Hormones Make Long-Term Relationships and Sex a Catch-22
Balancing a long-term relationship with the more “primal” forces of human sexuality has always been a difficult act.
While almost everyone agrees that the ideal romantic relationship should entail both emotional attachment and sexual attraction, it’s curious to note that these two forces are often simultaneously seen to be adversarial as well.
Sexual urges can undermine fidelity, or lessen the “depth” of one’s attraction to their partner (e.g. the relationship is sustained only be base sexual attraction and nothing more. Conversely, a romantic relationship devoid of intimacy can become stale and “degenerate” into a mere friendship (not that platonic relationships aren’t valuable).
Indeed, for most people, sex is what elevates a relationship to its highest level of exceptionalism and uniqueness. It’s what demarcates the difference between any other “normal” relationship, and one that is “special.” So needless to say, like most interpersonal activities, sex is a complicated double-edged sword.
Now, some research suggests that this strange balance is not only even more complicated, but that it has an innate biological origin as well:
Studies on the length of relationships have shown that couples in harmonious, stable and trusting long-term relationships have higher blood levels of oxytocin (a chemical that regulates attachment, promotes cooperation and facilitates sensations of joy and love) than people who are [in mismatched] relationships. These happy couples also reap other benefits in terms of longer lifespan, lower rates of alcoholism, depression and illness, and more rapid recovery after accidental injury.
But there are conflicting chemicals at work in sexual relationships that sometimes prevent them from ever becoming long-term. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the limbic system – the brain’s primitive reward centre. It mediates both the sex drive and addiction to drugs. Brain scans have shown that the rapid rise in dopamine levels during orgasm is similar to that seen in a heroin high. But dopamine falls rapidly following orgasm in both males and females and is replaced with rising levels of a hormone called prolactin…
At first, rising prolactin causes sleepy post-orgasm contentment…But once this sleepy feeling of satiation has passed, prolactin may go on rising and cause problems for couples wanting to sustain a long-term sexual relationship. In both men and women excess levels of prolactin can cause loss of libido, anxiety, headaches, mood swings and depression.
…this may go some way towards explaining why many relationships are burnt out after a year. In reproductive terms, 12 months is long enough for fertilisation to take place.”
Needless to say, the implications of these studies are interesting, if not concerning: does this mean that most humans are innately incapable of having long-term monogamous relationships, as we seem to be finding out ourselves through experience and social trends? What are your thoughts?
Clearly, more research should be done.