What signals are you giving your mate?
Hit by Cupid's arrow! It feels so good that you might seek a permanent bond, convinced that passion will keep you both quivering with ecstasy for a lifetime. Yet Cupid is a sneaky dude, or rather the biological agenda he personifies does not, in fact, promote enduring love without a little tweaking.
Cupid's dart is but the first of a series of neurochemical impulses in a primitive part of your brain known as the limbic system. Your limbic system is so powerful, and efficiently wired, that it sometimes completely overwhelms your rational mind. Take its mating agenda, for example. Its goal is to urge you to (1) fall in love with reckless fireworks that propel sperm to egg, (2) bond long enough to fall in love with any kids so they have two caregivers, (3) get fed up with your mate, and (4) begin looking around for a new one. In short, it pushes you to fool around—whether you do or not. This improves the genetic variety of offspring, and the greater the variety, the better genes' chances of sailing into the future. Callous, but effective.
What if you want to outsmart Cupid and stay in a long-term relationship harmoniously? After all, contented monogamy is not a bad idea, given that close, trusted companionship is protective of psychological and physical health and two caregivers improve kids' chances of well-being. One household is also cheaper to maintain than two, and seduction itself can be costly.
How would you talk to Cupid? That is, how would you steer the primitive part of your brain in the direction of the results you want? It's problematic, because this primitive region of the brain predated the human rational brain (neo-cortex) by millions of years. It doesn't run on logic. This is why you can't use willpower to force yourself to fall in love or stay in love.
Your limbic system runs on subconscious cues, that is, behaviors that send signals that bypass your rational brain and trigger automatic responses. By understanding which pedals to push, you can steer your romances more consciously and with less inner conflict.
The behaviors that deliver the most potent subconscious signals in your intimate relationship may surprise you. For example, mating frenzy (hot sex, lots of orgasms) resulting in sexual satiation (that "I'm done!" feeling) plays right into Cupid's plan. Decreasing dopamine (after the delicious neurochemical blast of orgasm) tells your limbic system, "Fertilization duty is done here; time to find this mate less alluring-and respond to any potential novel mate with gusto." Scientists know this phenomenon as the Coolidge Effect. Ninety-seven percent of all mammal species operate their love lives entirely on this signal.
As a rare pair-bonding mammal, you may be slow to recognize that this mating "pedal" tends to push lovers apart. This is because you have two other programs in your limbic system, which also influence romance. To varying degrees these programs veil your underlying "get on, get off, and get home" mammalian mating program.
The first is the honeymoon cocktail. New lovers tend to produce a temporary booster shot of thrilling neurochemistry. This heady cocktail (of increased nerve growth factor, dopamine, norepinephrine, lower serotonin, and adjustments to testosterone levels) produces infatuation and even obsession. For a time, it blunts the "move on" message-even in the face of lots of sex and the wild mood swings that new lovers often experience. (More on these highs and lows in a future post.)
Alas, assuming your honeymoon neurochemistry kicks in at all, research shows that it will likely wear off within two years. As it wears off, your perceptions of each other may fluctuate for a while after orgasm. One husband experienced the phenomenon this way:
We'd have sex for fifteen minutes. Then I'd be grouchy for a week. Then I'd be sweet as honey as I got horny again.
And here's an exchange from a popular forum:
Man: My wife turns into a major bitch on occasion the morning after a night of really great sex. I'm talking multiple orgasms and a 2-3-hour session. And the next morning I am the anti-Christ!
Woman: This happens to me, too! I wake up in the morning after a great night with my dear husband and feel like the bitch from hell sometimes . . . really irritable and moody. Normally I'm a very evenkeel kind of gal. Things feel better when orgasms are more spread out. I have personally noticed a significant decrease in my attraction and warm fuzzy feelings toward my spouse when the "O" is on a constant, regular basis.
Mood swings like these, even in milder forms (not to mention the projections they foster), can extinguish the sparkle in a relationship, making both partners wonder if they'd be better off with someone new. Of course, most of us don't realize that subtle shifts in our neurochemistry are influencing us, so we tend to rationalize our feelings by pointing to perceived shortcomings in each other.
The good news is that humans also have another program that can turn down the volume of our "move on" program. However, our bonding "pedal" only works when we deliver the right subconscious cues with the right frequency.
The behaviors that signal Cupid to keep us bonded are activities such as skin-to-skin contact, gazing into each other's eyes, kissing with lips and tongues, wordless sounds of contentment and pleasure, stroking with intent to comfort, touching and sucking of nipples/breasts, spooning or hugging each other in silence, placing a calming hand on our lover's genitals, gentle intercourse, and so forth.
These behaviors speak directly to the only part of our brain that can fall in love, or stay in love. They deliver the subconscious message "Strengthen this emotional tie." Incidentally, these cues work because they are derived from the basic mammalian infant-caregiver attachment behaviors that enabled us to fall in love with our parents, and which allow us fall in love with our kids. Of course, the cues look a bit different between lovers than they do between infants and caregivers, but they all revolve around generous touch and connection.
It's important to note that bonding cues only signal the limbic system effectively when they occur almost daily. Even a moment or two can do the job, but bonding behaviors are far less effective if couples use them only rarely, or only in connection with getting to climax.
Bonding behaviors are not the same as foreplay. They soothe lovers' nervous systems (specifically, the amygdala). In contrast, foreplay is designed to produce sexual tension. Foreplay is goal-oriented; bonding behaviors are not. (Intriguingly, gentle intercourse without orgasm can be a powerful bonding behavior. Various cultures throughout history have stumbled upon this technique and given it different names. More in future posts.)
So, how do you talk to Cupid? Use your rational brain to press the pedals of your choice to deliver specific signals directly to the primitive part of your brain. In this way you can steer for whatever results you seek in your romance. If you want a long-term relationship, place the emphasis on daily, soothing bonding behaviors (including relaxed intercourse), and steer away from exhausting your sexual desire. On the other hand, if you like turnover in your love life, pursue sexual satiation via more intense, more frequent orgasms.
[About the images in this article: A favorite theme of classical painters was Aphrodite (Love) tempering Eros' impulses.]
And for science buffs: Growing evidence of a lingering post-orgasm cycle (links to studies)