Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Chemicals of Love Part 2: Now that We're Hitched...

Read part one here.

When we last left Bert and Shirley, they were madly in love thanks to the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinepherine, and phenylethlamine.

This "state" serves a useful purpose- it puts genetically dissimilar people in a position to have lots of sex, which would then lead to a pregnancy (think evolutionary terms... not necessarily Bert and Shirley's desires). 

This stage of a relationship doesn't last forever mostly because it's taxing on our bodies. It would literally kill us if it lasted forever.

It's important to understand this idea. In the United States, we have a misguided belief that we should "keep the spark alive" in relationships and maintain that same level of obsessive passion that dominated the early days. From a purely evolutionary biological standpoint, that heightened state would probably make it impossible for the woman to carry a fetus to term. 

Also, that early phase of a relationship is volatile. The participants make each other the center of their universe... but that can end at a moment's notice. There's very little emotional bonding happening in that early phase, even though both people are seemingly obsessed with each other.

That bonding begins to happen after anywhere from three months to a year. The high levels of dopamine, phenylethlamine, and norepinepherine begin to wane. Before the next round of chemicals takes over, an interesting phenomenon occurs.

Curiously, the early relationship phase causes each of the partners to ignore the negative traits of the other. One of the partners may observe negative behaviors in the other, but minimize them. 

For example, Bert has a terrible habit of eating with his mouth open. It annoys everyone around him... except Shirley. Shirley finds the behavior strangely endearing and rationalizes it by thinking Bert is comfortable enough in social situations to really let his guard down. Shirley has her own annoying habit. She needs constant affirmations and fishes for them constantly. She repeatedly says things like 'I'm too fat" or "I'm not good enough." Other people around her get annoyed and avoid her. Bert rationalizes this behavior by thinking she's just really, really modest.

Once those early relationship chemicals wear off, the veil is lifted. Suddenly all of each partner's negative characteristics are perceived for what they are. Bert's eating with his mouth open now bugs the Hell out of Shirley. Shirley's constant need for affirmations becomes overwhelmingly annoying to Bert.

This is always a major crossroad for any relationship. If the negatives are too bad, the relationship ends. If each partner can live with the negatives, the relationship continues... into the next "commitment" phase.

So what exactly happens in this next phase? First both partners calm down. They get more sleep, regain lost weight, and are now capable of spending more time apart without a crushing desire to see the other person.

Three chemicals are released in the brain during this phase- Oxytocin, vasopressin, and endorphines. These three chemicals serve to emotionally bond us to the other person. In evolutionary terms, this keeps a couple together long enough to raise a child that would have been conceived in the previous phase. Each of the chemicals serves a specific purpose:

  • Oxytocin- This is the "attachment' neurotransmitter. When it's released in the brain, we feel bonded to the person around us. When women are breastfeeding, the neurotransmitter is released causing mom to bond with the baby. It's also released whenever we're touched, cuddle, and kiss each other. It's released in greatest amounts when we have sex with the greatest amount occurring with orgasm. Note to dudes- research indicates women achieve the ideal levels of oxytocin when they orgasm at least twice per week. Make sure you're taking care of your ladies to maximize emotional bonding. ;-)
  •  Vasopressin: Vasopressin is known as the "monogamy" neurotransmitter. It works by controlling dopamine and norepinepherine. It also seems to play a role in activating our brain's reward centers (gives us pleasure) when we're in the presence of our mate. It also tends to calm us down. Vasopressin is released when we have sex with our mate and seems to cause us to only prefer that mate (ergo monogamy). If vasopressin levels drop, mates look for love elsewhere.
  • Endorphines: Endorphines are the body's natural painkillers. Chemically, they are similar to the opiates- heroin, morphine, oxycontin, etc. Not only do they relieve pain, they also reduce anxiety and make us feel good. When we're in the presence of our mate, our brains produce a little more endorphines. When we have sex, our brains produce a lot of endorphines. The resulting calmness and positive feelings helps reinforce our attachment. Interestingly, the endorphine/sex relationship was discovered when researchers put mice in a guillotine device, allowed them to have sex, then decapitated them during the act.
So there you have it- the quick rundown of the bonding chemicals. If we assume Bert and Shirley didn't break up over their respective annoying habits, they'd eventually move into this phase. Their frantic passion that caused them to have sex anywhere and everywhere will be replaced by a calm comfort that would lead them to shop at IKEA. 

As I noted earlier, this shift is inevitable in any relationship that survives that moment of reckoning when each partner evaluates negative characteristics. Once the couple moves past that point, they enter a phase where they just enjoy being together... which facilitates child-rearing. 

Bert and Shirley, having survived the initial frantic passion phase and the subsequent 'moment of reckoning", will likely have a long and fulfilling relationship.

What can Bert and Shirley do to make sure their relationship survives? It may be as simple as assuring a regular supply of oxytocin, vasopressin, and endorphines. How do they do that? Here's a pretty good recipe in order of importance:
  1. Have regular sex where the female orgasms at least twice per week.
  2. Touch each other at least twice per day, which could include a simple hug, massage, or kissing for at least a few seconds.
  3. Exercise and/or eat spicy food with your mate at least three times per week. Both activities produce endorphines, which facilitates bonding.
I've been asked if this same pattern applies to same sex couples since it seems to use child-rearing as rationale. By all measures, the same principles apply to same-sex couples as opposite-sex couples. 


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