Disclaimer: As much as I desperately wish I were, I'm not a scientist - if there are any scientists who read this and think, "That's not right!" please let me know!
Every week, I listen to an insightful and fascinating podcast on sexuality, relationships, and dating called Sex Nerd Sandra (I highly recommend it!); this week’s topic was on how and why we pick our partners. Her second guest, Kate Loree (a marriage and relationships counselor) talked a lot about the neurochemistry and endocrinology of relationships and sex -- what happens in our brains and endocrine systems when we’re attracted to someone, when we sleep with someone, when we date and enter into relationships.
She argued that the person you’re attracted to / the person you have passionate, lustful, insatiable sex with isn’t necessarily the person you should settle down with; that sexual attraction happens because of serotonin and dopamine, but those things shouldn't be the basis of wanting to grow old with someone.* Sandra countered with this question: “If I can’t trust my brain chemicals, then what can I trust, and what is love if not that feeling?”
This got me thinking a lot. I’m struggling with the idea of sexual desire and the desire to be in a committed relationship being mutually exclusive. I know for sure that I wouldn’t want to start a relationship -- the kind that takes negotiation, communication, and compromise -- with someone who I didn’t have great sex with. That being said, everyone has different priorities when it comes to sex, romance, dating, and relationships. There are people for whom finding a partner who is willing to commit, work together, sacrifice, and compromise is most important. There are people for whom finding a good co-parent in a romantic partner is the most important thing. In addition, situations, attraction, and people change, and there are a lot of couples who stay in committed partnerships / companionships but who no longer have sex, or who find sexual fulfillment outside of their primary partnership. And to that I say: You do you!
For me, good sex is non-negotiable.** And really amazing sex takes hard work. It takes open communication, negotiation, and compromise! If great sex takes the same kind of hard work that great relationships take, couldn’t it be the beginning of building a foundation of a strong relationship?
Loree also talked about the role of cortisol in emotional and physical pain resulting from being separated from a partner; cortisol is a hormone that spikes when we feel stress. When this happens because of separation from a partner, it’s akin to going through drug withdrawal since so many neurotransmitter and hormone levels elevate when we’re with someone we desire (dopamine, serotonin) or love (oxytocin, vasopressin) or both (again - not mutually exclusive).
I was ecstatic to hear this! I know that sounds ridiculous, but I’ve spent the past few months thinking I was absolutely insane because I’m dating someone who lives in another city, and every time we say goodbye, I feel real, visceral, physical, searing pain that lasts for days. I sometimes find myself in the middle of my hardwood floor on my hands and knees in a puddle of uncontrollable, sudden onset tears and think, “Why is this happening to meeeeeee?!” And now I know. So thanks for that, adrenal glands!
It felt good to hear Sandra talking about her experiences with this, because it’s always nice to know that you’re not crazy and other people feel this way, too.
I’ve had really great sex with people I didn’t have an emotional attachment to, and have loved people I’ve had good, but not incredible, sex with. And once in my life, I was lucky enough to have both. Right now, I’m struggling with this question: If I’m having mind-blowing sex with someone, but I’m also experiencing romantic feelings for that person -- real, valid, haven't-felt-like-this-in-years feelings -- do my romantic feelings just come from the hormones? In the beginning of a relationship (with NRE working its magic), how do we know the difference?
*She later went on to say that building a relationship should be the result of a conscious
decision to be with someone who helps you self-actualize.
**A friend said to me the other day, “I think you’re like me - your heart lives in your vagina.”