“Start to think it could be fizzling out / Kinda shocked because I never really had any doubts / Look into your eyes, imagine life without ya / And the love kick starts again” – “Kickstarts” by Example
In sitting down – preferably with a cup of tea, some biscuits and a note pad – to think seriously about sex in the context of relationships, ideas at first come with ease, only to be followed by an uneasy elusiveness. We all know, as is commonly bandied about by couples having problems within their relationships that “sex isn’t everything”, followed immediately with a “but” and then the almost grudging admission that “it is very important”. When further pressed to explain why sex is important within a relationship, clear responses become notoriously difficult to pin down.
So how does the dynamic of sex and relationships operate? For starters, we know that fundamentally, sex is about procreating – so the primitive form of relationships is that of the mated pair. But why is sex still important in relationships today and why, if we’re not doing it to procreate, is sex such an important part of what keeps us together?
In ancient times, a pair bonded with the physical act alone. In ye olden days of the polite fiction of “no sex before marriage”, society had evolved, but even then a marriage was not valid until the point of consummation. Yet in this modern era where relationships are less about procreation and more about love, companionship and mutual support, sex still retains a centrality to relationships. Given the changing role of relationships, why has the power of sex
At this point it seems that there must be a common thread within the evolution of relationships – some primal urge that pushes us along the road to coupledom. To find this out, we need to go have a tinker under the human hood and look at the brain.
The two key instruments in each individual’s synaptic symphony called sex, are dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine and its associated neural chemicals lavish upon us happy little kicks to reward us for being good little human beings and attempting to procreate so our species will survive. This is a severe oversimplification, but for the purpose of this musing, let it suffice to say that our biological impetus comes from dopamine and its friends.
Dopamine’s friend oxytocin is a neural hormone that is released during sex especially during orgasm. But it’s not just in the throes of passion that we see oxytocin rear its wonderful head, it’s also during “bonding” actions; when you’re being romantic. When oxytocin is in concentration in the brain, it creates feelings of security around a particular individual and leads a person to feel trust, calmness and empathy. Oxytocin is especially important in the formation of mating pairs; yes, that’s you!
Research out of Bar-Ilan University in Israel and Yale University in the States reveal that compared to singles, couples in the early stages of romantic relationships have significantly higher concentrations of oxytocin within their brains. Furthermore, recent research seems to suggest that as well as the generalised effects of higher oxytocin contributing to a person being more trusting, calm and empathic, that there is response conditioning associated with a person’s lover that in being with them, having sex with them, or being romantic releases and replenishes that wondrous little chemical oxytocin and kick-starts the love again. As time passes and the concentration and response conditioning to your lover stabilises and becomes more permanent in one’s brain chemistry, the bond between lovers grows stronger.
Although this area of neuroscience is still young and all the details are yet to be figured out, if at this point we accept the roles of these neurochemicals in the dynamic between sex and relationships, what practical understanding can we
Sex and romance is addictive: the more you do it with your lover, the more concentration of oxytocin and conditioning within the brain occurs, naturally developing all the traits to make you a better lover.
Sex is where everything is forgiven. Biologically, it is reasonable to accept this as true, given the mass dose of oxytocin released for lovers at orgasm would reaffirm the relationship, reduce nervousness and help restore trust.
Although the frequency of sex decreases with a person’s age and duration of a relationship, the role of sex and intimacy are still important as they “top up the tank”. Therefore make time and effort with your lover, especially within the honeymoon period, and you will reap the rewards. Remember that the grass is greener where you water it.
Open relationships: we all know sex just isn’t for procreation, it is fun as well! Given the understanding we have at this point, open relationships probably are not good for new relationships, but provided you keep the bond strong and communicate with an established partner, it is reasonable to expect that open relationships can be healthy and manageable.
Polyamory: there is no research thus far to suggest that oxytocin bonding is a one-one relationship. In fact, there is research that it affects parental bonding, as well as bonding with pets. There is no reason to assume that you cannot have more than one intimate lover in a healthy and balanced manner.
| Nick Gardiner