So even with high blood levels of testosterone, a male may not feel all that virile until those receptors come back. (However, a novel potential mate will override this recuperation program, which may be one reason porn is so popular. Needless to say, porn is not a solution, but a temporary fix that delays the uncomfortable need for recovery. Porn can ultimately have an effect on the brain like drugs.)13
We believe that Gray's famous “cave time” for men, following passion, is probably the time it takes to return to dopamine equilibrium. We believe woman, too, suffer mood swings related to the changes in dopamine and prolactin levels during the days or weeks following the intense high of orgasm.14
These neurochemical fluctuations are likely to be behind the phenomenon known as post-coital blues or irritability. This phenomenon has been observed for millennia.15Stimulation of dopamine receptors in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus of male rats induces penile erection and increases extra-cellular dopamine in the nucleus accumbens: Involvement of central oxytocinThat's when mates begin to perceive each other as draining. Subconsciously, they are associating each other not so much with the highs of orgasm, but more with the exhausting, irritating lows that follow it.
Tackling the source of disharmony
Gray's theory of stress, working women, pestered men, and women-without-women-to-whine-to are one way of assessing humanity's relationship misery, but understanding our mating neurochemistry may aid more in solving the underlying problem of built-in disharmony. For one thing, a better understanding of our mating neurochemistry suggests that there could be merit in some ancient new ideas like Taoist lovemaking or Karezza (controlled intercourse).
The sexes have another option beyond the traditional segregation-but-for-mating and modern compromises stemming from that model. Mates can learn to make love in a way that not only doesn't leave them feeling drained, but actually furnishes more energy and balance for other pursuits. These alternative approaches emphasize lots of affectionate, sensual touch and heartfelt connections, thus meeting both sexes' needs for oxytocin, testosterone, and dopamine rewards – without the usual, precipitous drop-off in dopamine after lovemaking.
Gray is trying to raise men and women's dopamine by helping them engage in rewarding activities like watching sports (men) and talking (women). Other psychologists suggest raising dopamine by doing novel things. We suggest solving the "draining" problem where it starts. Why not stop lowering dopamine to levels that equate with feeling drained and unenthusiastic about time with a mate in the first place? Mates can do this by tricking biology, that is, by making love in a way that doesn't trigger humanity's hidden sexual satiation-separation program.
- 1. Why Mars and Venus Collide, HarperCollins (2008), p.226
- 2. Hormonal changes when falling in love (Testosterone levels of new lovers come into sync...and diverge again within two years)
- 3. p. 201
- 4. See Testosterone Patch Benefits Women With Low Sexual Desire and Libido: the biologic scenario and Testosterone restoration of copulatory behavior correlates with medial preoptic dopamine release in castrated male rats and Hormone-neurotransmitter interactions in the control of sexual behavior
- 5. See Stimulation of dopamine receptors in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus of male rats induces penile erection and increases extra-cellular dopamine in the nucleus accumbens: involvement of central oxytocin.
- 6. See The neural correlates of maternal and romantic love
- 7. See Exposure to New Experiences Rewarding and Sex differences in striatal dopamine release in healthy adults.
- 8. See Nucleus accumbens oxytocin and dopamine interact to regulate pair bond formation in female prairie voles.
- 9. Marriage: It's Only Going to Get Worse
- 10. See Neural activation following sexual behavior in the male and female rat brain.
- 11. See Prolactinergic and dopaminergic mechanisms underlying sexual arousal and orgasm in humans, and Coitus-induced orgasm stimulates prolactin secretion in healthy subjects. Elevated prolactin is associated with erectile dysfunction: Hyperprolactinemia and sexual function in men: a short review.
- 12. See Involvement of endogenous opioidergic neurons in modulation of prolactin secretion in response to mating in the female rat,and NMDA-mediated activation of the medial amygdala initiates a downstream neuroendocrine memory responsible for pseudopregnancy in the female rat, and Prolactin secretory rhythm of mated rats induced by a single injection of oxytocin.
- 13. See Pharmacological and physiological aspects of sexual exhaustion in male rats, and Sexual behavior reduces hypothalamic androgen receptor immunoreactivity.
- 14. Research on female rats has demonstrated that coitus alone will send prolactin surging for two weeks. Could this be playing a role in women's mood swings after orgasm?
- 15. Such shifts may, over time, contribute to neediness, emotional distance, nagging, and the feeling of “falling out of love” (weakened desire for each other). The most important point is that these natural changes can shift how partners see each other - or explain why they don't want to see much of each other. When dopamine levels are no longer high enough to produce healthy feelings of optimism, curiosity and wellbeing, one's partner no longer looks “rewarding.” Indeed, dopamine seems to trigger the production of the oxytocin required for copulation, so when it drops the urge to bond may also fade.