Intimacy, especially when it involves sexual intercourse, leads to release of the hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin, also known as the “bonding hormone” and the “trust molecule,” stimulates the reward circuits in your brain, triggering the release of dopamine and other chemicals that lead you to feel good and euphoric. This feeling of pleasure ensures that you will likely go back for more, and therefore attach and bond with the person who helped you feel this way. Oxytocin is released when mom’s breastfeed their infants, with an embrace or massage, and even when you look someone in the eye. Every time your brain registers ‘reward’, you are more likely to seek out that good feeling again, which means you will seek out the person who made it happen—be it the partner or the infant.
The good news is that this hormone has enabled survival of the species—making sure we go back to the same partner and our children. Without it, men would spread their sperm far and wide more frequently and never stick around, and women would be a lot more selective than we are, as we would want only the best genetic information. In other words, oxytocin not only helps us bond, but it helps us trust and stay together. Unfortunately, it can also make us blind and stupid.
I’m sure you can recall falling in love and as the “honey moon” period wears off, looking at your partner and thinking that some attribute you found adorable is now annoying. Or perhaps at the outset, in the state of love, you overlook the overt “red flags” that your partner is exhibiting, only to bang yourself on the head 6 months later for not leaving sooner. Women, I have found, find this to be a problem more often than men, most likely because women produce a lot more oxytocin than men. For this reason, it is usually much more difficult for women to be sexually intimate without getting attached, though for many men, this can be a problem too.
Have you ever found that you can’t stop thinking about the person you were intimate with and to make it worse, you know they are wrong for you, but you can’t stop? How many of you longed for the ‘bad boy’ or “girl”? You couldn’t get him or her out of your mind even though it often felt worse being with him/her than without him/her? They don’t call. You wait by the phone. You obsess about why you haven’t heard anything. You vow never to associate with them again. They call and you go anyway, get intimate and the whole cycle starts again.
This cycle is a cycle of addiction. Addictions happen because you are feeling low or empty to begin with. Then you do something that makes you feel temporarily high or better. Since it is temporary, you soon fall back to a low, perhaps lower than when you started. Now you crave that thing that gave you the high again because the reward centers in your brain are telling you “Give me more! Give me more! I may not have this again. I want it now!”
If you start from near empty or a low place, and you are brought to a high place for a short time, it is only normal to want to get back up again.
When you do not feel good about your self; when you have a low sense of self or self worth; when you feel you are not enough or do not have enough for one reason or another, biochemically, your dopamine levels are low. If you discover something or someone who helps you feel better or at least numbs out the pain—compliments, a pat on the back, male attention or intimacy with someone you are attracted to, food, alcohol, drugs, work, even exercise—you may seek it obsessively.
The hard part about being addicted to another person is that when they do not give you that attention or love you need, it triggers the initial feelings of low self worth or sense of self, so it makes things even worse.
You may be able to keep this from happening by filling yourself up with the love you need in other ways. You can do so through a variety of ways over the long term and in the moment:
- Surround yourself with people who do love you and appreciate you—No one can be everything for you. Your friends can fill in a lot of those gaps and truly appreciate you.
- Keep an appreciation journal—every evening before going to bed write 4 things about yourself and 4 things about your life that you appreciate. When you awaken in the morning, read it out loud in front of a mirror. Do so for at least 28 days will reprogram your unconscious belief that you are not good enough and will overtime raise those dopamine levels.
- Be gentle on yourself. Catch yourself when you put yourself down, feel blame or shame—Choose to congratulate yourself instead for catching yourself and love yourself anyway.
- Connect to nature—Nature is always there for you. Enjoy what nature has to offer—go for a hike, swim, walk, etc. Feeling like your connected to something larger will help give you the high you seek.
- Exercise—Many forms of exercise, especially ones you really enjoy, can help release endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, chemicals that stimulate those reward circuits and help you feel good. The other added benefit is that you will feel good about yourself for taking care of yourself.
Remember, sex does not mean love—it means pleasure. The two can certainly go together, and when they do, it’s wonderful. If you can enjoy pleasure without getting addicted, by all means enjoy as long as you are being safe. If you would rather not feel badly or addicted, then find more healthy ways to achieve the highs and pleasure that love offers in its variety of forms. Then, perhaps you can take your time before you get intimate.