Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Mystery and Magic of the Human Pair Bond

In my last post, I made a case that humans have (at least) three overlapping and competing attraction systems, and that there are styles of sex that are appropriate to each of the three. The key problem is that everyone starts out with lust and romance, but people who want to be in satisfying long-term relationships often aren’t able to make the transition to the kind of sex that can sustain a long-term relationship.

Attraction Modes and Sex Styles

This is what I mean by the types of sex that go with different attraction modes:

Lust leads to hot, fast, rough sex. Arousal and desire happen essentially simultaneously. For young men, in particular, they can be almost synonymous: to see a sexy woman in a context that suggests availability is to want her and get physically aroused in virtually the same instant.

In lust, desire goes all one way:  you want sex, and you don’t much care why the other person goes along as long as they do, so sex can be quite impersonal. Lust is strongest when it involves strangers; familiarity kills it rather quickly.  Hard core porn is all about lust.

Romance involves a longer, teasing, intermediate kind of sex, with a lot of buildup and uncertainty and then a fairly urgent consummation. Desire in this case is intensely reciprocal: you not only want the other person, you really want the other person to want you. Also, desire can precede physical arousal by a wide margin, as the couple go out to dinner, hold hands, walk in the park, and head home. They are consumed by desire long before they become physically aroused.

Romantic desire is fueled by mystery. It is strongest when it involves a semi-stranger, someone whom we are just getting to know and to whom we are carefully revealing ourselves. It runs out of energy when there’s nothing left to discover.  Soft core porn, rom-coms, and romance novels are all about this kind of sex.

Pair-bonding leads to, and depends on, sex that is generally slower paced, much less urgent, and much more focused on sensuality, pleasure, intimacy, physical and emotional satisfaction, comfort, and safety. All of these things depend on trust, and the foundation of trust is intimate knowledge of each other. Also, long-term partners can’t go around being consumed by lust or desire for each other. It would get in the way of too much else, which would undermine their ability to function well as a team, which would undermine the trust in each other that is at the foundation of the relationship. Instead, pair-bonding sex reverses the sequence seen in romantic sex, in that physical arousal usually comes first, followed by desire.

This confuses people whose upbringing and experience lead them to think that you must experience desire first. Sexually successful long-term couples don’t wait for desire. They initiate sex for mutual pleasure and as a way to express their love for each other, and they know, from long experience, that arousal and desire will follow. (Of course, it helps in building these habits and expectations if the sex is normally really good sex!)

However, long-term couples who are mentally stuck in the lust or romance modes can dwindle away to almost no sex at all, because they are always waiting for both partners to get horny at the same time. We just aren’t designed to be perpetually filled with lust or desire for someone we live with, sleep with, share chores and mundane life with, day after day for years.

It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Our desire for the person we love comes back when the two of us are physically aroused, but if we wait for desire to happen first, we’ll never get physically aroused, and if we never get physically aroused, we’ll never experience desire.

What Does Society Teach Us About Long-Term, Loving Relationships?

Unfortunately, our culture is full of images, movies, novels, and other sources of information about lust and romance, but it has almost nothing that teaches us what satisfying sex is like in a long-term, loving relationship. In part, this is because novelists, playwrights, moviemakers, and other storytellers all seem to think that happy couples are incredibly boring. Even if you’ve never read Anna Karenina, you may still remember hearing Tolstoy’s famous opening line:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The subtext, of course, is that happy families are boring, and no writer wants to write about boring people. So we’re immersed in stories about lust and romance, with all their pitfalls, and stories about dysfunctional families in all their chaotic complexity and diversity, and we hear little or nothing about the happy ones.

Our news media are obsessed with the cheating, the breakups, and the misbehavior of celebrities and politicians, but what do we hear about the private lives of the ones who stay happily married and faithful?

We’re barraged with stories and images of bad sex, rough sex, violent sex, and (highly idealized) romantic sex, but we never hear about long-term, loving couples who have good, passionate sex, decade after decade, without getting bored or stale. Where are the novels, plays, and movies that tell us their secrets?

When we look at even more explicit images and stories, we find that porn is driven almost entirely by the first two systems: violent and aggressively impersonal hard-core sex and wildly over-romanticized soft-core sex. There is little or nothing that shows us how people who really love each other and have great sex lives actually behave, in the bedroom or out of it.

Upbringing and Examples

When you talk to lifelong lovers, one thing you will notice is that a lot of them had parents who were the same way. So some of it may be genetic. Perhaps people with genes that tilt them a bit toward commitment and away from the perpetual search for novelty are better marriage material.

Some of it may also be upbringing. The prefrontal cortex is associated with people’s capacity for planning, commitment, and self-control. It was the last part of the human brain to evolve, it takes a very long time – until the early to mid-twenties – to fully mature, and it is exceptionally vulnerable to stress in early life. High chronic stress in childhood and adolescence is associated with thinner prefrontal cortexes. Growing up in a loving and nurturing family is associated with thicker ones. Not surprisingly, there’s evidence that people with thicker prefrontal cortexes are more likely to be happily married, and that people who are happily married are more likely to raise kids who are less stressed and end up with thicker prefrontal lobes, a self-reinforcing cycle.

And some of the answer may just be the power of example. Even if our culture doesn’t teach us how to have a happy long-term relationship, we still may absorb the examples our parents (or grandparents, or close neighbors or family friends) provide, even if they never formally discuss it with us.

Of course the counterargument to all this is that there are people from horrible family backgrounds who still figure it out!

Whatever the reasons, there’s not a lot of information in our culture about long-term loving relationships. Even science has almost completely ignored the subject. Research psychologists, in particular, are famous for neglecting normality and preferring to study abnormalities and mental disorders. And practicing psychologists and therapists almost exclusively see people with problems, which distorts their sense of what is normal.

As a result, nearly all social scientists seem to believe that couples who share intense love and good sex for decades are extremely rare. It is the commonly expressed view in social science that love dwindles and sexual attraction dies within a decade at most, and that all (or almost all) long-term couples make the transition to what they call “companionate love,” which means they are basically just good friends, housemates, co-parents, and financial partners who stay together out of habit, duty, or religious conviction.

So there is widespread agreement among social scientists that long-term, deeply loving, intensely sexual relationships are rare exceptions. However, there’s a serious problem with this unanimity: there’s no evidence whatsoever in support of it. It was accepted so completely that no one bothered to question it or test it until quite recently.

So How Rare IS Intense Long-Term Love?

One of the recent exceptions to this has been a series of studies of people in long-term marriages, conducted by Bianca P. Acevedo, Artur Aron, and various colleagues. The most interesting one so far, called “Is Long-Term Love More Than A Rare Phenomenon? If So, What Are Its Correlates?” (O’Leary, Acevedo, Aron, et al.) was published in Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2012. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

It is commonly assumed that intense romantic love occurs in the early stages of a romantic relationship, but decreases drastically across time. Some theorists have proposed that romantic love is uncommon in marriage (e.g., Sternberg, 1986) or has little use after the child-rearing years (e.g., Buss, 1989). Others suggest that given the right circumstances it may evolve into companionate love—low in intensity and generally devoid of attraction and sexual desire (e.g., Berscheid & Hatfield, 1969). …

Despite arguments that intense love may exist in some longterm relationships, there are minimal data to address this issue. …

Although research … suggests romantic love can last in long-term relationships, it remains unknown if it is merely a rare phenomenon. As Hatfield, Pillemer, O’Brien, and Le (2008) noted, we know little about love and gender differences in love in long-term marriage. Thus, the present study assessed, for the first time, the prevalence and theoretically predicted correlates of intense love in two representative samples of long-term married individuals.

(Emphasis added, because it is so amazing to me that the authors of a scientific paper can confidently assert, in 2012, that theirs is the first study to investigate this question!)

The long-term married adults they studied were given a survey that included the question “How in love are you with your partner?” and asked to answer it on a seven point rating scale that ranged from 1. Very intensely in love to 7. Not at all in love.

The title of the study and the introduction (quoted above) both make it clear that the researchers expected intense, long-term love to be quite rare. Instead, and very much to their surprise, they discovered that the most common single answer in both random samples was 1. Very intensely in love, and “even for the very longest marriages (≥ 30 years), 40% of women and 35% of men reported being very intensely in love”!

What Correlates with Intense Long-Term Love?

When the researchers looked into the other things that correlated strongly with very intense love, they found what most people would expect. Couples who assessed themselves as being most intensely in love also said that they: hugged and kissed a lot; had sex often; enjoyed sex with their partner; thought highly of their partner; thought about their partner often, even when apart; were generally happy with their lives; and often engaged in activities with their partner.

At the other extreme we have what you would also expect. Of those who reported “no physical affection (hugging, kissing, holding hands)…not a single individual reported being very intensely in love.”

One problem I see with this research is a linguistic one: we just don’t have a good term for intense long-term sexual love. The researchers framed the article in terms of long-term romantic love, but it’s important to notice that that’s not what they actually asked their research subjects. The question was, “How in love are you with your partner?”  The word "romantic" is conspicuously absent.

The assumptions they talk about in the preamble (“It is commonly assumed that intense romantic love occurs in the early stages of a romantic relationship, but decreases drastically across time. Some theorists have proposed that romantic love is uncommon in marriage…”) are almost certainly true about romantic love as I have defined it. But they’re clearly not true of the kind of love experienced by this group.

To me, what’s astounding about the primitive state of psychological research is that the largest single group in this survey of long-married adults is experiencing a kind of love for each other that the psychologists don’t even have a name for! The only alternative to “romantic love,” according to modern psychologists, is “companionate love—low in intensity and generally devoid of attraction and sexual desire,” and that is definitely not what the researchers discovered.

Instead, if you look at the pattern of answers, the people who said they were “Very intensely in love” were clearly talking about neither “romantic” love nor “companionate” love, but something else entirely. It’s what I have called long-term or pair-bonding love, but clearly a better word is needed that includes the strong, sustained – and sustainable! – physical, sexual, and emotional elements.

I was also disappointed that the researchers did not address the question of trust, which I believe would also correlate highly with strong long-term love. I’d be willing to bet that trust correlates well with sexual satisfaction and physical affection as well. If we had that data, we would have a perfect profile of why our Tantric couples seem so much in love!

Sex, Arousal, Desire, and Love

Still unanswered is the question of why many couples still have active and enjoyable sex lives long after many other couples are reporting that the last embers of attraction have gone out. And I think the answer is the one I alluded to earlier: they don’t wait for desire. They initiate sex for love, for pleasure, out of habit, on a schedule, or however they do it, but they begin their sexual activities, which gets them physically aroused, which rekindles their desire for each other…in that order!

And, of course, this explains why Tantra is ideal for maintaining a loving and passionate relationship long after the thrill of “being head over heels in love” is gone. If you make a time for sex that is special, if you take enough time to get deeply relaxed and thoroughly aroused, and if you make sure that both of you get great physical pleasure and emotional satisfaction from your sexual activities, you are constantly reinforcing your feelings for each other, including your deep desire for each other.

If caring and being cared for, trusting and being trusted, and desiring and being desired are at the root of long-term love and sexual attraction, as I believe they are, then Tantra is a wonderful way to reinforce every part of that process.

I’ve seen relationships fall apart from years of bad sex. In particular, if a woman has sex a thousand times with the same partner, and only rarely, if ever, experiences a somewhat meager orgasm, she can and probably will lose all desire, all capacity for desire, for a man she once deeply desired and loved with all her heart. But it can easily happen to a man too, particularly if the sex is quick and routine, and he senses his partner’s lack of interest or response.

All too often, couples get no help and have no good examples to emulate. They are led to expect simple lust and romantic desire to carry them for a lifetime, and when those dwindle away, so does the relationship.

I’ve seen people who once adored each other become indifferent because our culture doesn’t teach them that after the thrill of romantic love comes long-term love, and when you make the transition you have to rebuild the relationship around new keys for passion and new ways of loving that aren’t dependent on lust, novelty, or romance.

To put this in perspective: Tantra is certainly not the only way to have a long-term loving and passionate relationship. But if you already have a pretty good relationship at the personal and emotional level, incorporating Tantric sex into your lives may just be the best way to both strengthen that relationship and keep the passion alive. It has worked for my partner and me. It has worked for many, many others. I hope you will join us and get as much benefit from this ancient rite of love as we do.

Good luck, and the best of good loving!

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