A while ago I watched an acquaintance of mine almost swallowed whole by a woman.
Well – not literally, but metaphorically. It reminded me of that series ‘V’ where the aliens disguised themselves as humans but in reality were reptilian underneath and could open their mouth up so wiiiiiide that they could swallow … well, you get the picture.
He knew she was already dating another guy – he even stood next to her in the pub as she and date number one virtually had sex on the table. I and others looked on with interest. So did he, but he also continued to flirt with her, and she, of course, flirted back. Then she made a point of telling him which singles event she would be at next and he dutifully turned up, pursued her all evening until she ‘relented’ and then they sat hands clasped, looking deeply into each other’s eyes and intermittently kissing as if they were desperately in love. I again watched with curiosity, knowing that she would, self-admittedly, be dating the other guy the next night, and doing the same with him. I didn’t know whether the other guy knew - probably not as he’d seemed blissfully unaware: the kind of blissful unawareness that didn’t even register that there was another guy flirting with his girl whenever he went on an errand to the bar or for a necessary visit to the loo. He just smiled at him as if they were mates. But my friend knew, and still he was smitten. Was he in love or in lust? And what about the woman? Not quite the romantic Mills and Boon behaviour we normally expect of women …
Now that raised two interesting questions; first, how do we - men and women, that is - fall in love, and what role does sex play in it? And if that’s the starter for ten, the supplementary bonus question must be, do men and women think and respond sexually all that differently after all?
We did a little research to answer them and found some interesting info in Debbie Martin’s book The Strategy: Single and don’t want to be?
When a man or woman has an orgasm, it releases a flood of oxytocin directly into their bloodstream. It’s a clever little chemical - as clever as the mirror neurons that our brain carefully uses to encourage attraction – but that’s another tale for another time. Oxytocin has some mirroring qualities too, in that it creates mirror image responses in men and women: opposites.
‘Oxytocin seems to have been ‘designed’ by nature to make a man and woman feel bonded after sex, but oestrogen (in women) seems to increase the bonding effects of oxytocin, while testosterone (in men) seems to mute them. That’s why women tend to feel more attached after sex than men do.’(Susan Kuchinskas: author of The Chemistry of Connection: How the Oxytocin Response can help you find Trust, intimacy and Love. (2009))
Unfortunately the result of oxytocin release in men is not only to make them feel less attached after sex than the woman, but often even completely DE-tached. So all of a sudden we have the scientific reason why ‘HE’ is suddenly too busy to see or even call you, ladies, and maybe even avoid you, after a one-night stand. Even more unfortunately, in true mirror-image, women are flooded with all sorts of other chemicals in addition to oxytocin – well we always were more complicated, according to men, magazines and our mothers… PEA or Phenylethylamine, and other chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin also surge in a woman’s bloodstream after sex, often resulting in deeply-felt attachment - and being desperate for more affection. The cuddle syndrome: oh dear!
So if men and women’s reactions are so different after sex, how and when do sex and love co-exist – or in fact when does sex play a positive part in engendering love? The answer lies in yet other clever little chemicals: endorphins. Hey, this design package is really good; I wonder who ever thought it up? (That is a rhetorical question…)
Over time, the emotional bond of sharing and caring ensures that endorphins – the chemicals responsible for long-term bonding - are also released to complement that little varmint and trouble maker, oxytocin.
So let’s answer those questions we started with.
Q: How do we - men and women, that is - fall in love?
A: Over time and with reciprocal sharing and caring, with a bit of help from our best friends, the empathetic endorphins.
Q: What role does sex play in falling in love?
A: Not the major one… it’s a bit part at best – and a supplementary role.
Now all this is great, but why did the man and woman appear to swap roles in my tale? It was the woman who was detached and spreading it around and the guy who was infatuated. It brings us to that final supplementary question:
Q: Do men and women think and respond sexually all that differently after all?
A: Well, yes in a straightforward physical way, but add in a bit of time and effort and it’s interesting that when surveyed the main type of response from a guy when asked how important sex was to him was this,
‘A guy wants to feel like he’s significant to a woman and that she likes him so much that he is special enough to share something as intimate as sex with him.’ (Chapter 11 - The Strategy: Single and don’t want to be?)
We don’t always play out our ‘roles’ as people assume we will. Men are sensitive and emotional too. Women can be hard-hearted and put up barricades when they want. I didn’t tell you initially that the lady in question was in ‘break-up denial’ and thought that playing the field was the way to avoid heartache but sadly ended up on her own as both guys got fed up in the end. Rather points to the way forward for all of us perhaps?
Share, commit, trust and give intimacy when the bond has been created between you because it is the intimacy that then sustains love on both sides, but not that creates it.
So girls, remember how your mother always said to wait? Well now you can see that her advice has as much basis in science as initial attraction has (you can find out all about that in Chapter 6 of The Strategy, and how to make the most of it). And guys, ever worried about the potential for your one-night stand to turn into a ‘bunny-boiler’? If you go for sex as soon as you meet, you’ll get a great big dose of oxytocin and very little else - and you’ll deserve all the hassle you get …