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The Chemistry of Attraction

What's really going on when you're attracted to someone? The infatuation phase is when you see only one side of a person: the positive traits, the potential for a happily ever after. You don't even notice that her feet stink or that he scratches his butt. No, she's Cinderella and he's Prince Charming-for now.

 

Your body chemistry only heightens the whole lopsided process, giving you regular doses of dopamine (a hormone that mimics the effects of cocaine), resulting in phenomena such as energy boosts, appetite suppression, heart palpitations, accelerated breathing, hyperactivity, and insomnia. Romantics say, "I love him/her so much that I can't eat, sleep, or think straight." That's the dope talking. And dopamine triggers testosterone, which means sex drive goes up, and soon enough, you're making love like bunnies.

 

There's no doubt that sex drive is partly chemical and hormonal, but it's also psychological and energetic. Partners in a relationship become more susceptible to outside interests when they stop honoring one another's values. It's as if a periscope goes up, out of the relationship, to scan the horizon. And males, because of their naturally higher levels of testosterone, scope things out more often than women.

 

This isn't to say that men are significantly more likely to stray; I think it may actually be nearly even-steven (or even-stephanie). It's just that guys probably consider their options more often. Statistics on the rates of infidelity are suspect because there's no way to gauge the honesty of survey respondents. Some people might deny activity they're ashamed of or brag about something that never happened. Yet here's something to consider: The Associated Press reported in the late 1990s that 22 percent of men and 14 percent of women admitted to having sexual relations outside their marriage sometime in their past, 70 percent of married women and 54 percent of married men didn't know about their spouse's extramarital activity, and 17 percent of divorces in the United States are caused by cheating.

 

Interestingly enough, a man's testosterone levels go up or down, inversely proportionate with the attachment he feels in his relationship. In other words, the more attached he feels to his partner or family, the lower his testosterone levels. Right after orgasm, a man experiences a surge of vasopressin, which is thought to depress the hormone. Also, a new father's testosterone declines immediately when his child is born. In fact, it drops when he simply holds a baby, just from having parental, caretaking feelings.

 

Does this mean that the more attached a man is to his partner and family, the lower his testosterone levels are and, therefore, the lower his sex drive is, so he's less likely to put up his periscope? Bingo! And what creates this bond? The more he feels his values are being honored and fulfilled in the relationship, the less he feels the need to look elsewhere; both his psychology and his chemistry support this.

 

What creates a similar effect in women? Having her own ideals respected, of course, plus sexual fulfillment (specifically orgasm) and nursing a child, both of which trigger release of a hormone called oxytocin, the female counterpart to vasopressin.

 

But don't confuse attachment and its hormones with some kind of magic bullet for fidelity. Where polyamory (loving more than one) isn't restricted by cultural barriers, or in couples who choose not to comply with cultural norms, it's more freely expressed. Although "open" relationships have their own challenges, they're not inherently "worse" (or "better") than "closed" ones. Human connections can take myriad forms, all of which are valid and potentially viable.

 
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