“Help! What’s gone wrong with my marriage? We used to be so passionate! The sex was hot and heavy. Now, our sex life is almost non-existent. If it goes on like this any longer, I don’t know what I’ll do.” When words of this sort pour from a client’s lips, I know there’s a lot of work ahead. As I think of the standard solutions to this difficult and complex issue, I know there is no quick fix.
The standard advice reads: “Have more fun.” “Take off the pressure.” “Make romance happen!” “Wear sexy lingerie.” “Have a date night!” “Cuddle with each other.”
While all of these suggestions could, over time, improve sexual intimacy in a generally healthy marriage, they won’t do enough to restore a sexual connection that has gone deeply awry. Every couple and every marriage is different, yet the dynamics underlying sexual issues are often very much the same.
In learning to understand what might be going on in your own marriage, it’s important to start with the basics. Although your heart and brain may be screaming for a quick solution to your woes, some comfort can be found by knowing that simple biology is part of the problem. In understanding that certain behaviors affect sexual connection over time, it can be easier to understand—and change—the habits and tendencies that work against us. So, sit back, put on your science hat, and read on.
Animals On Drugs
Let’s face it; we’re animals. Nature has its way of ensuring survival of the species; when we become attracted to someone, this attraction leads to the desire to bond and mate. When you met your partner, it’s likely that sparks flew and passions were flamed in the early months of your relationship. In the beginning stages of a romantic relationship, infatuation and a desire for bonding often lead to intense desire and sexual activity. The primitive part of the brain takes control, and the desire for pleasure and connection heighten. In basic terms, the guy wants to conquer and sow his seed; the gal wants to bond and procreate. These base, atavistic needs serve us well enough at the early stages of a relationship, but we need much more to sustain sexual intimacy in the long run.
Looking at this concept from a neurobiological perspective, partners initially become bonded by rising levels of the neurotransmitters phenethylamine (PEA), dopamine, and oxytocin. Of course, other hormones and neurotransmitters are at work, but we’ll focus on these three key players.
Let’s start with the neurotransmitter PEA. Higher quantities of PEA are produced during the infatuation stage of a relationship. PEA acts as a stimulant; it elevates energy, mood, and attention. As interest and passion grow, we feel the wonderful, positive effects of the increased levels of PEA. On the downside, it’s important to note that feelings of sadness and depression often occur when PEA levels drop.
Now, let’s take a look at dopamine, the brain’s “reward and pleasure” neurotransmitter; this vital chemical is involved in our emotional responses. Dopamine functions on many levels to keep us well and happy. From supporting motivation and bonding to generating feelings of well-being and satisfaction, adequate levels of dopamine are vital to our health. As we fall in love and have positive interactions, dopamine levels naturally increase. When we are sexually aroused by touch and close contact, dopamine levels rise even higher. When sexual activity results leading to orgasm, extra doses of dopamine flood the brain. On a physiological level, dopamine—a powerful neurotransmitter that is involved in all addictions—gets us “hooked” on sex and love. Unfortunately, dopamine levels fall after orgasm (more rapidly in males than females), and feelings of well-being and satisfaction dissipate. As dopamine levels subside, we crave and seek the same interaction (sex) that made us feel so good. Of course, the rapid fluctuations in dopamine levels also correspond to the emotional “highs and lows” experienced in the relationship. This erratic cycle helps account for the roller coaster ride that is often experienced in the earlier stages of relationships.
Thank goodness for the famous “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin. Oxytocin, which acts as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, leads to strong pair-bonding. High oxytocin levels allow us to connect and form strong bonds during the initial stages of a relationship. Known as the “cuddle hormone” for good reason, oxytocin counteracts the emotional ups and downs that result from the fluctuating dopamine levels. Oxytocin makes us feel safe and bonded; it also counteracts fear and anxiety. Oxytocin helps produce a sense of connection and emotional stability. Although oxytocin levels tend to fall after orgasm, oxytocin levels can be better sustained by maintaining close physical contact after orgasm. So, cuddling and holding after sexual intimacy not only feels good, it also works on a positive physiological level.
When we experience a natural drop in the “feel good” neurochemicals, we automatically desire more sex to overcome the dips. Like any “addiction,” the neurochemicals that flood the brain during sex leave us craving more. It’s only natural, then, that this cycle continues; sex gives us a sense of feeling emotionally high and physically good, so we want more sex. However, we can’t forget that the emotional lows are also part of the sex cycle. These lows, in fact, can be a contributing factor to the decline in sexual activity. Being animals, we crave situations that leave us feeling good, yet we also want to avoid situations that leave us feeling low or edgy. As such, when we begin to connect sexual intimacy with the lows of the cycle, sexual interest naturally wanes. “Oh, no!” says the brain. “Avoid this. It’s doesn’t feel so good after all. The sex isn’t worth the aloneness I feel afterward.” When the roller coaster cycle of terrific sex and emotional fluctuations continues, conflict and confusion often arise. Despite the highs of the sexual connection, most couples cannot sustain the constant emotional instability; something has to give.
Breaking the Chains of Physiology
This leaves us with looking for long-term solutions that don’t leave partners at the mercy of their physiology. For those committed to having a thriving relationship, there is work to be done in finding and maintaining healthy ways to connect sexually without relying on the highs of the roller coaster ride. It takes thought, time, and energy to keep passion alive after the infatuation stages; unfortunately, many couples take seemingly easier routes.
Some partners simply give up on the relationship. Another partner is sought, and the same wild and passionate roller coaster ride begins anew within a different relationship. In other cases, partners choose to seek passion elsewhere; infidelity may provide a quick fix, but the relationship suffers. Some relationships rely on constant fights and resulting “make-up sex” to keep the “highs” going; unfortunately, this pattern—and the severe “lows” that result—can deeply impair connection and damage true intimacy. In other cases, confused and frustrated couples lose hope and become resigned to a sexless or near-sexless relationship. In many situations, however, much can be done to restore, renew, and invigorate sexual intimacy.
Clients often seek my help as their emotional and sexual intimacy unravel. In essence, most couples desire the same connection, romance, and passion they experienced in the infatuation stage of the relationship. This is understandable; we all want to feel loved, cared for, and connected. The real work comes from learning how to sustain sexual intimacy without relying solely on the primitive, “I want pleasure” part of the brain. As described above, there is a considerable downside to letting basic physiology control a relationship. Indeed, as a relationship matures, opportunities for truly intimate sexual bonding increase. This takes effort, time, and loving thought. To be successful, both partners need to engage on a level that goes beyond the primitive brain’s desire to “feel good right now!”
You might now find yourself screaming, “Enough already! Give me the solution!” Trust me, I will. In the meantime, by reading the above, you are already on your way to understanding how and why you might now be in a sexless marriage. Without resorting to blame, this article can help you appreciate what makes you and your partner tick. In understanding more about what’s going on inside your body and your brain, you now have the power to begin to change old patterns that might have controlled you and your relationship. Stay tuned for the next article in my wide-reaching series on this important topic. Help is on the way, but remember: Change takes time, effort, and commitment!