(This article has been updated.)
I’ve always wondered why moving, intimate experiences like the Ecstatic Exchanges can create such powerful shifts for couples…and yet why it is so easy for stagnation to creep back into an intimate relationship. Recently I stumbled upon an insight that furnishes an answer to both questions.
We humans are programmed for both reproductive urges (mating) and for physical and emotional closeness (bonding). The bonding program evolved primarily to bond us to our parents, and our kids. This powerful caregiver-infant connection is so fundamental that it is what separates mammals from reptiles. Reptiles just lay eggs and wander off; baby mammals need strong emotional ties to their caregivers for a time in order to survive.
Emotional bonds between lovers use the same brain mechanism (and neurochemicals) as the bonds between infant and caregiver. However, scientists consider lovers’ bonds to be an adaptation, or secondary, use of this mammalian program. In other words, Mother Nature sees emotional bonds between lovers as a temporary priority in intimate relationships. They are there simply to encourage both parents to bond long enough to contribute to their child’s survival. This means that, in Mother Nature’s view, it is ideal if the parents add some sexual activity on the side after a time. This improves the genetic variety of their offspring, as well as their genes’ chances for making it into the future.
As my husband says, “your genes don’t give a rat’s…butt about fidelity, happiness or lifelong companionship.” Mother Nature’s script is painful for all concerned, and our mating program is probably even older than our bonding program (as far as adult romance goes). This may be why sacred sex traditions like karezza and Taoist lovemaking tap into the power of subconscious bonding behaviors—for lovers. In fact, non-goal-oriented intercourse itself ultimately becomes a bonding behavior because it is so unselfish and nurturing.
Why is it so important to understand that lovers can use bonding behaviors too? Because even though we have the potential to strengthen our emotional ties with our mates, the process isn’t automatic. We have to activate it with certain cues, or it becomes dormant. This is true even between mothers and babies. It is the exchange of cues, such as eye contact, skin-to-skin contact, smiling, kissing, sucking and comforting touch that awaken and sustain the desire to bond emotionally.
Lovers instinctively use these cues, too—at the beginning of their romances. Think of those special smiles and lingering kisses you once exchanged with your beloved! However, we tend to drift away from consistent use of these cues…especially during the two weeks after sexual satiation.
The good news is that lovers can consciously choose to incorporate more of these behaviors into their connection in order to strengthen and maintain their emotional bonds. There is one important refinement, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Now I understand why the Exchanges can be very powerful for lovers…and why the magic can fade once they have finished with them. It’s easy to fall back into old habits, perhaps minus sexual satiation. Avoiding sexual satiation as much as possible is useful, too, because those post-orgasmic feelings so often fuel uneasiness between lovers. Yet, without the generous affection that speaks directly to the bonding mechanism deep in the mammalian brain, avoiding orgasm won’t do the whole job of keeping the sparkle in an intimate relationship.
My husband and I worked this out early on. That is, we noticed that whenever we drifted back into self-centered, hungry touch, we needed to stop and do a few Exchanges to get back on track. But we didn’t know why this worked. Now we do. We were feeding our mammalian brains the signals to strengthen our bonds again, using generous affection.
This strategy of consciously exchanging mammalian bonding cues may feel a bit artificial at first, but it soon becomes automatic. It also becomes increasingly pleasurable for two reasons. First, male or female, you are hardwired to find these behaviors rewarding. Your survival once depended upon your seeking these pleasures! Second, as you engage in these behaviors, you awaken a neurochemical ally: oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” with its life-enhancing properties. In this way, these simple bonding cues can produce increasing feelings of wellbeing with time.
Bonding behaviors also increase our confidence, resilience and empathy. They are so powerful that they can even heal people suffering from reactive attachment disorder (rage due to failure to bond with a parent early on).
So what behaviors can lovers use to signal each other that they want to deepen their emotional connection? Here is a list:
- smiling, with eye contact
- skin-to-skin contact
- providing a service or treat without being asked
- giving unsolicited approval, via smiles or compliments
- gazing into each other’s eyes for several moments
- listening intently, and restating what you hear
- forgiving or overlooking an error or thoughtless remark, whether past or present
- preparing your partner something to eat
- synchronized breathing
- kissing with lips and tongues
- cradling, or gently rocking, your partner’s head and torso (works well on a couch, or with lots of pillows)
- holding, or spooning, each other in stillness for at least twenty minutes to a half-hour
- wordless sounds of contentment and pleasure
- stroking with intent to comfort
- massaging with intent to comfort, especially feet, shoulders and head
- hugging with intent to comfort
- lying with your ear over your partner’s heart and listening to his or her heartbeat for several moments
- touching and sucking of nipples/breasts
- gently placing your palm over your lover’s genitals with intent to comfort
- making time together at bedtime a priority (even if one partner has to get up and work on something afterward)
The desire for, and rewards of, these behaviors are deeply rooted in millions of year of evolution. Enjoy!
You may need to retrain
All of the bonding behaviors listed above are powerful, but touch deserves special consideration because it is a two-edged sword. Touch always has a "charge" to it. As a friend once said, "your hugs feel completely different from my boyfriend’s. You're trying to comfort me. He's trying to get something." Nurturing touch is a life-enhancing gift. Hungry touch can be a drain, and even an invasion.
In order to activate your lover’s subconscious bonding program, you want to make your touch unselfish. Touch your lover’s entire body as if one part were no more important than the other. Don’t just focus on your favorite bits. Has your mate been complaining about something hurting or feeling fatigued? Think about sending healing, comforting energy to that body region. Tune into your partner’s response to your touch instead of concentrating on your own sensations. Sometimes it helps to imagine that energy is flowing out of your hands into your partner as you touch.
One man says that to get in the right mindset, he imagines the loving feelings he has when lying together, naked and in stillness, with his lover. Then he calls on these feelings when touching his mate, and his touch becomes a gift. A woman told me she touches her partner with the same nurturing, unconditionally loving energy she would use to comfort a child.
Trust your intuition. Whenever you feel your partner’s generous energy flow toward you, encourage her or him with wordless noises of delight. Be patient. It sometimes takes a while to figure out if your own touch is based on giving or getting. After all, traditional foreplay is usually hungry touch, and it may have become a habit by now.
Nurturing touch creates a space of comfort and safety. It can also be surprisingly ecstatic, as a friend discovered:
Though it was after 11 PM, we cuddled. For about two hours. Ecstatic cuddling. Two hours. Ecstatic. Hours. I had experiences last night that I do not have immediate words for. Rich, deep, full. Subtle. Powerful. Moving. Meaningful. Pointing to greater connection with all life. We were in connection. In the same wave, as she put it, like a flock of birds wheeling in the sky as if with one mind.
Finally, the bonding behaviors listed above are only part of the story. We also have to meet each other’s needs for relief from sexual tension—completely. That’s where gentle lovemaking with lots of periods of relaxation fit into the total picture. (Check out the Wisdom articles for details.) Together, these two complementary techniques can go far toward sustaining the sparkle between partners.
Here's an account of a forum visitor's experience with bonding behaviors. The full post can be found here: http://www.reuniting.info/node/1763#
All those delightful bonding behaviours! My wife and I were breezing along delightfully, taking turns choosing our daily intimate activities and seemingly getting more and more fond of each other. Then, a hiccup occurred. We had visitors for three weeks; and then we went on a walking trip which always had one other person besides ourselves in attendance. During this time, we abandoned our ’choices’ regime (taking turns suggesting intimate activities). It was just too difficult to keep up. I think this was because it seemed impolite to be engaging primarily as a couple when other people were around; and were so busy we had very little time when we were alone together.
The downside of being busy and polite was that kissing, cuddling, complimenting each other, making love, etc, etc, took a back seat; and now we’re on our own again, it’s proving a big of a slog to restart the sparkle. It’s like we’re partial strangers.
It strikes me that the intimate bond between a couple is very reliant on that couple spending time together in a cocoon away from the world. We all know how tactile parents and young children are; and how young lovers replicate this. However, Marnia’s list of bonding behaviours includes mostly things that can only be done in privacy - unless you’re a parent with a young child, or a pair of besotted young lovers. I trust I’m not the only person who would find older couples tongue kissing or whispering sweet nothings when in company slightly off putting. Maybe this is something I need to get over; but, at the moment, seeing friends and relations, in middle age, who have started new relationships, behaving like teenagers, is not nearly as endearing as it would be if they were in the first flush of youth.
It’s been something of an eye-opener for me to recognise what is cause and what is effect. If I hadn’t been aware of the theoretical importance of bonding behaviours, and their likely result - learned from Marnia - I would have tended to think, as I have in the past, that our cuddling had dried up because we’d temporarily ‘gone off’ each other, rather than the other way around. This wouldn’t have been particularly worrying, in itself. We’ve been married ages, and we’ve had loads of ups and downs. This would have just seemed like another minor bump in the road. In fact, I used to believe ups and downs were as inevitable in marriage as in any other sphere; and that the only way round them was to wait for the bottom to occur, and enjoy the passage to the top again. Now, I’m not so sure, since it‘s become clear to me that ’going off’ one another is the result, rather than the cause, of a dearth of cuddling.
Lack of cuddling eventually leads to lack of desire to cuddle, whether through laziness, habit, resentment or indifference. Cuddling (all bonding behaviours included) causes the desire for more cuddles. It is a beneficent biofeedback machine, just as the absence of bonding behaviours seems to be the opposite. Everyone will be familiar with young lovers not seeming able to get near enough to each other. Well, we’ve experienced the same, repeatedly, as a result of initially scheduling bonding behaviour and watching it snowball.
If serial cuddling doesn’t come naturally (ie, a couple isn’t made up of a parent and child, or are an inseparable pair of young lovers) it seems absolutely critical to make time to schedule bonding behaviours. It’s as critical as an exercise regime, should a person have decided they like the outcome of exercise. In this case, assuming a couple likes the idea of feeling as close and as in love as parent and child or star crossed teenagers, time and effort have to be employed.
Actually, it’s hardly any effort at all. The effort is in remembering to do it, and in overcoming any underlying resentment that might make that ‘remembering’ more difficult. Initially, the bonding behaviour schedule need only be one activity a day; and that activity needn’t last longer than a minute, though it could, of course, last a lot longer. I think it needs to last at least as long as a minute, as, in our experience, that’s enough to start the snowballing effect. Bonding behaviours then become automatic and seem to replicate themselves in abundance. It’s not so much that they become a habit, like brushing teeth; they are more like a drink that we develop a liking, and then a recurring thirst, for, not because of the obvious beneficial effect, both short and long term, but because the taste becomes inherently irresistible.
My wife and I are useless at sticking to schedules in most areas of life; and once we drop a routine, it tends to stay out of sight for a long time, to be forgotten, until one day it gets resurrected, before being dropped again. Luckily, the fallout from our enforced stopping of intimate choices is so obviously non-beneficial, it’s woken us up far more immediately than, say, the exercise regime we were also doing at the same time and that also got interrupted but that, frankly, both of us could happily take or leave. We may get round to exercising again one day; but we’re in the process of resurrecting our bonding behaviour schedule, now.
Also see Hold Me Tight.