Are you wondering what you have let yourself in for as your relationship moves out of the intense ‘honeymoon’ stage to a settled, calmer and more ‘long-term’ phase? Have you discovered that he is checking your text messages, telling you what to wear, or restricting your movements, or all of these?
All the above are warning signs that a communication breakdown has occurred during a normal shift in the natural progression of the relationship that neither party has been able to recognise. This shift occurs in every relationship as the initial intensity of the ‘first bloom of love’ is replaced by a calmer, more peaceful phase, mediated by differences in hormonal levels responsible for driving the attraction between the sexes.
Belle first came to see me because she felt sad that she and Harry must be falling out of love.
“At first, we used to make love at every opportunity.” she said, “Every day it was exciting to come home from work and I looked forward to spending every spare minute with him.”
She went on, “But now when I get home from work I am tired and often don’t want sex. And when I try to talk to him about getting married, starting a family and saving for our own place, he just seems to be more interested in having sex”
She started to get fired up. “He tells me that because I am not as interested in him any more in that way that I must have a boyfriend! Honestly,” she said scornfully, “as if I have time for anyone else. I’m so busy working and doing things for us, like cooking and keeping the place clean, that I don’t have time for anyone else, even my family and friends! I’m starting to feel really ‘flat’ about this relationship” She had started to wonder if Harry was really the right man for her.
Belle is suffering from a hormonal shift that has effectively damped down her sexual intensity and is typical of a phase-shift in her new relationship. Harry too, is experiencing a hormonal swing, but his does not result in a dampening down of his sexuality. In fact what he experiences is more of a sense that sex should be now available at any time, along with a need to protect and possess his woman!
And the trouble is – neither of them can recognise that the way they are feeling is a direct result of an in-built strategy that nature designed into their biology to ensure that the relationship will result in the patter of little feet. The drive to procreate is a powerful instinct compelled, in both males and females, by a cascade of gender-specific hormones. But more than anything, both of them are likely to think that the other is thinking the same way that they do.
So, in Harry’s case, for example, he mistakenly thinks that because Belle isn’t as ready for sex as he is at the drop of a hat, then it must be because she no longer desires or loves him. On the other hand Belle can’t fathom why Harry isn’t as enthusiastic as she is to start a family and mistakenly sees his wanting sex ‘all the time’ as an indication that he no longer loves her in the way he used to but just uses her for his own selfish ends.
When they first fell in love both Belle and Harry began to exhibit some of the most irrational behaviours known to both men and women when they fell head-over-heels in love. Their brains were under the influence of chemicals whose intense effects can only match those of a drug addict craving the next fix. The pleasure-reward systems of the brain are fully turned on while the worrying and critical thinking circuitry is turned way down. In fact, some people can become so addicted to the state of being ‘in love’ that they continually abandon a new relationship as it shifts gear from the ecstatic state to the calmer, more sedate coupling phase. These people typically engage in serial relationships, as they are never able to hang in there for the long haul! Both women and men can suffer from this fixation of being perpetually ‘in love’ and hurt a lot of people along the way.
Belle’s brain was bombarded by the neuro-chemicals oxytocin, known as the ‘love hormone’, dopamine, which stimulates the reward-pleasure centres of the brain, along with liberal amounts of testosterone which stirred up her sexual fires. Oestrogen and progesterone intensify these responses also. Belle’s brain was being motivated to attach to her new love, and every cell in her body responds ecstatically to the hormonal soup that causes her to thrill at his every touch, look and whispered word.
Harry’s fevered brain too, is being driven to distraction by the heady hormonal and neuro-chemical mix of dopamine, oxytocin and testosterone, but in different proportions than Belle. Nonetheless his passions are fired to an intensity that causes the two to feed off one another, in a feast of sensual delight.
This cornucopia of delight however has a use-by date embedded into the biology of both Belle and Harry, but via gender-specific pathways and with different effects. The shift is from the romantic, passionate state of being ‘in love’ to the more sedate ‘mated mind’, orchestrated by a change in the levels of neuro-chemicals and hormones. This transition specifically results in the couple moving from a state of inwardly-turned intensity to a more casual, relaxed acceptance of the bonded relationship. They are now an established couple! And what’s more the next step is to create a family.
Belle’s dopamine levels decrease, which means that she experiences a lessening of the intensity of pleasure when she and Harry make love, but her oxytocin (the connecting hormone) levels increase. This means that she feels more deeply bonded to Harry and a greater sense of ‘belonging’ within the relationship. She settles in and enjoys a sense of security that is a prerequisite to the feeling that she can now begin a family. Women need to be safe for their reproductive processes to kick in. So she can now begin to take the relationship a little more casually as she is feeling confident that ‘she has found her man’.
Harry’s behaviour on the other hand is being moulded by a different set of brain chemicals. Males have many more brain receptors for vasopressin while women have many more for oxytocin. Successful bonding for a male requires both these neuro-hormones. The vasopressin acts on the male to give him a laser-like focus on his beloved by boosting his energy, aggression and attention. It enables him to develop a protective and possessive tracking capacity to ensure that his partner is solely his and no longer ‘open slather’ for any other male. While the oxytocin, in far less quantity than in females yet nonetheless necessary, causes him to feel relaxed, fearless, bonded and contented with his partner in the same way that it does with her.
Oxytocin is stimulated in both males and females by touch and closeness, but because males have less oxytocin receptors than females they need to be touched up to three times more frequently than females to maintain the same level of oxytocin.
So getting back to Belle and Harry, when she comes home tired and falls into bed to sleep and because she is feeling flat about the relationship anyway, she is less likely to reach out and touch Harry. Because there is no oxytocin being stimulated in Harry by her closeness he feels starved of loving affection and deduces, wrongly, that Belle must be interested in somebody else, otherwise how is her need for touch and intimacy being satisfied? The vasopressin dominates (remember he has plenty of those receptors) and he becomes aggressive, accusing her of having an affair.
Belle just wants to feel safe and comfortable, so when Harry falsely accuses her she becomes resentful because her whole being has been actually feeling so bonded with him that she has even been dreaming about the wonderful babies they would make together and planning how they could financially manage as a family with a reduced income. Suddenly he appears to turn on her and she can’t understand why he is being so stupid.
Need I go any further? It’s a bit like a catch-22. The more he accuses her, the more she pulls away, and the more aggressive he becomes. She goes into resentment and then fear because she believes that she has chosen an abusive man to father her children. Fear makes her pull away even further and the dream begins to disintegrate for both of them.
The key to this dilemma is to understand what is going on, not only physically but emotionally and mentally, because the two are inextricably linked. Neurochemicals and hormones are powerful determiners of behavioural and emotional response. In females and males the quantity and type of these potent substances varies greatly, leading to a wide divergence in the way that men and women perceive the same event. Understanding these differences can help us to navigate our intimate relationships with compassion and empathy.