In Hugs for Heroes we looked at what women can do to make it easier for men to practice sexual continence over the long haul. In this article we'll look at how eager partners can help their more unenthusiastic partners lower their resistance to intimacy. Obviously, the "eager partner" is sometimes female, and the "unenthusiastic partner" sometimes male, but for ease in discussion we'll stick to the stereotype, in which the man is more eager—at least for orgasm-directed activity.
To the sexually hungry mate, it seems evident that his path to feeling better is to cajole his partner to have sex, whether through charm, guilt-producing resentment, or a seductive hot sexual technique that entices her with intense orgasm. He may not realize that his genetically programmed behavior, which feels normal, healthy and obviously right to him, may be perceived quite differently by his mate once the couple has passed the honeymoon period, with its "booster" neurochemicals that enhance impulsive passion in them both. She may begin to see his determined efforts as a series of draining demands for sex without regard to her feelings—which have begun to signal her that there can be too much of a good thing.
Both partners are right...and wrong. He's right that frequent intimacy is vital for well-being, and that intercourse can be an especially nurturing, soothing, regenerative form of closeness. Yet her instincts are right that the short-term benefits of orgasmic sex often fail to outweigh its longer-term costs. How can this be? Over time, conventional sex with orgasm tends to produce a subtle sense of lack/dissatisfaction, which hits lovers different ways for reasons explained here. Some lovers turn into bottomless pits who crave ever more (or, more intense) sex, however they can get it. Others feel defensive, and experience a growing aversion to their sexual partner. Still others are unnaturally irritable, judgmental, demanding, controlling, and so forth.
The result is typically growing habituation (distance) between mates. They perceive each other as less rewarding in a primitive part of the mammalian brain.
Understand the effects of orgasm on women...even if your lover doesn't
To understand what is going on, and why the most effective paths to satisfying intimacy are not the direct routes described above, it's necessary to integrate a shocking insight: Orgasm does not make women more loving, except in the very short term (hours, or at most a few days). This idea is hard to grasp because most lovers do feel more loving at orgasm, and for a while afterward. They haven't understood that the passion cycle extends up to two weeks after a passionate encounter, or that it has recurring lows in it. Women are also affected by this cycle. Consider the evidence. Not long ago a friend sent me an exchange from the TeeBeeDee forum, where he had posted the suggestion that orgasm could create unsuspected havoc. Clearly his post struck a chord with some members:
Man: Now that you mention it, 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 even-keel 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.
Obviously, not every woman has such a marked reaction to orgasm, but even in more subtle forms (feeling drained, weepy, judgmental, dissatisfied or irrationally jealous), a neurochemical hangover is clearly not a recipe for harmony or desiring more physical closeness. Our culture's current mythology about orgasm is that climax is purely a source of well-being. 1 Also see Women: Does Orgasm Give You A Hangover?
The assumption that orgasm is always purely beneficial - unless someone has "shame" issues around sex - is so deeply ingrained at present, that the connection between orgasm and mood shifts in healthy lovers comes as a surprise. It is usually not until someone else mentions this possibility that people ponder their experiences more attentively.
Biology cleverly hides the downside of our mating program from us. After a night of great sex, it's much more logical to blame something else—in fact, anything or anyone else—than to blame those pleasurable orgasms for our irritability. Neurochemically, however, the drive toward orgasm is an intense altered state, which is tied to our genes' most important goal: procreation. In other words, orgasm's purpose is not well-being, or even pleasure for its own sake. The desire for, and "reward" of, orgasm are there to get a job done—to urge us toward fertilization behavior. This drive can hijack our state of mind as effectively as alcohol/drug use, although the hangover is less obvious to us and, unfortunately, lasts longer. (Once in balance, lovers may find an approach like karezza actually offers more overall pleasure, even though the highs are less intense...and less addictive.)
Obviously if women (and men) could isolate exactly *what* their reaction is to sexual satiety over the following two weeks, they would be amazed...and much less likely to go for orgasm, or allow themselves to be pushed into it by well-intentioned lovers. The problem is that we are unable to isolate the cause-effect, and so we project our uneasiness onto events, environments and imagined flaws in our mates. This serves biology by urging us to tire of each other and often to "upgrade" lovers, or at least move on to new ones. Here's what a woman on the "Reuniting" forum said after a couple of weeks of great sex:
I have felt irritable and a bit mentally unstable, perfectionistic, haughty, snobbish even. Like I'm some sort of countess or princess that becomes more and more stubborn and cold the more the guy grovels at my feet. I've felt a little wicked and cold-hearted, and a bit disturbed at these qualities in myself. The poor soul just wants some warmth - he wants it so bad, the more he wants it the colder I become. It's a perplexing state of affairs, as I objectively know that I enjoy being warm much more than cold.
The anecdotal evidence cited above has been backed up by some research. Interestingly, the researchers were trying to prove that intercourse (with orgasm, of course) would bond mates much more tightly than other kinds of sex. In fact, they predicted that the bonds from orgasmic intercourse would be so tight that women would find pictures of unfamiliar men unattractive. Instead it turned out that the more orgasms women had, the less attractive and friendly they found the unknown men. Incidentally, those women who had orgasms without intercourse ranked the men even less attractive, so the researchers were partially vindicated.
This research suggests that if you want a woman to remain man-friendly, skip the oral sex and vibrators, and learn to make love without the focus on orgasm. Incidentally, sexologist Alfred C. Kinsey insisted that more orgasms for women would improve marital success. Yet, upon closer inspection, even his statistics revealed the exact opposite: The women reporting the most orgasms more often either failed to marry or divorced.2
No romance will benefit from self-inflicted distortions in perception and emotional distance. Even if partners try to go through the motions of affection when they're feeling annoyed or emotionally cold (which is actually a very good idea, as we'll see), the affection will not evoke the same delicious feelings. Both partners' nervous systems are temporarily in a less sensitive, less easily satisfied state. It will take time and restraint to restore those good feelings after too much passion. So, Gentlemen, your first hurdle is to educate yourself and your partner about the true effects of orgasm. This can be a challenge, as a woman friend of mine found out:
Ellen's acquaintance, who turned up for 2 weeks and didn’t pay for anything, came to dinner with Ellen, and revealed that she was into women’s toys. She grabbed her computer to show us her favorite website. She looks very troubled, has lots of problems with her kids, spends a lot of time and money with a shrink, etc. When I mentioned that too much orgasm can over-stimulate the brain leading to imbalance, she went mad. She insisted that I had a problem and that the subject wasn’t polite discussion for a dinner - although she had just fetched her computer to show us dildos!!! She then stomped off outside and wouldn’t reconcile when she came back. It’s not just the guys who get hooked on do-it-yourself sex.
Make sure your own libido is in balance
Assuming you find a way to let your partner re-educate herself, you may still need to address a challenge of your own making. Your libido may be inflamed beyond what is normal for you. After all, today’s superstimulating media (ads, TV shows, magazines, cyberporn, etc.) pump up sexual desire, especially in those who tend to be more visual (men). And orgasm itself can ratchet up desire because intense neurochemical highs lead to intense neurochemical lows. The lows have the paradoxical effect of making cravings for relief unnaturally powerful. (See Mind-benders: When 'Natural' Is Risky) This often means that men are looking to a partner more eagerly than ever to “put out their fire” with more orgasms. Men may also resort to pharmaceutical and mechanical sexual enhancements to keep this unnatural libido pumped up, not realizing that they are risking dangerous side effects in their attempts to preserve an artificial state.
Unfortunately, angling for sex and eagerly feeling up your mate because it gives you some relief (raises your dopamine) can make her feel like she is being suctioned by an insatiable octopus. Therefore, your attention may actually be pushing her away—registering as selfish rather than loving—and leaving the you less satisfied than ever. A female equivalent of this kind of neediness would be a demanding, jealous wife who constantly insists upon her chosen "proof" of her husband's love (flowers, daily calls when he's away, expensive vacations, etc.).
As one octopus's mate put it, "No matter how affectionate I am, I feel like I'm pouring my affection into a sieve." Her partner never feels satisfied, and therefore has little to offer in return—except more grabby behavior - on his schedule, and not necessarily when she could really use a hug. As a consequence, she feels increasingly drained, and sometimes resentful.
Her octopus sometimes imagines that he is "unloved," when, in fact, he is alienating her with his bottomless pit neediness. In this situation, where neither partner feels his or her needs are being met because one is suffering from hopeless horniness, and the other is feeling mightily drained and unsupported, habituation can easily creep in. Both mates may wonder if they're with the wrong person.
As an aside, because too much intensity can actually desensitize the part of the brain that governs sex, some octopuses may be suggesting rougher, kinkier or riskier ways of producing orgasms. “Tamer” orgasms may not be doing it for them anymore. A woman can begin to realize that no amount of sexual thrills make sex satisfying once she and her partner are plugged into this escalating spiral. An octopus, however, knowing no other possible cure for his horniness, remains convinced that satisfaction lies right beyond the next, or hotter, orgasm.
Chances are that he's still oblivious that each orgasm starts another passion cycle, with its ups and downs. In short, if you have octopus tendencies, or if your partner is reacting to you like an octopus, get your own house in order. See what passing up frequent orgasm can do for your inner balance (after the initial discomfort of withdrawa). When you do, you leave space for your partner to delight you voluntarily with her affection. Not only that, you may find that your increased balance translates into fewer bothersome cravings for orgasm, while you still experience a warm readiness for generous affection. This can be a welcome relief for you both.
Learn how to soothe your alligator
If your partner's nervous system has grown defensive as a result of past sexual dynamics between you, she may be behaving like an alligator. That is, she may be snapping at you with very little provocation, or feeling uncharacteristically cool and decidedly un-cuddly. Even when she learns of the power of karezza or bonding behaviors, she may imagine that you, her sexually demanding octopus, will feel even hornier without orgasm, and will want even more draining attention. The concept of karezza may seem to her about as inviting as a toothache. After all, she probably feels like her biggest need is for space.
At first, even your most chivalrous and selfless approach may trigger a defensive response. Unfortunately, she would be protecting herself from what she most needs for greater well-being: an exchange of affection with you. However innocently and unintentionally this situation arises, the reality for the moment is that a primitive part of your alligator's brain is feeling unnaturally defensive. She is not being mean, and she doesn't hate sex. Her amygdala (the part of the brain that acts as an "inner guardian," making us cautious of anything we associate with stress) is simply on high alert.
What can you do? Last summer my husband and I visited a reptile display at a county fair. A man was holding a live alligator on his lap, which visitors were invited to pet. While petting the alligator, I asked how it became so tame. He said, "I stroke it daily. If I didn't do that, it would become wild again very quickly." This, kind sir, is the key to soothing your alligator. Your mission now *theme music* is to turn her amygdala down. The good news is that the bonding behaviors that you need to soothe your sexual frustration are exactly what she needs to relax her defensiveness.
Bonding behaviors produce oxytocin. It's the "cuddle chemical." It turns the amygdala down. This is why bonding behaviors can pull estranged partners into harmony. As your generous, daily, non-needy affection causes your mate to produce more oxytocin, her inner guardian will relax and she will genuinely feel like bonding with you again. But it will take a bit of time, selflessness, and self-discipline to allow her nervous system to stop producing alarm signals. "Less - but frequent - is more" during this transition.
You may also need to employ a bit of clever strategy. Here are some suggestions that others have found helpful. Offer your mate her favorite non-erotic comforting touch. If she likes her feet rubbed, or her belly stroked, do it, preferably without asking. (If you ask, you give her alarm opportunity to sound.) This helps her nervous system associate you with relaxed comfort. Sleep in the same bed, if possible. Decades ago, psychiatrist and marriage counselor Rudolf von Urban3observed that:
Cases in which both partners have declared that they preferred twin beds because they disturbed each other, but later were persuaded to occupy a double bed, showed obvious improvement in their relations after a few nights. They became more harmonious, more indulgent toward each other's weaknesses and, occasionally, a seemingly dying love revived between them.
If she's rejecting your overtures, remind yourself not to take it personally. The amygdala (inner guardian) operates at a subconscious level, and can often only be relaxed with subconscious cues that speak directly to it. Don't beg for her affection. Instead try a surprise bear hug from behind during the day, or a spontaneous kiss on the back of the neck. Or pull her onto your lap for a squeeze. As one woman advised a man on our forum:
Don't do it so often that she thinks of it as "just another tactic" (even if it is). Leave it unpredictable enough that she finds herself secretly wanting more. Find a way to literally sweep her off her feet (like from behind), then give her an enthusiastic kiss. Don't linger, just express your love passionately, spontaneously, and briefly, THEN RETREAT. Don't ask her to come up to bed. Don't make any demands on her for at least a week. And during that week, do a few things for her that are totally special, like bringing her breakfast in bed. Make sure to do these things without any expectation or demand on her at all. Don't beg in any way.
Even as your partner begins to thaw, don’t try to engage in bonding behaviors for more than a few minutes unless she’s responding enthusiastically. Even then, leave her longing for more, if you can. By respecting her boundaries, you allow her amygdala to calm down. Once she relaxes at a subconscious level, you are likely to notice that she becomes more affectionate spontaneously.
If she's open to having intercourse, schedule it in advance, and stick to your commitment. Don’t have intercourse on non-intercourse nights—even if she tries to seduce you! The nights when you don’t have intercourse are as important as intercourse nights for maintaining your bonds. On these occasions, you can relax into truly non-goal-oriented affection. This is very nurturing and soothing to both partners. It can help the over-heated partner to come back into balance, and it can help the overtaxed partner to relax any defensiveness that has naturally built up while struggling to cope with an octopus.
The nasty thing about an overly defensive amygdala is that the more you pound on it to let you in, the more defensive it gets. The only way to soothe it is with generous, gentle behaviors. Once it quiets itself - with your help - your mate will feel very different...and you will start to look a lot cuter. If you're wondering which types of affection soothe the amygdala most effectively, the answer is bonding behaviors. This is because all mammals are programmed to find them relaxing and comforting.
Here’s a long list of these behaviors, but you can also be creative and playful in designing your own. What about a midnight frolic outside to watch the stars together while holding each other? Or a five-minute long, still hug, or snuggle on the couch, in the middle of the day? More elaborate suggestions can be found at Exchange of the Day.
Also keep in mind that affection needs to be daily for best results. Even a few minutes each day will do the trick. One way to make this daily affection more welcome is to take turns choosing your favorite bonding behavior. By taking turns, the alligator can receive some of her favorite non-foreplay touch, and the octopus can feel great about asking for his favorite comforting touch, too.
REMINDER Just keep in mind that these bonding behaviors are not foreplay. They only work if you are only thinking of how to comfort, or love, or pamper the other person. They don't work if you're trying to get more of something from your partner. Use them to nurture each other, not to arouse.
Work with her monthly cycle
Once lovers know they can count on regular affection, and intercourse that is not draining or tension producing, their states of mind tend to bloom in surprising ways. The transition requires patience, but offers unexpected benefits.
I'm not yet getting the lovey-dovey response that I want....but I have faith. I'm slowly moving away from what I want, to what I can give. It's not a linear process. One day she gives me an unexpected hug; the next day she seems cool again. Still, it's nice to feel the shift in my motivation. Before I was motivated by fear. "If I do (or don't do) something she'll get mad and I won't get what I need." This is not a sound basis for a loving relationship. Now I try to ask myself, "What can I do to show my love?" and to my wife, "What can I do for you?". My manipulation habit is fading away. I still want more from her, but at least I don't feel like the dog, waiting for scraps. I am a man of faith who has his own work to do.
NOTE: If you and your partner prefer structure, the Ecstatic Exchanges in Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow offer a three-week collection of playful, affectionate activities for adults. They are consistent with the suggestions in this article.
- 1. Clues are appearing on the horizon, though. For example, this psychiatrist recently revealed that he has emotionally healthy patients who experience post-orgasm symptoms.
- 2. Judson Landis, “The Women Kinsey Studied,” Social Problems, in Jerome Himelhoch and Sylvia F. Fava, eds., Sexual Behavior in American Society (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1955): 112.
- 3. Sex, Perfection and Marital Happiness, by Rudolph Von Urban, MD, The Dial Press, NY (1949).