Guys: Where Do You Fall on the Monogamy Spectrum?
New research overturns commonly held beliefs about men
Regardless how many sexual partners you've had, you may still benefit from figuring out the extent to which you're wired for pair bonding. Being a pair-bonder, by the way, doesn't guarantee "happily ever after." It means socially monogamous: having the capacity to fall in love and the desire to bond, at least for a time. In contrast, most mammal species are like bonobo chimps and rats; they mate and move on. The reasons for the differences lie in brain structure.
Despite our capacity for promiscuity, we humans are a pair-bonding species. It shows up in our powerful hankering for touch and ongoing companionship—and makes perfect sense, as our offspring benefit from parents who hang around with each other for more than one estrous cycle. (For a solid analysis of human pair bonding, see "Your Sexy Brain" in The Compass of Pleasure.) As with any trait, however, there are always outliers (atypical individuals). So how do you know where you are on the pair-bonder spectrum? And what does it mean in terms of finding contentment?
Consider a recent poll of more than a thousand middle-aged or older couples in committed, long-term relationships from five countries. Said the researchers, "The overall levels of relationship happiness were high in this study." So, what did these couples say makes their relationships most satisfying (i.e., likely to last)?
For men, frequent kissing and cuddling and frequent sexual caressing by a partner each increased the odds of reporting relationship happiness by a factor of approximately 3. (Specifically 3.0 and 3.11, respectively. For women the predictive strength of each was only 1.59 and 1.35.) As the researchers concluded, there's a "need for reconsideration of the role of physical affection and its meanings" by gender. In another study, even young guys associated romantic stimuli more than sexual stimuli with a pleasant condition.
Duration of relationship also had a significant and positive effect on relationship happiness. And men who had had fewer partners reported greater sexual satisfaction. Are some guys just wired for monogamy? Does extended closeness increase satisfaction? What is the link between variety and dissatisfaction? (More in a moment.)
Highly valuing orgasm and frequency of sex were not strong predictors of relationship happiness. However, over all, both spouses rated their partner's orgasm as a more important priority than their own. In other words, those who pair up contentedly over the long haul seem to value affectionate and arousing touch, sexual responsiveness, and, perhaps, a generous mindset more than orgasm itself.
What does your brain say, and are you hearing it clearly?
Monogamy and infidelity often correlate with feelings of contentment or restlessness. These feelings arise in a primitive group of structures in the brain known as the reward circuitry. Wherever you fall on the pair-bonder spectrum, how you get your good feelings can reveal how you are wired. If you are primarily focused on living out your sexual fantasies, and novel partners are your biggest aphrodisiac, you may be more wired for riskier, hit-or-miss sex than long-term monogamy.
In the alternative, you may be a pair bonder whose pleasure response has been numbed by intense sexual stimulation—or even addiction. In this regard, a new study found that significant predictors of male infidelity are: propensity for sexual excitation (becoming easily aroused by many triggers and situations) and fear of sexual performance failure. Both can be symptoms of overstimulation. Novelty and risk may then act as desperately needed aphrodisiacs because they release extra dopamine. Once balance in the brain is restored, extreme stimulation often becomes unnecessary for sexual performance, and contented monogamy is much easier.
In any event, if you find affection, sexy touch and close companionship particularly arousing and satisfying, then you are probably not a restless outlier on the pair-bonder spectrum—even if you have multiple partners over time. Pair bonders adore sex, of course, but for them partner responsiveness and receptivity seem to be especially pleasurable and reassuring. This appears to be true of other pair-bonding primates as well.
Are you wired like the long-term couples described above? If so, you may not be thriving in today's culture. Pair-bonder strengths, such as a need for tenderness to respond sexually, can appear to be a weakness in today's sexual milieu. Here are four areas where the standard advice could backfire for you:
1. 'If it feels good do it' can lead to addiction
Believe it or not, if you have very strong pair-bond wiring, you may be particularly vulnerable to getting hooked—not just on online erotica, but also on other things. The reason is biological. Too much intense stimulation can "hijack" the very brain mechanism that evolved to encourage pair bonding. For example, pair-bonding (prairie) voles are particularly likely to go for addictive substances (unlike non-pair-bonding voles). Yet paired prairie voles have no interest in drugs. It's almost as if the reward circuitry of a pair bonder has a "little hole" crying out to be filled by a pair bond (even if the individual never bonds).
In the absence of contented union, some pair bonders will grab just about anything to fill that "hole." And some won't discover they are pair bonders until they give up their love-substitutes. As one guy said:
Goal: Within the next academic year, acquire a legit, dependable cuddle-buddy. It's likely that this means a girlfriend. Fine by me! Just want some TLC. God, it's so different for me to talk like this. For years I've been a porn-obsessed, introverted weirdo, who was completely mystified by the fact that people can like each other so much. Now I'm turning into one of them.
Incidentally, a pair-bonder brain can make it surprisingly tough to relinquish a porn harem, even when you would prefer a real partner. Said another guy:
Your brain has to accept that you are saying goodbye to all those girls, never to see them again! It will make you sad, angry, miserable, depressed, horny as hell, numb, null—it will drag you through the worst kinds of hell to get you to go back to your harem, because it loves them so much. [Pair-bonded male voles show the same kind of distress when separated from a mate.]
He also described how it feels to move toward a real mate:
Then, just like when you break up with a girlfriend (well, in fact exactly the same, because it is the same), you wake up one day and the fever is gone. The brain says "OK. I get it. *sniff*. I guess the harem's really all gone and I'll never see them again. *sniff*... Hey - that woman waiting in line at the bank is cute though! Hey baby!" And you are healed. [He soon got together with a woman he loved from his past.]
2. Solo Sex May Produce Less Satisfaction Down the Road
Given the powerful good feelings that pair bonders get from nurturing connection, the popular expert advice encouraging mates to engage in solo sex to increase their quotient of sexual satisfaction can backfire. One husband, who suffered from erectile dysfunction for many years and therefore seldom had sexual intercourse, decided to experiment with giving up masturbation for the three months prior to a vacation with his wife. After four straight days of intercourse with her, he said:
This is the first time I've had intercourse without fantasizing about something else. Basically focusing on my wife is now a turn on! I might have expected too much of myself in the past. I assumed that I should be up and ready to go at a second's notice, no matter what. I expected to get a boner every time I looked at a beautiful woman. Now my expectation is to eventually get erect if I'm relaxed in the presence of a woman I like (i.e. my wife).
On the first night, it wasn't until I started cuddling with my wife that my erection emerged. I'm now starting to "feel" my libido a little bit throughout the day. I believe I'm cured, and I think my problem was a mixture of performance anxiety and too much masturbation. If 4 days of intercourse in a row with my wife don't convince me that my libido is okay, what will?
3. Cuddle Buddies May Be More Beneficial Than Hook-Ups
Pair bonders seem to find affectionate touch and companionship more satisfying than sex that has little of either. Therefore, in between relationships, "cuddle buddies" may prove a better option than online erotica or casual sex. Said a couple of guys who experimented:
I now have a snuggle buddy. We just watch a movie together once in a while, while holding each other. It's a good situation because there is no pressure. And I really have to say, real women are so much better than porn. It feels so great. I think it's what I've been craving for most of my life. It was comforting to know that she wanted to do it as much as I did.
It's possible that some pair bonders are actually built for slower courtships that allow for building trust (and assessing trustworthiness). As explained in "The Lazy Way to Stay in Love," the exchange of non-erotic (but genital-friendly) touch may play a special role for pair bonders because the brain's pair-bonding mechanism evolved from the caregiver-infant bond.
Of course, some men are less sensitive to attachment cues than others. As an evolutionary biologist friend said,
It's likely that brain mechanisms initially selected for mother-offspring bonding have been inherited equally by sons, enabling male-female bonding and father-offspring bonding. Those traits, in turn, have also been positively selected in humans, although less strongly in males than in females—because male genetic fitness is still achieved to varying degrees without these bonds.
4. Sexual Responsiveness May Be Related to Emotional Connection
As revealed in the findings of the couple study summarized at the outset of this post, desire for an emotional connection may be built right into the brain chemistry a pair bonder—whether he likes it or not. Consider the remarks of these guys:
I personally don't like to have a physical relationship if I am not sure that I see a woman being in my life for a while. I think I would be horrible at polyamory. I'm not a one-night stand guy—just not wired that way.
When I am with a girl I've already had sex with, I can have an erection standing next to them. But with a girl that I haven't been with, I don't feel turned on. I have to work to get some feeling in my penis when talking to them or dancing with them.
Today's environment can make it challenging for pair bonders to find their way to lasting contentment. If you happen to be wired for deeper connection and less mate turnover, then today's highly publicized advice about the benefits of casual sex and online erotica won't do it for you. Trying to adapt may leave you feeling empty, or throw you into a loop of dissatisfaction or addiction-related problems.
Regardless of what others are doing, find out what increases your sense of satisfaction. If necessary, restore your brain to normal sensitivtiy. Reach out to real potential mates. Try emphasizing more touch and affection in your connections. Very soothing? If so, connection may be improving your wellbeing in important ways. Said one man,
My wife and I both take medication for high blood pressure. A couple of months ago, our numbers started coming down. I have cut my medication to ¼ of the previous level; her doc just told her she can drop the meds. Interestingly, a few months ago I increased the level of our bonding behaviors. I give her a foot and/or back massage every night. I pulled out my dog-eared, highlighted copy of Cupid's Poisoned Arrow. Sure enough, there it is on page 216: "Massage and other caring touch lower stress hormones and blood pressure," even for givers, it seems.
If you experiment, you will learn to recognize, ask for, and deliver the behaviors your brain is actually searching for to register maximum lasting contentment. You'll also know what qualities to watch for in prospective partners. (And what to forgive in past partners.) Figuring out what is right for you has implications for your happiness, your health, and perhaps even for future generations.
Watch a short video on the neurochemistry of pair bonding