Friday, November 1, 2013

Pair Bonding's Emotional Effects

Just for the record, I am oversimplifying the biochemistry here. For starters, as I mentioned earlier, there are two very similar chemicals involved, oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin is believed to have the dominant role in humans, but the verdict on that is still out, and a variant gene for vasopressin receptors in the brain may be the reason some men have difficulties forming secure attachments. In general, when I say “oxytocin,” I mean “oxytocin and/or vasopressin.”

I am also simplifying the effects of these chemicals, which are often somewhat indirect, since they trigger the release of other chemicals, including dopamine, endorphins, and endocannabinoids in a chemical cascade that has some interesting effects. (If you are curious, Google away. This has become a hot topic in recent years, and there’s a lot of good info out there, along with the usual distortions and exaggerations.)

Okay, with that disclaimer out of the way, what does it really mean when we say oxytocin and vasopressin promote pair bonding? Researchers recently came up with a fascinating demonstration of their effect on the pair bond in a (mostly) monogamous mammal species. Prairie voles are small rodents that form long-term pair bonds. Pairs mate often and males hang around the nest and aggressively guard the female and pups. Montane voles are a closely related species that don’t form bonds at all – both genders are promiscuous and the females raise young alone.

The difference between them is that the prairie voles, like humans, have a lot of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors in the pleasure centers of the brain, while the montane voles have very few. A single gene determines the difference, and when the researchers inserted the prairie vole gene into a male montane vole’s DNA, the montane vole started behaving just like a typical male prairie vole, bonding closely with one mate instead of playing around.

If you have ever listened to parents as they describe their emotions when they first hold their newborn child, you have some sense of how powerful this bonding process can be. Parents often describe feeling overwhelmed by an incredible rush of love and protectiveness toward the infant. Such feelings seem related to real, long-term effects, as research shows that there is a strong correlation between such reports and infant health and survival. In particular, the children of the relatively small number of parents who do not report spontaneous feelings of love and attachment are more at risk for child abuse and death.

Tantra, Oxytocin, and Love

I don’t know if anyone has ever measured the oxytocin levels of a couple after a good Tantra session, but I’m willing to bet that they would be off the chart.

What I found especially interesting during my interviews is how often these couples use language to describe their emotions during and after Tantra that is practically identical to the language parents use after childbirth.  I can't think of a better way to convey how they feel than to share their words with you, so I'm going to introduce you to some of the Tantrics I interviewed:

Anna, 28, described the emotional effect this way, “I always end up feeling this incredible wave of love for him that’s really overpowering. I want to hug him so tightly that we DO turn into one person. It’s so strong I’ve sometimes started crying on his neck while I’m clutching onto him, which he finds a little bit alarming, while I try to explain incoherently that no, I’m not unhappy, I’m very happy, and I love him with all my heart.”

This is what Marla, 62, said about her need to maintain contact after the last orgasm: “Unless something went really off course, I’m feeling totally wiped out by love and orgasmic overload, and I want to make it last as long as I can.”

Here’s a favorite longer bit, from my interview with Jason (age 37, married 9 years), that I think describes the bonding effect really well:

Peg and I were very much in love when we married, but I guess we got lazy or stale, because the passion had dwindled a lot. We were in the habit of being in love, so we kept acting like it, but I think we were really just sort of fond of each other. And like a lot of parents, we put the baby first and let the sex slide.
Eventually this started to bother us. We started doing Tantra two years ago. At first it was just to put some spice back into our sex life, and it did. But after four or five months of doing Tantra, we were starting to get fairly good at it. And it really changed things. I mean, it really changed things.
I remember we had a day when everything really clicked. The massage she gave me felt incredible. I had a really strong pelvic orgasm, she had a string of really good ones, and we almost melted into each other doing meditation and lying linked together for a long time. [They use inverted missionary, with Peg lying on Jason’s chest, for Yab-Yum.]
That turned into sex that just seemed to stretch forever, not hard or fast, just very sensual and warm and soft. When it finally ended, I felt so much love for her, all I could do was hold her. She finally asked me what was wrong, and all I could do was whisper ‘I love you’ over and over again.
This has happened quite a few times. I sometimes feel like I’m drowning in it. The only thing I can compare it to is the day Molly was born, and the way I felt about both of them the first time I held her, and then when I put her in Peg’s arms and watched her latch on and start nursing.
It was really tender and I remember really, really wanting to protect them both. What I feel now for Peg after Tantra can be just as overwhelming, except it’s sexy and romantic as well as tender.
She kids me about it, but she’s just as big a doof as I am. I think in a lot ways, we’re more in love now than when we got married. We touch a lot more, hold hands, grab kisses in passing.
My dad accused us of acting like teenagers when we were there at Christmas. Said it was indecent at our age, and we were embarrassing him and that we should learn to act like boring old married people. But he said it with a grin. He’s happy we’re happy.

About halfway through the process of doing these interviews, I began asking each person to fill out a short questionnaire separately, telling them I would keep the answers private. I think two of the questions that I asked are especially relevant here.

The first is, “Do you feel like you and your partner are more in love now than you were when you began practicing Tantra?” Around a quarter said they were at least as much in love now, and the rest said they were more or much more in love now. None said less.

Second, I asked them, “A lot of people who practice Tantra say that it improves their sexual pleasure and increases their emotional attachment to each other. For you, how important is the emotional effect in comparison to the pleasure effect?” Just over two thirds said that the emotional benefits were more important or much more important. The rest said they were equally important. Not one of them said that the increased sexual pleasure was more important, even though many of them came to Tantra in the first place seeking a better or more intense sexual experience.

In the next post, we'll have a look at how some of the other chemicals in the neurological soup affect pair bonding, and I'll conclude with some thoughts on what it means for couples.

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