In so many relationships, sex becomes boring and the partner’s excitement for each other withers away. That happened in my first marriage, so I’m certainly not immune to the problem.
Since then, I have read about and explored many different dimensions of relationships and sexuality. I have also fully embraced being a dom, which is a tremendous source of creative energy for me.
Through this learning process, I discovered that one of the powerful factors underlying our relationships and behaviors is our neurochemistry.
In the early stages of falling in love, our brain levels of dopamine, adrenaline, and oxytocin all shoot up, creating a feeling of euphoria. Our levels of serotonin actually decrease, which makes us more willing to take risks. After a couple of years, however, all of these neurochemical levels return to normal. While having sex can still spike dopamine levels (an orgasm has been described as the equivalent of heroin for our brain chemistry), those levels can crash afterwards, with a rebound in prolactin that causes irritability and a loss of libido. The unpleasantness of this rebound effect can be strong enough that couples begin to unconsciously avoid sex.
So what to do about it? My solution has been two-fold: keep dopamine high and use oxytocin to offset the rebound effect of prolactin.
Dopamine is our “reward” hormone. It causes a sense of pleasure, but it also increases concentration and executive function. Too much dopamine can cause anxiety and compulsive behaviors. Too little dopamine causes depression, low libido, and attention deficit disorder (ADD). Oxytocin is our “cuddle” hormone, which increases our feelings of trust and love toward another person. Prolactin is a hormone that stimulates milk production after child birth, but it also has many other regulatory functions. After an orgasm, prolactin levels increase for both men and women, causing a feeling of satiation and drowsiness, in large part because prolactin sucks up all of the excess dopamine. Too much prolactin can cause dopamine levels to plummet, resulting in depression and low libido. Fortunately, oxytocin moderates the effect of prolactin, which is why cuddling after an intense orgasm or BDSM session is so critical. If you don’t cuddle, less oxytocin is released, prolactin levels stay high, and you feel depressed.
I keep dopamine levels high by being playful about making love. Turning sex into an adventure stimulates an increase in dopamine. Novelty is one of the things that dramatically boosts dopamine production, which is why traveling someplace new on vacation is so pleasurable. The increase in dopamine from novelty is also one of the reasons that swingers like having sex with new couples – a new play partner creates a dopamine high. Afterwards, smart couples cuddle with their own partners, which boosts oxytocin and wards off a prolactin crash. (Fun with chemistry! Can you tell I’m a geek?)
Turning sex into a more elaborate scene (a longer adventure) extends the length of time that dopamine is produced, which heightens the eventual orgasm(s). Involving BDSM and impact play stimulates production of endorphins, which produces euphoria. Dopamine and endorphins together can create “subspace”, which is an almost trance-like state of heightened euphoria.
It is hugely important to also be loving throughout the scene, so oxytocin production is kept high, or else the crash from plunging dopamine and endorphin levels after the scene can be horrible. A constant seesaw up and down in neurochemical levels can also lead to addictive behaviors, where someone is constantly chasing the next high. That’s bad.
My goal is to create a loving scene with a long, gentle lead-up, some nice intensity, and lots of cuddling during and after to make the aftereffects mellow and enjoyable. Playing with sex this way keeps it very enjoyable and makes sex a positive long-term force in a relationship. I use my creativity to keep sex new and different (more dopamine – yeah!). Staying loving and connected (oxytocin) keeps the whole experience positive and fulfilling.
Understanding how our neurochemistry drives our behaviors and responses can make us much better lovers and spouses. I think understanding these underlying mechanisms also makes it easier to talk with our partners about sex: what we like and don’t like, what our fantasies are, and how much novelty we are willing to explore. All of the convoluted moral overlays that make honest communication about sex so difficult can be set aside. When it’s just chemistry, it is easier for a couple to discuss and embrace what will work for them mutually.