If emotional distance has built up between you and your partner, daily bonding behaviors can help you get back on track.
Waiting for a concert to begin at our local county fair, we checked out a reptile exhibit that included an animal trainer with a live alligator calmly hanging out on his lap. As we stroked the gator, we asked the trainer why it was so tame. “I pet it daily. If I didn’t, it would quickly be wild again, and wouldn’t allow this,” he explained. (Crocodiles and snakes have also been known to cuddle up with affectionate mammals.)
Believe it or not, this information—plus a bit of science—is all you need to steer your intimate relationship toward deeper mutual attraction. There’s a broad range of behaviors that will tame your mate: eye contact, skin-to-skin contact, caressing, smiles, hugs, spooning, sensual kissing, slow intercourse, or even lying still with genitals connected. (Some men report that having their penis held lovingly as they nod off is also very effective.)
How is it that these rather effortless behaviors can be so potent? They speak directly to a primitive part of the brain, entirely bypassing our rationality. Communication techniques and Date Night are fine ideas, but these signals, when used strategically, work like a secret love potion.
Known as attachment cues by psychologists, these subconscious signals are at the very heart of our mammalhood. We’re wired to benefit from them throughout our lives. As infants, mammals must engage in bonding behaviors with caregivers to survive (at least until we are ready to be weaned) in the form of nurturing, reassuring touch, soothing sounds, and eye contact.
As tribal primates we also employ variations of these signals to bond with our tribe-mates and friends. Handshakes, slaps on the back, encouragement, grooming, eye contact, and laughing together once strengthened tribes, ensuring that our ancestors shared when times were tough and defended one another when necessary.
Finally, as pair-bonding primates, we also use variations of these signals to stay in love, on average, for long enough (at least) for both parents to become attached to children. (Honeymoon neurochemistry also plays a role, but it’s somewhat like a booster shot that wears off. Bonding behaviors can sustain bonds indefinitely.)
In short, we profit from deep connection not just at key points of our childhood, as Freud postulated, but throughout our lives. Said one young man:
My dad is a very controlling person and is always on the defensive. But when you give him a hug or thank him for doing something, he calms down and his mood changes.
These special signals, or bonding behaviors, work by encouraging the release of neurochemicals, including oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which lowers innate defensiveness, making a bond possible. Oxytocin counters the effects of cortisol (the stress hormone), and soothes a primitive part of the brain known as the amygdala. (The amygdala’s job is to keep our guard up—unless it is reassured with the right neurochemical signals.)
Oxytocin also reduces pain (i.e., it increases thresholds for feeling pain) by triggering the release of endorphins, enhancing feelings of wellbeing. In addition, oxytocin is associated with protecting health. For example, daily warm touch between couples benefits men by lowering blood pressure. (Oxytocin is essential for erections in men and sexual responsiveness in women.)
Like all mammals, humans are primed to perceive the signals that indicate whether or not another is safe enough to relax with. If these soothing signals are not forthcoming, a subtle defensiveness creates emotional distance. This can happen even if there was lots of great loving in the past.
If this emotional distance has built up between you and your beloved alligator, use daily bonding behaviors to deliver the safe-to-bond message. Their power to ease defensiveness is remarkable.
These behaviors need not occur for long, or require much effort, but they must be genuinely selfless and soothing. (In other words, don’t only engage in them as part of foreplay, which is intended to increase sexual tension, not relaxation.) Second, the more frequent the behaviors, the stronger and more stable the bond—just as the alligator trainer observed.
Third, there’s evidence that the more you use bonding behaviors, the more sensitive your brain becomes to the oxytocin that helps you feel relaxed and loving. This means you get more return for less effort. Said one husband:
I used to believe ups and downs were inevitable in marriage; and that the only way round them was to wait for the bottom to occur, and enjoy the passage to the top again. Now, I’m not so sure, since it’s become clear to me that indifference to one another is the result, rather than the cause, of a dearth of cuddling. Lack of cuddling eventually leads to lack of desire to cuddle, whether through laziness, habit, resentment, or indifference. Cuddling (all bonding behaviours included) causes the desire for more. The activity needn’t last longer than a minute, though it could, of course, last a lot longer. In our experience, a minute’s enough to start the snowballing effect. Bonding behaviours then become automatic and seem to replicate themselves in abundance.
If you’re not seeing the results you’d like when you consciously employ bonding behaviors, try taking your foot off the orgasm accelerator for a bit. For a couple of weeks, focus solely on daily bonding behaviors and gentle intercourse without the goal of orgasm. As the magnetism between you builds, you may discover something unfamiliar and delicious. Said another man (a recovered sex addict):
We both agree this has been wonderful for our marriage. We are closer than we have ever been. We are more affectionate and more openly in love. We played around with frequency of intercourse and find that we gravitate more toward the weekends, although we cuddle and caress nightly. Bonding that includes intercourse is very fluid, non-goal oriented, and wonderful. Sex is relaxing and stress-free. After only a few weeks, we noticed that we kind of went into a zone during sex. Best way to put it. It is blissful and satisfying. We have adopted a mindset of if an orgasm happens, it happens, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. As I relax more and more into this, I am discovering exquisite feelings that I had never noticed before.
Amazingly, less-vigorous affectionate contact makes lovers more sensitive and sexually responsive. It may also bring about deep emotional healing—even in partners who have been married for years:
John and I are preoccupied with each other these days. (I can foresee the garden growing up in weeds.) We are spending hours of the day loving, cuddling, touching, and [gently making love]. We are making up for “lost” time … years of not being able to feel love from each other.
One day, earlier in this transformation, I felt strangely sad, depressed and weepy. I couldn’t figure it out, but John said, “I know what you need.” He carried me into the bed and began pressing and massaging my body from head to toe. Something happened that day. It changed me forever. Each new place he touched caused me to sob uncontrollably, almost screaming, but the feelings were joyful, euphoric. It was a feeling of “I’ve never been touched before, in my whole life.” Every cell was rejoicing.
We’ve been together for 18 years. This approach has enabled us to fall in love all over again and to feel healed of the heartache of biology’s separation program. We are like a couple of teenagers, lighthearted, playful, and happy.
Discover the power of daily touch for yourself. It could be quite an adventure.