Sexual Anorexia and the Cuddle Hormone

14 May

Ralph calls me up and schedules an appointment. He is in crisis because his girlfriend, Sarah, discovered his sex chat with another woman and has threatened to end the relationship. Ralph recounts his history of looking at porn, masturbation, a long history of one-night stands in the dating scene, and, more-recently, forays into the intrigue of online sex chat and sexual hookups. He describes the relationship he’s had with Sarah as the best relationship he’s ever had. Their sexual relationship was great for the first few months of their relationship, but then his interest waned. She has often complained about the lack of sex and now is devastated by his infidelity.

How can Ralph have been so obsessed with sex most of his life and yet have so little interest in being sexual with the woman next to him in bed? A brief answer is that Ralph hasn’t learned how to use his oxytocin to have good sex. Oxytocin is the hormone that signals child birth and milk let-down in women. But it is also the hormone that generates a warm, secure feeling by being close to your partner. It is often called the cuddle hormone. Ralph learned to use sex to get a high (from dopamine) along with a fantasy of connection with a partner (e.g., pornography or online sex chat). He learned to get the same high from one-night stands or early dating relationships. But he hadn’t built the foundation of deep attachment with these women as a foundation for a sexual connection. Sex ought to scare us a bit. But when we’ve learned how to connect with a partner in a loving, connecting way, we generate oxytocin that calms our anxiety.

A study* in 2006 by Donatella Marazziti, et. al., found that “oxytocin evokes feelings of contentment, reductions in anxiety, and feelings of calmness and security around the mate.” This science supports the traditional view of sex that sex should be added to secure, committed relationships. To generate enough oxytocin with a sexual partner one needs to learn how to cuddle and create a close emotional connection in sex. Ralph’s old pattern in sex supplied him plenty of dopamine, but little oxytocin. When the sex quit delivering the dopamine (as is normal), there was insufficient oxytocin to make the sexual connection feel both rewarding and safe. When couples learn to have sex that gets the oxytocin flowing, they create a sexual bond that draws them back together over the long haul.

So Ralph is suffering from what is called Inhibited Sexual Desire or “Sexual Anorexia.” He just isn’t interested in sex with his partner. What can he and they do about it? For one, he needs to gain sexual sobriety from using sex as a dopamine high. He may need to stop masturbating as well as stop getting sexual highs with “new partners” (real or virtual). In an orchestra, you have to give the trumpets a rest if you’re going to hear the flutes. Second, the couple needs to rebuild trust and bring healing to the betrayed partner for the wounds from sexual betrayal. Third, the couple needs to deepen their emotional intimacy by learning to share their deeper selves and therefore experience being cared about by each other. And finally, the recovering sex addict needs to develop his capacity for “oxytocin sex,” a slow, connecting sexual experience. He will then rewire his brain as he “listens to the flutes” of sex. This kind of sex then builds toward intense sexual pleasure (here comes the dopamine again!) but this time the intense pleasure can be wedded to a deep sense of attachment. All of this will lead to a healthy desire for partnered sex.

By Tom Olschner (Note: names and all details are the author’s invention. Also please note that the genders of the sex addict and partner are often reversed.)

*”A relationship between oxytocin and anxiety of romantic attachment” in The Journal of Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health

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