There’s been some talk about bonding in the media lately. Or more importantly, the inappropriate manner in which bonding was delivered to students. The short explanation is that young women’s sexual connections were compared to ‘sticky tape’. If you missed the furore, you can read the original post and find links here. Unfortunately none of the articles that made it to the headlines that were demanding grounded sex education bothered to research the science of bonding or speak of the mystery of love. This post unpacks bonding according to the research.
World renowned Biological Anthropologist, Helen Fisher, is a Senior Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute and written five books on the evolution and future of human sex, love, marriage, gender differences in the brain and how your personality style shapes who you are and who you love. Looking at what she says about oxytocin is a great place to start and although I read countless articles, I’ve mainly referred to her research because as a supporter of Darwin’s theories of evolution, no one can accuse her of having a ‘purity’ agenda.
“When you massage someone, the levels of oxytocin go up in the brain, and oxytocin is one of the chemicals that drives attachment”.
Touch – particularly intentional touch, releases oxytocin. Research on this brain chemical began as early as the 1970’s, by investigating prairie voles. What scientists believe is that oxytocin is very much involved in arousal, attachment and trust. It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘cuddle’ or ‘monogamy’ hormone. After sex, guys have a surge of oxytocin and then it disappears. With girls, it’s longer lasting which may be why girls often associate sex with falling in love. What is thought to be known about oxytocin is that it is designed to bond humans in pairs.
What else does science tell us? The expression of sexual behaviour and attachment are not identical. So although oxytocin increases when a person has sex, it is also involved in the forming and bonding of non-romantic attachment relationships. In addition to being released from mums while breastfeeding babies as a way of increasing maternal bonding and attachment (evidence that women release higher levels), they’ve also shown that oxytocin releases in plutonic relationships. Have you ever had a great friend that you couldn’t imagine doing life without? Chances are, you’ve engaged in some sharing of oxytocin bonding.
Given that ‘maternal’ and ‘romantic’ bonding theories hold such weight, scientists began to surmise that perhaps oxytocin could help improve social behaviours such as Autism. More recent research however, has cast doubt on it’s power to that effect – so the magic of oxytocin cannot be reduced to a simple scientific equation in and of its own nature.
Looking at sexual bonding through a broader lens, there are also other chemicals and processes involved in the bonding and love cycle, including:
- Dopamine, causing exhilaration & excitement
- Norepinephrine causing the physiological response: heart racing, not wanting to eat, unable to sleep, dilated pupils; and
- Serotonin – keeps you calm and level headed but when you fall in love, serotonin levels go down, creating obsession where the person takes up all your time / thinking
Again learning from Fisher, it’s the romantic love phase that elicits the strongest drive and it’s quite different to ‘sex drive’. She says that the brain systems can be thought of as in 3 parts:
- Lust – The sex drive: is designed to get you out there looking for partners
- Attraction – romantic love: is to enable you to focus your mating energy on just one person
- Attachment – companionship: enables you to stick with that person at least long enough to raise a child together as a team.
When romantic love is in play, a person desires another person very deeply. There are intense emotions at play… a desperate hunger for attention – the letter, the phone call, the flowers, romantic dinners and long walks. Romantic love also includes radical behaviour such as loss of appetite, mood swings, separation anxiety, possessiveness, obsessive and intrusive thinking and feelings that make the individual believe that there’s a special meaning and shared ‘like’ for E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G. Fisher quotes Stendhal and emphasises that romantic love is also involuntary:
Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will…. there are no age limits for love.
It is a well-known facet of life that girls love romance. The idea of being close to someone – being gazed upon and fantasising about that ‘kiss’ or ‘caress’. But certainly let’s not leave guys out of this process either – the craving for intimacy is within all of us. Whilst men don’t seem to enjoy romantic novels like women do, they are often energised by buying flowers and arranging the restaurant – all in the name of romance. Interestingly, the process of understanding romantic love through the eyes of chemistry is not limited to gender and orientation. Regardless of whom you love, the experience of love seems to be the same for everyone. It’s just as potent, just as electrifying, and just as involuntary regardless of your sexual orientation.
People fall in love all the time. People also engage in casual sex – sleep with others without falling in love and seemingly appear to detach emotions from the act of sex. Yet the argument that ‘sex is just sex’ appears to only holds weight when a person resists the natural chemical drive that motivates sexual bonding and personally resolves to remain in the ‘lust’ phase. Other theories suggest that people may not move into the attachment phase after sex because the pheromones or scent emanated by the partner repel rather than attract. This may show up as a general feeling of discomfort when being too close or being turned off by the taste of their saliva – as opposed to wanting to rip their clothes off every time they’re in close proximity.
To again quote Helen Fisher on sex and love:
“That “ol’ black magic” is a fickle force. The chemistry of romantic love can trigger the chemistry of sexual desire and the fuel of sexual desire can trigger the fuel of romance. This is why it is dangerous to copulate with someone with whom you don’t wish to become involved. Although you intend to have casual sex, you might just fall in love.”
It doesn’t matter what order it comes in – lust first and then romantic love; or romantic love followed by lust. Both are powerful – and someone in the lust phase can be catapulted into romantic love within a heart beat.
So what would be the reason behind sharing material about the power of bonding and issuing a warning to young women? If I could guess, I would say that whilst they may have had noble intentions of warning young women about potential heartbreak, they relied on a small portion of the research to support a particular bias and didn’t consult anyone as to how to talk to young people about sex without dragging along the shame. Generally speaking (although it’s always risky to put a whole-people group in the same basket), a core concept of Christianity is all about the heart – guarding the heart – giving your heart to one greater than yourself – denying self in order to love and serve others – and confessing love to another by way of a permanent commitment (instead of hanging out in the lust phase). A person with this understanding of love and the heart so easily forgets that the rest of the world is not reading things from the same page. Only the people involved could vouch for their motives, however I’m guessing that this Christian group may have been trying to prevent the pains of devastating heartbreak and loss.
Losing what you may ask? Quite potentially – losing ‘stickiness’ or ‘stickability’. Have you ever been in love and lost that love? What did it feel like? Again, Fisher unpacks that for us with words like:
- physical & emotional pain
“Parting is all we need to know of hell.” – Emily Dickinson
Fisher has found that romantic love has all the same 3 major traits of any addiction:
- Increase in Tolerance – you need to see the person more and more
- Withdrawals – when the person doesn’t call, make contact or rejects you
- and Relapse – when the person comes back and you get hooked again
Fisher cites that over 93% of young men and women of college age have loved passionately and been dumped, or dumped someone who loved them passionately. And when it’s all said and done and rejection plays out, the brain goes through a process of calculating gains and losses… trying to put together the complex group of issues that lost them the love of their lives.
Young people are particularly more vulnerable when things go wrong. The biological and emotional distress of heartbreak is a significant trigger in teen depression. Profound sorrow causes the separation to be magnified and creates intense anxiety that can result in a lack of concentration and a host of other outcomes. Romantic rejection causes a profound sense of loss and negative affect. It can induce clinical depression and in extreme cases lead to suicide and/or homicide.
Lost love, rejection, broken trust, regret and fear of trying to love again can leave a person in an incredibly intense and dark place. In situations, like this, it’s hoped that young people would heed the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson….
‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
Yet it is a fact of life that some young people struggle to develop resilience and get back into the arena of love. Like a heart that turns from a love-filled vessel of life into a place of stony desolation, sometimes the pain can be so deep and painful that to love again is too much to bear. It’s also possible that haunting memories of lust can grip a person for life. A very long time ago an old fling from a church youth camp contacted me to share his pain. He was desperate for his wife who he loved so deeply to do the things that I did to him as the ‘experienced one’ when we were 15 years old. Who would have thought that having ‘fun in lust’ would be such an obstacle for him later in life when I had never given it another thought… Each person deals with lust, love, romantic love and rejection in their own way and is related to individual brain chemistry, attachment history, length of relationship and the context and meaning of that particular engagement. To reduce it to a single aspect of oxytocin is ignoring the complex processes of the brain; limiting the wondrous matrix of life and relationships; and denying love the mystery and power it beholds.
A young woman on Social Media recently wrote:
Ever since I was young I envisioned love to be romance, spontaneity, patience and a general feel of affection throughout the relationship. Disney lies.
We all deserve the richness of the love this woman describes. It’s a tragedy that her hope has given way to disillusion. All the more reason that this generation needs all the info. Within the blink of an eye, the perfect-picture of romance that Disney dishes up to kids turns into a steady diet of lust filled and loveless sex in media.
If we are going to talk about comprehensive sex education, let’s talk about the whole-person. Young people need all the info about lust… romance… attachment through the eyes of science… the pain of lost love, ensuing memories and gripping emotions… the value of the human heart regardless of gender or sexual preference… and how to dust off, get back in the arena and regain ‘stickiness’.