Lesson 16 — Sexual Bonding: A Caveat
At some level Grandmother understood it. People involved in a sexual relationship for a while tend to become bonded to each other, regardless of how irrational the relationship might be from other perspectives. Grandmother understood that if granddaughter got involved with that ne’er-do-well boy, it would be bad news for a long time to come.
When a relationship moves from friendship to repeated or sustained physical intimacy, something happens which makes moving away from that intimacy both difficult and painful. A bond forms in intimate relationships — partly sexual, partly emotional, partly intellectual even — a connection that is extremely painful to sever. Although it involves not just sex but the whole of being intimate, sex seems to be the real glue, and for that reason I have come to call the phenomenon sexual bonding.
Most of us would rather be involved in an intimate relationship than not be involved in one. There are many reasons for this. For one thing, many people who live alone experience that pit-of-the-stomach ache we call loneliness, and living together stops the ache. And then there is all the mutual support and aid that intimate partners provide for each other: sharing the rent, sharing the chores, taking over when the other is sick, etc. Last, but far from least, there are all the pleasures of sex — more regularly available now than before. No wonder people tend to couple up, and once coupled, find it hard to let go of the pleasures of closeness.
Because intimacy causes these pleasures to arise, and the pain of loneliness and unwanted celibacy to go away, the bond that forms in an intimate relationship tends to be a strong one. Any threat to that bond is apt to be resisted vigorously. One type of threat is the formation of a similar bond between one’s partner and someone else — a fairly common event that usually ends up causing the parties involved a great deal of suffering. People in a boring or otherwise unsatisfactory relationship often try to set up the next intimate relationship before ending the present one. The reasons are obvious: you don’t have to deal with that lonely ache again, or with all the uncertainty about finding a suitable next relationship. Deception and infidelity take place, and suffering results.
In other situations the bored party doesn’t really want to end the first relationship, just have a little fun on the side. The new relationship starts with a single sexual encounter, but usually doesn’t end there. A one-night stand might occur without either person establishing an emotional tie, but when there is a second encounter, and a third, and sex becomes a habit, a bond almost always forms.
Now problems arise. This new partner’s needs and desires understandably escalate, and there is just no way of meeting all of them and those of the original partner too. There is only one weekend per week, for instance. With whom do you share that prime time? Multiple sexual relationships tend to create conflict and suffering in the lives of at least three people — and possibly more, because an upset person often upsets others.
Another threat to the bond between intimate partners is the threat represented by the ability of either partner to sever the bond just by walking away from the relationship. It is no news these days that the pain of separation may not be willingly accepted by the party left behind. The most pain and the greatest tragedies involve intimate relationships in which one partner (or both) has a negative self-image and diminished feeling of self worth. People with low self-esteem who are involved in intimate relationships sometimes view their relationship as a one-time-only non-repeatable miracle. “How could undeserving, inferior, unattractive me have been so lucky as to find myself involved with this other person. It could never happen again in a million years.” For such people the partner’s intention to leave the relationship may be perceived not only as a direct threat to their well being, but as a threat to their very existence. The threatened person may initiate strong controlling behaviors to keep the other from leaving. Verbal abuse is one control strategy. The threat of suicide, or an actual suicide attempt is another. And among males who feel threatened, physical violence against their partners is a common escalation if verbal abuse fails to control. Then, if beatings don’t work, the most desperate males kill their partners, and then sometimes kill themselves. “She can’t be allowed to hurt me this much,” is the typical rationale.
Why didn’t society tell us about sexual bonding when we were teenagers rather than just saying, “NO! Don’t do it!” ??? I’m not implying that we would have been wise enough to listen back then. But just maybe if someone had laid out the hard, painful facts (as I have tried to do here) we would have been able to pick up on some danger signals a bit earlier. Perhaps we could have avoided at least a few of the many pain-filled traps.
Sex and intimacy are going to be big drivers of human behavior for as long as our species is around. And we are going to take risks in this area as we do in others — its part of the great adventure of life. But if we begin to see how sexual bonding works, just maybe when we’re tempted to get involved in some foolishly risky situation, the big red STOP light in our heads will come on. If we see the danger, then there’s at least a chance of putting on the sexual brakes before we get ourselves and others into deep difficulties. My hope is that by naming the phenomenon, focusing on it, and pointing out the incredible power of sexual bonding to influence the behavior of those involved, that we can help ourselves, and maybe a friend or two, avoid some suffering.
One specific suggestion is to become friends before becoming lovers. In looking back over my life I realize that I rarely did this. I rarely had the patience and stamina just to wait and explore a relationship to some depth before getting sexually involved. With no sexual involvement, saying good-by (or gradually lessening the involvement) would not have caused anyone much pain. Saying good-by after a period of sexual involvement invariably did.
Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:
“When a relationship moves from friendship to repeated or sustained physical intimacy, something happens which makes moving away from that intimacy both difficult and painful” (86). Consulting your own experience, what is your take on this observation?
“If we begin to see how sexual bonding works, just maybe when we’re tempted to get involved in some foolishly risky situation, the big red STOP light in our heads will come on.” Think so? Have you learned this lesson? Is it learnable? Is it teachable, or will only sad experiences teach it? What’s your experience?
Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.
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Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.