Signs He's "the One" for You

Shine has a fluffy but smart post on figuring out if Mr. Now is Mr. Right.

They all come down to trust: Do your family and friends like him? Does he treat you right?

Put like that, it seems so simple. So, how come we so often get into relationships with people that our friends warn us about, who are mean to us, who can't give us what we want? (And this goes for you guys, too.)

All the positive attributes in the article come down to the beneficial, bonding effects of oxytocin. The gist is, if your relationship is based on oxytocin, it's right.

The snag is, love relationships usually start with a heavy hit of lust and romantic desire, feelings fueled not by oxytocin but by dopamine and noradrenaline. It's a rush that blinds us to the quality of the bond -- or to the lack of a bond at all beyond the sex and romance.

If your'e dating, print out the article and keep it by your phone.


Monogamy the Intelligent Choice?

Thanks to Solitaire Miles for sending me this item from the Telegraph. According to Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Political Science, intelligent men are more likely than the general population to remain faithful to their mates.

Kanazawa told Telegraph writer Matthew Moore that he thinks this is because in primitive times, it was adaptive for a man to father children with multiple women; now that this is no longer adaptive, only more intelligent men have the ability to " shed the psychological baggage of their species and adopt new modes of behaviour."

I disagree -- not about his finding about the correlation between intelligence and monogamy. My understanding of the research by Thomas Insel, Larry Young and others is that the human brain is structured like those of the other 3 percent of monogamous mammals. We have more oxytocin receptors in our brain's reward center, causing us to tie the reward of sex to an individual. 

This is social monogamy, not true sexual monogamy. That strong bond with a mate doesn't preclude that monogamous 3 percent from sexual activity with other individuals. In prehistoric times, this let human males have the best of both worlds: investing substantial resources in the survival of his mate's children while spreading a bit of his seed around at random.

In today's structured and complex Western societies, most of us expect sexual monogamy within marriage. Perhaps it takes a bit more brain power for men to resist the lure of extramarital sex.

By the way, Kanazawa found no such correlation between intelligence and sexual monogamy in women. What does that mean?


Weddings, Oxytocin and Families

with Jasvir Singh

Linda Geddes and her husband-to-be Nic decided to turn the most romantic day of their life—their wedding day—into a science experiment. They wanted to see if a wedding could affect the level of oxytocin in themselves and their guests.

The couple invited Paul Zak, the head of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies in Claremont, California, to the wedding. Zak researches oxytocin and leapt at the opportunity to translate his studies into real life. His research has shown that oxytocin is the empathy chemical.

Linda and Nic believed that oxytocin levels in those close to them would raise as they witness the public bonding of a marriage. The sample was tested before and after the wedding, and oxytocin levels rose in the bridge, groom, and all the blood related family members.

Results of the blood tests on their friends were mixed however; oxytocin rose in some and not in others. Those who were genetically close seemed to have a deeper involvement, expressed as higher levels of oxytocin.

You can read Linda’s entire article here.

Zak believes that these results support the theory that public weddings evolved as a way of binding couples to their friends and family, perhaps as a way to ensure that friends and family will help raise and feel connected to the couples future children.  This could explain the neurochemical basis of the desire to have the big wedding rather than simply eloping.

As a write for New Scientist, Geddes clearly had the insight and resources to turn her wedding into a science experiment. We're hearing more and more about people experimenting on themselves. Maybe we'll see more of these citizen-scientist experiments.


Why Your Heart and Your Head Don't Always Agree

Dear Susan,

I read Rachel's post and I was wondering what your take would be on my present dilemma. I've got mixed feelings towards my best male friend, who is also an online friend. We've known each other for almost two years now, and it's safe to say that I know most of him. I'm not naive, I made sure he wasn't just some old 35 year old perv from maine or whatever.

My problem is, I don't know how I feel about him anymore. It was platonic for most of the time that I knew him, but I guess I got really attached to him as time went by. I do care about him deeply, but we had some really rough times together.

I've got a lot of bitterness towards him, which I think definitely effects my conduct towards him, even though I try to not let that happen. I get angry and irritated at him for all the mixed signals, dramatics and insensitive moves that he keeps throwing at me, but for the past week, i keep thinking that this is no longer on a platonic plane for me. I feel at home with him sometimes, and it doesn't help that I have commitment issues, and we both have self-esteem issues. I have trust issues as well.

 Neither of us are looking for a relationship, yet I know that we both hope for something real in the future.

I can't even talk to him about this, because nothing will be the same. He's just too dramatic a character even though he appears to be calm and collected.

He rejected the idea of being with me a few months back, and besides I personally think that our goals, values and lifestyle just don't suit each other. More often then not, we're not even on the same page.

I've tried staying away from him several times before, but it never has really worked. I'm trying it again, and am hoping that these feelings will go away. However, what I don't get it, why do I feel this way about him?

My mind does not agree with my heart, but at the same time, part of my heart does. It remembers all the hurt that he has managed to cause. What do I do? What do I think? Please let me know what your take is on all this. Thank you in advance. Sorry for taking so much of your time. Have a good day! :)

Dear Ani,

Thank you for sharing your story. Here's what I got from your post: You feel like you're falling in love with your friend of two years. However, while you care for him, your relationship has been rocky. Intellectually, you don't think that you two are a good match for many reasons, and yet you can't let go of this feeling. Please let me know if I've got this wrong.

I think this is a pretty common emotional situation. I am thinking of a boyfriend I had, with whom I had brutal fights that seemed to come out of nowhere. But it happened so many times before we gave up, because I loved and wanted him so much.

You don't say whether you and your friend have ever hung out in person. If it's strictly an online friendship, then you are likely missing a lot of nonverbal cues and clues that might make his signals clearer -- even if you're having video chats, it's not the same as being in the same room. So, it could be that both of you are taking things the other says the wrong way. It could also be that if you could spend more time in physical proximity, you would realize that it really would not work.

You have doubtlessly built up an oxytocin charge in this relationship. Any time we engage in trusting interactions, including talking about feelings, ideals or dreams, we release oxytocin. This oxytocin bonds us to the other person, and it's a very good thing. We experience this feeling as our heart telling us something.

I think that a strong dopamine element may also be in play in this friendship. Dopamine is the brain chemical that makes us go after a reward. It's also involved in pleasure, and it combines with oxytocin to make us feel in love with someone else.

But here's the thing about dopamine: We get lots of it when we're trying to get the reward, but as soon as we actually get it, the dopamine levels drop.

I have found that getting mixed signals from a potential mate is the best way to get hopeless entangled and even obsessed. If someone will just tell me he doesn't want me, I can get over it. But when he sometimes wants me and sometimes rejects me, I stop being able to think about anything else but how to get a relationship with him.

I wonder if this is what's going on with you. The part of your brain that analyzes and makes decisions doesn't think this man is right for you as a mate. But the reward-seeking part of your brain keeps getting come/go away signals from him, so it is getting more and more focused on obtaining this prize -- and it's telling the thinking part of your brain that it's wrong.

Taking some time off from this relationship is probably a good thing -- but only if you can keep from thinking about him all the time. The best way to do this is to substitute going after some other kind of reward. The substitute reward doesn't have to be super-exciting, actually. Learning something new, going to an exciting movie, skiing … try to do something fun every day.

I know this guy is your best friend, but I hope you haven't neglected other friends. This is a great time to get some emotional support and love from other people. (Just be sure not to spend all your time with them talking about this relationship.)

Once you get your brain chemistry more balanced, your heart and your head can have another talk and make a decision about where you want this to go.

The Oxytocin Gap

I'm reposting a reply I made to Gila's thoughtful and interesting question: If neuroplasticy lets the brain change, couldn't the pain of broken premarital relationships weaken or harm the oxytocin response?

You raise good questions, Gila. Certainly, neuroplasticity goes both ways. The example of an adult who develops PTSD following a traumatic experience is a good example of negative live experiences causing a change for the worst.

Can broken premarital relationships adversely affect the oxytocin response? I think it is possible. You could think of the oxytocin response as a habit, a learned response to stimuli. Certainly habits can be broken or changed. When we encounter a painful stimulus, we learn to avoid it in the future.

That said, Dr. Keroack's theory seemed to be more that the oxytocin response could be used up: Bond with too many people before marriage and your marriage bond won't be as strong. This really does not make sense. If you can love, you can love many people. Your oxytocin doesn't get used up when you have your first child, for example.

I agree with you that there is a hormonal -- or neurochemical -- explanation for some women's and men's ability to hook up without feeling bonded.

During the first three years of life, our brains undergo rapid and intense development, with patterns laid down that tend to stay with us throughout our lives. They certainly can be modified and changed later, but it's much harder to change a neurochemical habit formed as a baby than one formed as an adult.

The oxytocin response, which I define as the release of oxytocin into the social centers of the brain in response to physical and emotional stimuli, is one such habit. In order for a baby to learn to release oxytocin in times of safety and intimacy, she needs to have a close physical connection with one primary person; she needs to be mothered, whether by her biological mother or another person.

So many things in our society make it difficult to provide this: medicalized birth that can overdose the baby with artificial oxytocin, possibly making her brain less sensitive to it; the need or desire of both parents to get back to work quickly; understaffed daycare centers; our distracted, multitasking lifestyle; and our general lack of awareness about what a baby needs.

I think that many of us become adults without a strong and healthy oxytocin response. I don't think you can successfully work as a prostitute if you have a strong oxytocin response, it would be too painful.

I think the hookup culture we're seeing now may be a reflection of a widespread inability to bond, for all these reasons. You could call it the oxytocin gap.

It should be noted, there is wide variation among individuals, and, nurture and early brain development aside, it's likely that some individuals never will bond strongly. In the monogamous prairie vole, for examples, small variations in the gene for vasopressin, an oxytocin-like molecule, seem to cause some males to not form pair-bonds.

Some background on the Keroack kerfluffle, in case you've forgotten: In 2006, President Bush appointed Eric Keroack to oversee Health and Human Services, and there was a lot of discussion of Keroack's theory that premarital sex could sort of use up your oxytocin supply. Rebecca Turner, the scientist on whose work he based that theory, repudiated his conclusions.

Here is what Dr. Turner said about Dr. Keroack's statements: "Due to concerns about health and emotional development, I certainly would not promote the idea that teenagers should engage in multiple sexual relationships. However, the cautions we give to teens should be based on honest concerns about health and values, not misinformation such as the statement that they will never be able to bond with a partner or have loving attachments in later life. In fact, other research by colleagues in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at UCSF* implies that teens are more likely to heed advice when it is seen as believable."


Your Neurochemical Dating Timeline

Your dating, romance and love timeline may be governed by your brain chemicals. Nature seems to have designed us to move through three stages of love; lust/attraction, romance and committed love. And each stage is governed by a different neurochemical mix.

Lust and attraction is a powerful cocktail of testosterone, which fires sexual desire in women as well as men, and dopamine, the chemical of seeking and reward. If your lust and attraction are returned, you quickly move into romance, an excited and focused state in which your brain's reward centers are flooded with dopamine. This is the state we call "in love," and it's very different from the final stage, committed love, or true love, when oxytocin, the neurochemical of bonding takes over. Once the oxytocin bond grows strong, couples can stay together and weather the inevitable bumps in the road.

Nature's design seems to be that we stay in the first stage until we find an appropriate mate. When we do, we move into romance, the highly rewarding and exciting stage which typically lasts about two years -- long enough for the woman to get pregnant and have her baby. By that time, the oxytocin bond has grown strong, so the exciting neurochemicals die down, allowing the couple to concentrate on raising baby, instead of making goo-goo eyes at each other.

Now, everyone is different. Some women fall almost instantly into an oxytocin drunk, just knowing after a couple of kisses that he's the one, while others can never quite make it past romance. When the sparks go out, they move on.

When you understand the different phases, and how each of them can cloud your judgment, it's harder to get hornswaggled into a bad relationship.


Change Your Love Style

Backtolove

Getting Back to Love, by Joseph and Sarah Malinak, is a book about changing the love styles we learned during infancy and childhood so that we can make the kind of love connection we want. In The Chemistry of Connection, I described how our early experiences of mothering influence our brain development and neurochemistry. I see Getting Back to Love  as a sort of sequel to Chemistry. In their book, Joseph and Sarah Malinak explain how these early, pre-conscious experiences play out in adulthood.

In the book, they describe syndromes they call Mama's Boys and Daddy's Girls: People who never grow up into adult men and women.

"When a man depends on a woman for his worth as a man, he is invariably disappointed, because his worth as a man can only be sustained if it comes from within." (The same goes for women who define themselves by their worth to a man -- and, although the Malinaks don't mention this, I think it holds true for a gay man or woman who defines him or herself by their worth to a potential lover.)

Daddy's Girls are taught that the man is the most important thing in their lives, while Mama's Boys learn that their power comes only from women.

Mama's Boys and Daddy's Girls are created, according to the book, through lack of connection with their same-sex parents. Around puberty, boys and girls need to spend more time with fathers or mothers, who help initiate them into not necessarily gender roles, but rather, into the essence of femininity or masculinity. Michael Gurian, author of The Wonder of Boys and many other books, writes about this as well. And, of course, in this era of single-parent families, that can be especially difficult for boys.

The Malinaks certainly put some things in my own relationships in a new light. I am definitely a Daddy's Girl; this makes sense, because I always had a very hard time with my mother, and never felt that she loved me or cared for me (in the literal sense). For example, the way they described the dynamic of my struggles with Mike around housekeeping and maintaining our house helped me see it in a new way.

According to Getting Back to Love, the problem is my underlying belief that men can't be counted on. I know my mother felt this about my father -- and for the first 40 years of my life, I unconsciously pushed away any sweet and caring man who showed genuine interest in me. Moreover, they write, I unconsciously attracted Mama's Boys who tried to finagle me into taking care of them one way or another.

Okay, so how do you get out of this crazy dance? Their advice is to try to become conscious of these unconscious feelings and beliefs and then, when you do notice them, refuse to act on them. Their example felt a bit unrealistic to me: If you've each agreed to do your own laundry, but his just piles up in the middle of the floor, don't do it for him. Just ignore it. It's his responsibility, and he'll take care of it eventually. I have this problem with the dishes; Mike leaves his all over the place. It's pretty hard to ignore when I'm trying to make lunch and our very limited counter space is covered with dirty bowls and forks. Many times, I feel that he tries to maneuver me into nagging him. Because I learned hyper-critical behavior from my mom, it's easy for him to do. So, I guess I would have to give up being able to use the kitchen counters in order to have a healthier relationship? Durnit!

 After we become adults, it's equally important to spend time with same-sex friends, as well as opposite-sex friends and lovers, they write. Our friends "refresh" our femininity or masculinity, according to the Malinaks.

They also share their own love story -- and it illustrates how a healthy, oxytocin-based relationship develops. They met in a self-development program, and liked each other without feeling that intense, nerve-wracking romantic excitement (based on dopamine and norepinephrine) that characterizes romantic love. Instead, as they spent time together, Sarah one day realized that when love songs played on the radio, her thoughts drifted to Joseph. Then, as she moved more consciously toward him as a lover, the excitement came.

Then, they "did something neither had done before , either on a date or at the start of a romantic relationship. In clear recognition of their feelings for each other, they laid it all out on the table."

Ultimately, they remind us, "It's all about you." If you continually find yourself in relationships with someone who demands to be taken care of or bosses you around, it's because of the way you relate to others. Another way of saying this that I've always liked is, "Instead of trying to find the right person, try to be the right person."


Chip August's Sex, Love & Intimacy Podcast

Charles August, or Chip for short, has done 90 podcasts covering all aspects of sex and love for Personal Life Media (a company founded by internet wundergrrrl Susan Bratton). Chip co-facilitates, with his life-partner, a relationship workshop for couples called Passionate Relationships. Chip is also a certified Instructor of PET (Parent Effectiveness Training) leading adult education workshops to teach listening, conflict resolution and communication skills to parents.

I was honored to be Chip's 90th guest recently.

We talked about how the way we're mothered influences the way we love as adults, and how that plays out in our relationships throughout life.

You can listen to the podcast via iTunes or here on Personal Life Media. If you're an old-fashioned readerly type like me, you can also read the transcript when you click on that link.

Thanks, Chip!