Having trouble staying faithful? Learn how to trick your brain into hot, blissful monogamy.
When you’re hit by Cupid’s arrow, you effectively become delusional. You don’t realize this, of course, because, well, you’re delusional. You’re convinced that the person you met last week at your buddy’s wedding is The One, and you expect the passion you’re feeling to keep you quivering with interest and ecstasy for a lifetime. (Scientists call this phenomenon “pair bonding,” and though they’re experts on the condition, they’ve been known to succumb to it themselves.) Cupid is a sneaky dude, or rather, the biological agenda he personifies doesn’t necessarily promote enduring love.
Cupid’s ammo is the first of a series of neurochemical impulses in a primitive part of your brain known as the limbic system—or “mammalian brain.” Your ancient mammalian brain is so powerful, so efficiently wired, that it often overwhelms your more recently evolved and considerably more realiable “rational brain.”
The mammalian brain’s mating agenda urges you to:
(1) fall in love recklessly with fireworks that propel sperm to egg,
(2) bond long enough to fall in love with your kids so they have two caregivers,
(3) get fed up with your mate,
(4) look for a new one.
This agenda improves the genetic variety of offspring, and the greater the variety, the better our genes’ chances of surviving into the future. Cold, heartless, but effective.
But what if you want to outsmart Cupid and actually stay in love? (If you’re married, you already signed up for this, so pay attention.) After all, contented monogamy has its up-sides: close, trusted companionship protects psychological and physical health, and having two caregivers improves kids’ chances of well-being. One household is also cheaper to maintain than two, and serial seduction can be downright tiring—and expensive.
How can you steer the primitive part of your brain toward hot, sweaty, monogamous contentment? It’s challenging because the primitive mammalian brain doesn’t run on logic or vows. You may have noticed that you can’t use willpower to force yourself to fall in love—or stay in love. Go ahead and try—you’re going to lose that game every time.
Your mammalian brain runs on subconscious cues, that is, behavioral signals that bypass your rational brain and trigger gut responses. By understanding which pedals to push, you can steer your romance more consciously and with less inner torment.
The behaviors that deliver the most potent subconscious signals may surprise you. Hot sex with lots of orgasms plays right into Cupid’s agenda; it sounds counter-intuitive, but intense sexual stimulation can actually dampen the pleasure response in many brains, at least temporarily. This can be a powerful trigger for a mammal to seek greener pastures. “Fertilization duty done here; time to find this mate less alluring—and respond to any potential novel mate with gusto.” Scientists call this the Coolidge Effect—named, after President Calvin Coolidge, who, while on a trip to a poultry farm, marveled at the promiscuous roosters. Ninety-seven percent of all mammal species operate their love lives entirely on this signal. They copulate to the point of disinterest, and then they move on.
Humans, on the other hand, are among the rare mammals with the capacity to “fall in love.” We’re pair bonders. Even so, our impulse to breed early and often still lurks within. It competes with our “bonding” inclination, sometimes causing severe inner conflict. Perhaps you’ve noticed.
Our bonding program starts off with a bang—in the form of a “honeymoon cocktail.” It’s a temporary booster shot of thrilling neurochemistry: increased dopamine (the brain compound most closely associated with addiction), norepinephrine, nerve growth factor, lower serotonin, and adjustments to testosterone levels. The result is often infatuation and even obsession, which temporarily blunts the “move on” message—even in the face of lots of sex and the wild mood swings that new lovers often experience. They’re hooked on each other.
Sadly, any honeymoon neurochemistry will wear off within two years. This is why the move from infatuation to long-term contentment is problematic. As the buzz fades, your perceptions of each other may fluctuate disconcertingly during the days or weeks after passionate encounters.
One husband experienced the phenomenon this way: “We’d have sex for fifteen minutes. Then I’d be grouchy for a week. Then I’d be sweet as honey as I got horny again.”
Women sometimes experience it, too. “My wife turns into a major bitch on occasion the morning after a night of really great sex,” one man said. “I’m talking multiple orgasms and a two to three-hour session. And the next morning I am the anti-Christ!”
“This happens to me, too,” a woman told me. “I wake up in the morning after a great night with my dear husband and feel like the bitch from hell sometimes… really irritable and moody. Normally I’m a very even-keel kind of gal. Things feel better when orgasms are more spread out. I have personally noticed a significant decrease in my attraction and warm fuzzy feelings toward my spouse when the “O” is on a constant, regular basis.
Mood swings like these, even in milder forms (not to mention the projections they foster), can extinguish the sparkle in a relationship, making both partners wonder if they’d be better off with someone new. Since most of us don’t realize that subtle neurochemical shifts are coloring our views, we tend to blame each other.
The good news is that the ancient mammalian brain is also home to the only part of the brain that can stay in love. Just as too much sexual stimulation can put lovers out of sync, “attachment cues” can help them look good to each other indefinitely.
Bonding behaviors include skin-to-skin contact, gazing into each other’s eyes, kissing with lips and tongues, wordless sounds of contentment and pleasure, stroking with intent to comfort, touching and sucking of nipples/breasts, spooning or hugging each other in silence, placing a calming hand on our lover’s genitals, and gentle intercourse. These behaviors deliver the subconscious message, “Strengthen this emotional tie.”
Incidentally, these cues work because they derive from the basic mammalian infant-caregiver attachment behaviors that enable us to fall in love with our parents and kids. Only in rare pair bonders like humans can adult mates use similar subconscious cues to sustain their romances indefinitely.
To keep us doting, bonding behaviors must occur almost daily. Even a moment or two can do the job, but these signals are far less effective if couples use them only rarely, or solely in connection with reaching climax.
Bonding cues are not the same as foreplay. Foreplay is designed to produce sexual tension. In contrast, these ancient cues work because they relax mates’ nervous systems. Foreplay is goal-oriented; bonding behaviors are not. Intriguingly, gentle intercourse without orgasm can be a powerful bonding behavior. In fact, various cultures throughout history preserved this technique under different names: karezza, amplexus reservatus, Daoist dual cultivation, and others.
So, how do you keep monogamy rewarding over the long haul? Emphasize daily, soothing bonding behaviors (including relaxed intercourse). Keep in mind that by not dampening each other’s sexual desire (at a brain chemical level), you can sidestep the subsequent feelings of dissatisfaction that can send you running for the hills.
If you want to enjoy monogamy indefinitely, send Cupid the right signals.