Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Trust in the Fast Lane with Oxytonated Fuels

No, that’s not a suggestion for the shortest way to get to work. In the last post, I started writing about oxytocin. Let’s recap. Oxytocin is the chemical of trust, bonding, and social connection. There are other chemicals involved, but the big O is shaping up as the chief one. I’m not saying that you only trust someone because you get a jolt of oxytocin; I’m not saying that what you think, do, or decide has no part in who you end up trusting and what you do in your relationships. I’m just sayin that in addition to psychological and spiritual beings, we’re biologicals. You are a carbon-based life form, and for everything that happens that matters in your mind and social life, there is something happening chemically and neurologically in your body and brain. Oxytocin is the go-to chemical coursing in your body when you are getting attached to someone.

As I noted in my last post, lots of things can give you a jolt of oxytocin. Let me recap that list and add to it: touching, hugging, sex, kissing, a warm bath, vibration, massage, sex, tactile stimulation, genital stimulation, giving birth, sex, and/or sex. There are probably all sorts of other things, too, that cause oxytocin to get rolling but let’s focus on one in this post.

Did I mention that oxytocin released or increased during and following sex? I meant to mention that because it might matter to you or someone that you know.

It also seems pretty well understood by researchers that females (on average, research is always on average) have more robust and active oxytocin systems than males. That would make a lot of sense if you consider that it’s purpose beyond all purposes is to rapidly and massively bond a new mother to a helpless baby. Bam—big time attachment. I’m sure a lot of that must begin in the womb, but there is a big ramp up at birth. It’s, of course, really important for men to bond to their children as well, but through history, survival is at stake when it comes to the baby and the mother to bonding.

Is there any downside to this cool system? Theory alert. What I’m about to suggest is somewhat theoretical but it’s also kind of simple and obvious. By the way, that’s the best kind of theory to build—simple ideas that explain common things.

Things move fast in relationships these days. I get to talk with lots of groups of people, and when talking about some topics, I like to ask people how long it is before the average couple who meets and gets attracted has sex. Not all couples have sex. Not all couples have sex before marriage. Shocking, I know, but true. Not all couples have have sex soon after the relationships begins. Of course, if you read the hooking up literature (it’s pretty interesting), there are also lots of people who have sex before there is any type of relationship at all. If the sex is good, maybe there will be a date. But in general, when talking with groups of folks, especially those in their 20s or 30s, I rarely hear an answer longer than a few weeks when asking how long before the average couple has sex.

Back to the big O (I mean Oxytocin, not Oprah’s magazine or anything else). Oh, you thought I might have meant that! Well, I’m coming to that now. Here’s the problem with this very cool chemical. Putting it simply:

Oxytocin accelerates attachment and trust.
Oxytocin gets rolling with sex.
Sexual contact happens pretty rapidly for lots of couples—most, really.

Sooooooo . . . . .

In the absence of protective mechanisms or cultural rituals that promote going slower in developing relationships, trust and attachment are going to form strongly between partners well before those partners can possibly have evaluated whether the relationship is wise, viable, safe, and good. I don’t want to go too far out on a limb (I may do that next time), but if women have more robust oxytocin systems than men, who’s more at risk by not going slower? It does not have to be the woman, by the way, who has the stronger oxytocin reaction. I’m sure plenty of men are gifted with strong, biologically enhanced, trust circuits. No matter if someone is male or female, the cruel irony is that people who are biologically prone to be particularly gracious and giving may also be more at risk by not making careful decisions on the highway of love.