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Attachment and Sex After Marriage: A Good Biological Reason?

SerendipUpdate's picture


I am going to admit something a little embarrassing. I stumbled upon this web paper topic in the midst of woeful self-help googling to help me understand why, one month after the breakup with my boyfriend of two years, I was still struggling to really get over him. After retracing what I had said or done, what I possibly overdid or lacked, and finally finding nothing to be wrong with me (in fact, I only found reason to believe I am wonderfully dateable), I decided he was crazy to let me go, and I gave myself permission to officially start letting go of him. I told him not to get in touch with me. Yet here I sit, over a month since communicating with him, thinking about our memories, his face, the ways I made him happy, completely clueless as to why something so good would ever come to an end and despising the distraction his absence has made in my life, which I would like to get on with. Thinking about this can lead me to type things like "I can't get over him" into the google search bar when I really should be typing "the effects of vitamin D" or "eugenics" for my next biology paper.

Seriously: what's wrong with me?
Oxytocin (the "attachment/trust" hormone), phenethylamine, and a number of other explainable processes. Does it comfort me to be able to blame my nostalgic love nonsense on biological phenomena? Yes, very much so. Does it lead me to further thoughts on whether to or how to help myself and others, specifically women, be prevented from feeling so helpless in the future? Does it make me think about  to what extent is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? You bet.
Love, be it between a parent and child or between a couple, is a strange thing, and a rather addictive thing. There is strong reason to believe that attachment patterns formed since birth between a child and his/her primary caregiver give rise to attachment patterns or expectations in relationships developed later in life. My parents absolutely doused me in physical affection and emotional support, fostering my curiosity and my self esteem. My mother has always been a stay-at-home mom, and my dad never took business trips. The love they provided me at an early age has made me significantly more willing/able/unafriad to pursue loving relationships with my peers in adolescence and adulthood. However, my capacity to love has been a blessing and a burden.
I am a loyal person, and I trust people easily because I was never given reason not to when I was little, but I've had to learn the hard way that trust isn't always-- isn't usually-- the best reaction. I would have fared marvelously in the age of hunters and gatherers, playing the proper and necessary role of an emotionally invested female: "A monogamous pair, each with specialized roles and responsibilities, provided a context to enhance survival and offer maximal protection and nurturance to their offspring. This social arrangement required a sense of loyalty, deeply felt emotional attachment, and commitment to mutual goals."[1] But life isn't like that anymore. There are more than enough people from which to choose a mate, and more than enough babies already born and in need of a loving parent. Additionally, individuals are self-sufficient, and no longer need the gender roles of a male hunter and a female nurturer as humans did when environmental conditions were more threatening. Alright, so I'll make a loyal companion and a great mother because I'm prewired to attach, to trust, and to love. But why, if in my Neocortex I have reasoned that I will not be a mother anytime soon and that I have no real need for a boyfriend, can't I simply choose to move on and be done with it?
It turns out my "'prewired' attachment" was brought out by "the necessary external (parental) ingredients,"[1] and I am forever chemically prone to falling in love, and hard. Can something as simple as childhood attachment behaviors really pave the road for the rest of a love life?
It all starts with a meaningful look, "chemistry," as we appropriately call it. Chemistry can occur at points in your life when you are far away from thoughts of family planning; procreation is wedged into many of the choices we make as a species intent on surviving. When falling in love, the body produces phenethylamine, a psychoactive drug that stimulates hormones such as adrenalin. [2] Adrenalin causes those initial love highs and feelings of exhilaration. When a relationship gets more serious, new hormones are introduced that are even more addictive than this adrenalin rush. "During sex, opium-like substances known as endorphins are produced," along with a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin, nicknamed the attachment hormone, also occurs after a woman gives birth, making her affinity for and attachment to her baby skyrocket. This is obviously an effective biological use of oxytocin. But with sex, it is a different matter, and a somewhat gendered one, too. According to Crichton-Mille (2005), oxytocin levels rise in men “by three to five times during orgasm,” while those in women increase “even more and seem to climb with every subsequent” climax. In other words, falling in love is addictive because the body "behaves as if it is under the influence of a narcotic." [3] Do the increased levels of oxytocin in females account for the stereotype that women are more emotionally attached than men? Quite possibly. I am not totally crazy for still missing my ex. A biological need is no longer being met.
But to avoid the pain, perhaps prudish social expectations that have been largely disregarded in the past forty years in American culture (since the cliché free love/sexual revolution of the 1960s?) should be reconsidered. Sex after marriage might have a strong justification in the biological effects of sex. I've often questioned and criticized the institution of marriage, believing that people should naturally stay with whom they love-- but love necessitates trust and trust comes in more than just a rational form: it's chemical, too. Deciding to have one partner, at least for women, will likely make them much more mentally content because of the biological attachment formed after sex to that specific person.
"Love" as defined here may be free, but it isn't necessarily healthy in heavy doses. Social rules such as marriage, and perhaps even the stigma connected to losing virginity in some cultures exist for biologically sound reasons. Speaking from my own experience, if you can bear the aftermath of a broken heart, then in retrospect and with time, the love experienced was worth it. But be warned: the sudden loss of love "shocks the body's chemistry and produces a number of intense changes in physical behavior," and symptoms include chest pain, breathing difficulties, fluid in lungs, elevated adrenalin levels (up to 35 times higher than normal), low blood pressure, and heart irregularities. [3]. "Broken heart syndrome" can even mimic a heart attack.
Personally, I cannot say whether I choose to love or whether I am chemically programmed to love; all I can say is that with equal uncertainty I have had to handle loss. Is it my fault that I failed to think ahead and prevent myself from feeling painful loss? Or is the pain as unavoidable as my biological predisposition to attach to people, i.e. to love? It is an interesting mix of instinct and choice that humans, especially women, are presented with in regards to love. The same balance between choice and instinct may be considered in all human desires. 


Ymarsakar's picture

Check out the US military

Check out the US military members, specifically Army or Marines. Socially, they are actually using a form of hunter/gatherer model still. And prioritize loyalty over decadent pleasure.

Serendip Visitor Sue's picture

mood disorder thyroid problems

Thank you for your insight into thyroid contributing to personality disorders and anti social behavior. My family has thyroid problems. Out of seven siblings only one does not have a problem. I won't go into any details of the history of our behavior. My concern is of my son who displays horribly negative anti social behavior towards me his mother, that is similiar to one of my brothers who is deceased.

This brother had several diseases, so I suspected that it was due to his thymus not developing. This is due to so many of us have thyroid problems, we look as it as nothing. My brother had juvenile diabetes and thyroid as a child, in his mid-twenties he developed two other deadly diseases, reinaulds and schelorderma (stone man's disease) not sure how to spell them. He was very verbally abusive towards my mom, sister, grandmother, myself, one of my brothers, plus others. My son was not around him much due to a court order from my ex, yet he displays similiar behavior.

My son had behavior problems throughout his life, and was abused by his father. He has threatened to kill me, to kill his father, and to kill whoever. I don't know what to do but your insight into the thyroid has given me hope.

Serendip Visitor's picture


Thank you for sharing this insightful post, I still am amazed by our ability to love even after loss, if you try to prevent it then what is the point? As they say it is better to of loved and lost then never to of loved at all.

Paul Grobstein's picture

love: between choice and instinct

An interesting/thoughtful perspective, that a "biological predisposition to attach to people" may unavoidably carry with it both opportunities and hazards.  One accepts the pains of "loss" as part of the price of reaching for "love"?  See discussion of "interconnected vastness."