My mission in watching Discovery Channel's Science of Sex Appeal was to understand the scientific take on what's up with the sexual and emotional cheating I see in my therapy practice. People say they want a forever relationship — so what is happening?
Briefly, the science says we are predisposed chemically away from long-term monogamy and pair bonding, but we can choose to use the tremendous power of our gigantic human brains to maintain our relationships. Okay… then how do we choose our partners and how do we stay happily together long-term?
The feature began by explaining that the sexual attraction game consists of three parts: choosing a partner, keeping a partner, and building a nest together to raise children. From the start of the show, the rapid-fire polysyllabic banter of Science of Sex Appeal was difficult to follow. But I was determined to get my questions answered and apply the information in my professional practice.
One research study illustrated that women tend to choose partners based on status or resources as a priority. Groups of women, selected at random, were shown photos of similarly dressed men of relatively equal attractiveness. Following a baseline numerical rating of attractiveness, later groups were shown the same pictures, but with an indication of social and economic status — five- or six-figure incomes. The attractiveness ratings rose or fell significantly in direct correlation to perceived income level.
And the science of partner selection continues with human odor as a factor. Couples can discern the special smell of their partner. Every man has a unique smell — 'eau de man.' Research has demonstrated that odor affects us at a subconscious level. We can't control it. No two people smell the same or have the same ‘HMC’, as it is called. There is an optimum match for HMC.
Women are generally repelled by men’s scent (except when they are within a day or two of ovulation); but men, when exposed to vaginal secretions, are consistently attracted. In experiments where men inhale imperceptible low doses of artificial copulants, the attractiveness rating of women shown in pictures is higher. Copulants impair men’s ability to discriminate whether a woman is attractive. The scent of copulants prevents them from thinking clearly. (Odor also helps us steer clear of relatives and has performed the evolutionary role of "incest avoidance.")
With chemistry-inspired flirting, lust, and love all continuously active below our level of consciousness, can we maintain attraction to one partner? Attraction has many stages, beginning with a single biochemical jolt resulting in a change reaction. Anecdotal reports indicate the ‘first kiss’ is highly memorable in the attraction that builds (or fails to build). The abundant testosterone in saliva increases the sex drive.
Even more sex appeal chemistry influences occur through the dopamine triggered in our brains. Dopamine is the brain’s pleasure chemical that produces a high that can be addictive, energy producing, and exhilarating. Biochemistry shows the link between dopamine and testosterone with exhilaration and lust. But dopamine is not uniquely linked to sex appeal. The thrill of sports, bungee jumping for instance, can produce a dopamine rush. What about love?
Researchers set out to find the ‘brain in love’ through MRI scans of people viewing photos of a significant other and strangers. And they did. Brain activity rose and fell according to the attachment. But science confirms that it is having sex (not being in love) that makes us want more sex. We can be in love, and never have sex. Professionally, I understand that loving a spouse (partner) does not (necessarily) include sexual attraction or the desire to engage in sex.
According to Science of Sex Appeal, chemistry brings us together and drives us apart. We are biologically programmed to mate for life and most religions and cultures urge us to do so. Still, there are two primary paths of choice — stay together or have an unrestricted strategy and remain noncommittal. Newer research shows that women also seek sexual variety similarly to how we have stereotyped men as wanting to play the field.
Many of our unconscious preferences and behaviors are conditioned by our chemistry. Studies report that women find slightly feminized pictures of the same man more attractive when they are not ovulating. Married women are biologically driven to promiscuous behavior as reported by an experiment based on digital movies of the female participants dancing during a "girls’ night out." The women with long term partners and on their fertility cycles were the most provocative. This was concluded from movement and appearance analyzed through pixels and an estimated percentage of skin showing. These committed women sent out more sexual signals than the available ones. In contrast, other research pinpoints the role of the chemical oxcytocin in monogamy for women.
The science on sexual attraction claims that evolution prepares us to stay together just long enough to raise children. One study across 58 societies demonstrated a dual reproductive system going from pair bonding to straying at about the four-year mark in a relationship. The study conclusion: we are fundamentally built to stray. Does this mean that our exhilarating experience of early love is destined to be undermined by our inherent biology? Will we always fail at long-term love?
Science claims that the chemistry of passion, lust, and love bind us together for a limited period of time. Haven't most of us figured that out at a personal level? My observation is we already know we need to build for the future before the reality storm hits. Yet many of us neglect our marriages and relationships anyway. Over focus on careers or children, and overindulging in our selfish habits through individual use of time frequently lead to rampant neglect of our partners. Science help us?
The science here reminds me of the Three Little Pigs story. Early love and lust are like building a grass hut on a romantic island. Eventually, the wolf-like hurricanes of time and routine daily living blow it to smithereens. And even if we upgrade to sticks, we still gotta invest in mortar and bricks. What are the bricks and mortar of satisfying long-term pair bonding? How do we build a cooperative and monogamous alliance that lasts a lifetime?
Science of Sex Appeal suggests that our spirituality, life memories, and our children can become the building bricks for lifetime commitment. (I add that friendly roommate-like compatibility and economic convenience or necessity are common factors that prevent break-ups, while not necessarily firming up commitment.) But those commitments can remain shaky or shallow alliances without the intense love mortar. In this documentary, it is proposed that if you want to love longer than 10 years, you must build a mental chemistry of love.
There is scientific proof that we can remain in love with sustained intense romantic love that is stronger, deeper, and more complex than the explosion of early love. Studies of the MRI activity of a male subject in an intense, 24-year marital relationship showed that the ventral tegmental area of his brain still lights up. This brain region is active in early love. How do we utilize our brains to keep that region blazing with light?
Often, one partner may describe feelings of loving the other without being "in love." These conflicting emotions often signal doubts of whether their marriage or union should continue. How can they handle that? Of course, they may just stumble along without taking action, but they can also choose to break up the relationship or go to a counselor to build solutions.
Science teaches (as do therapists) that any novelty increases the dopamine level in our brains. We can constantly refuel with that wonderful pleasure chemical by bringing new challenges and experiences into our relationships. While this would seem to be a no-brainer, in my work, I see that many relationships suffer from neglect by failing to make that effort. People walk away from relationships or settle instead.
We are not at the mercy of our hormone clusters ebbing and flowing. The chemistry of sexual attraction may be beyond our control; however, the way we act in response is totally our choice. We have huge brains giving us the ability and opportunity to make deliberate decisions with our lives. Science informs that we can use our conscious minds to sustain our relationships. When we decide to do that, we can make everything else fall into place for us and value our families of creation.
The Science of Sex Appeal concluded with the optimistic promise that sexual attraction and chemistry do not dictate our actions or partner choices. Our brains give us the option to choose how to live our lives.
Consider how carefully crafted food marketing triggers our desire to eat. We can pass on eating. We have the ability to edit our food choices to create healthy bodies and, if needed, consult a nutritionist. And despite the science of the chemical triggers of sex appeal, we are capable of choices, which honor and create healthy emotional relationships. Exit the role of physical science and enter self-help, relationship coaching, and professional counseling. We can put our brains to work building our understanding and skills to achieve satisfying marriages and other types of long-term pair bonds.Powered by Sidelines