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Do you know of a solid relationship that seemed to have a lot going for it…and yet it unraveled? What about a marriage that stayed together but seemed stagnant…or even hostile? Did you see the Newsweek article No Sex Please, We're Married? If relationship disharmony has never affected your union you are rare; in 2002 the US Census Bureau predicted that half of all new marriages are likely to end in divorce.
Our honeymoons aren't lasting, but when we look at rising divorce statistics we often assume this must be a recent problem. It isn't. It's proverbial that "the honeymoon period lasts less than a year." What has changed is that we can now divorce easily when disharmony strikes, and we do. So an age-old problem, which was once hidden by the fact that couples had to stay together even when things were grim, is now coming to light.
Usually when couples break up they conclude that they just married the wrong person. Yet the fact is, no matter how right both mates are, marriages still often go wrong. In 2000, Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser released results from a survey of ninety newlywed couples that ran from 1988 through 1992 at Ohio State University entitled, Marital Stress: Immunological, Endocrinological, and Health Consequences.
The researchers carefully selected only couples who seemed to have everything going for them with no addictions or emotional disorders. In fact they picked fewer than one in twenty of the applicant-couples from more than 2,200. On average the couples were well-educated, with annual incomes of $43,000. Most had dated for about three years before they married, and three out of five had lived together before marrying. "These were highly healthy people. They were blissful!" explained one of the researchers.
So what happened? By the second year of the study, the newlyweds' marital satisfaction had dropped significantly. As Kiecolt-Glaser put it, "Declines in marital satisfaction appear to be a stable response to the first year or two of marriage." That's scientist-speak for "their honeymoons had ended." By release of the study, a fifth had already divorced. 1
What accounts for our sorry results? Evolutionary biology.
Have you ever fallen in love? Remember the intense cravings to be near your beloved? The pounding heart? The dizzy euphoria? These symptoms are the same as those reported by people who use drugs. And there's a good reason; in both cases, most of the same neurochemicals are pounding in the primitive part of your brain.
In the case of drug users, these symptoms occur because they've taken a substance that hijacks a place the size of a pea, deep in the brain, called the reward center. Why does this highly-sensitive little spot exist? To give you a big buzz (and make you reckless) when you pursue activities that help to pass on your genes.
Reckless procreators pass on more genes - including the genes for reckless procreation. So if you experience these extreme symptoms when you fall in love, you can thank your ancestors…and all the fun they had. You are the product of their inadvertent breeding plan.
Most of us don't think of this euphoric buzz as a problem, but it is. It over-stimulates us. Moreover, these "hot" neurochemicals follow us into the bedroom, where they reach a crescendo as they achieve their objective - fertilization behavior.
So far, this probably strikes you as an excellent plan, right? All you need is a condom, and you can foil biology and still have fun. Ah, but there's a fly in the ointment. Your body doesn't really like this intense over-stimulation. For one thing, it takes your mind off of other activities that are also important to your genes' survival. Rats, for example, who were wired so they could stimulate this same part of their brain by hitting a lever at will, hit it until they dropped (Olds and Milner, 1954). They didn't pause to eat, or to investigate sexually receptive mates…let alone, feed the kids.
So, to protect you from "blissing yourself to death" your body shuts you down when biology's mission is accomplished. Bingo! No more pounding neurochemicals that make you feel like you're in love. This neurochemical shift can be so radical that you wake up very uneasy-and bolt. Voila! The cause of the one-night-stand. Others feel this shift days later when their heart-centered neurochemistry wears off.
This neurochemical high/low cycle is where the trouble starts in your relationship. Sadly, it may be more noticeable after you marry, because then you're tied to the person you are beginning to associate (subconsciously) with this mysterious, recurring discomfort.
Why do you have this nasty weak point in your design? Because biology wants you to roam off and increase genetic variety in your offspring. You, however, as an individual, are better off in harmonious, lasting union. So what are your options for coping with your design?
First-there's the "John Gray" plan. Wait out the cycle. Eventually you will feel loving (or at least some libido) again. But this post-orgasm neurochemical shift affects everyone differently. One person may roll-over and snore, while someone else gets cranky for days - or even weeks. You and your partner can easily get out-of-synch. Someone feels unloved and frustrated…someone feels drained and resentful. Not good.
Second-there's the "Dr. Ruth" plan. Deliberately fire up with hot foreplay so you feel in love (or at least in lust) again. However, you are likely to find that this solution of firing up to stay in love only works for about as long as the traditional honeymoon period. With every high you force, you also trigger a subsequent low. The result is intense mood swings, which partners experience differently. For example, they may show up as irritability, Not-tonight-Dear-headaches, selfishness, nagging, depression, defensiveness (which fuels quarrels), or chronic fatigue. Worse yet, they often manifest as extreme cravings for whatever will goose your brain chemistry again (be it sex, alcohol, thrills from watching sports, high-calorie foods, gambling, extravagant shopping, etc). Not good.
Incidentally, often couples unconsciously avoid sex to stay off this roller coaster. It is also the reason why some people give up on sexual relationships altogether, concluding that the celibates were right after all.
Third-there's the middle path. You can try something that you never even thought of trying - a very ancient approach to lovemaking that lets you make love a lot, sustains a strong attraction between you and your lover, and keeps you from over-stimulating yourselves. Your biology won't like it because it passes on no genes, but the ancient Chinese Taoists found that it "improved health, harmonized emotions (which makes for more harmonious relationships), and healed cravings and impulses." They also claimed it was a path to what they called, Immortality, or enlightenment.
Biology has pretty much guaranteed that you will dismiss this third solution immediately, because it doesn't offer that same intense burst of neurochemistry. It also doesn't bruise you afterward. What you won't discover unless you try it, is that this approach is also extremely pleasurable. It triggers other delicious neurochemistry that makes you want to bond more closely with your mate. And it counters stress, which promotes healing and cures depression. What's more, as the ancient Chinese noted, it reduces cravings - even the cravings for hot sex. (Research on oxytocin reducing cravings.)
So, if you want to sustain a deep, nurturing connection with a partner, you may want to learn more about this ancient approach. It's a way of outmaneuvering biology so you preserve and strengthen your relationships-and release their spiritual potential.
After all, if you don't like it, you can always return to biology's plan. What's there to lose?
- 1. Here's an interesting bit from a description of the research:
The team measured the levels of epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, ACTH, and cortisol. "The data show that women, in particular, register much higher levels of stress hormones, like epinephrine, than men do, in times of conflict," says Kiecolt-Glaser. "These higher levels of stress hormones do not go away. They stay elevated during more routine interaction, and are even elevated at night, when they are sleeping." Kiecolt-Glaser says women's hormone responses are better predictors of a lasting relationship than men's. Interestingly, she adds, the individuals with elevated hormone levels were not necessarily "hot reactors" in other situations. "It's not genetic, as far as we can tell. It looks like it is simply a reaction to the presence of the spouse," she says.
Additionally, says Kiecolt-Glaser, the couples who divorced did not offer significantly different descriptions of each other's happiness than married couples did in their initial assessment as newlyweds. "They were very happy in what they were saying, but what their hormones are telling us is that some part of them was very uneasy."