It has been widely observed that people in relationships –or, more problematically, people who aren’t in relationships– become attached after physical intimacy. Suddenly, after sex, proclamations of love and living happily ever after become commonplace. Two people become more attached to each other than they ever were before (and one person may become more attached than the other). What is happening? Does sex create love or increase feelings of love? Not exactly, but it can certainly give rise to feelings that mimic true love.
The Biological Reasons
So why do these feelings of “love” and attachment occur? Biologically, a major influence are the release of hormones and neurochemicals, especially oxytocin (also known as “the love or cuddle hormone”), dopamine, and vasopressin.
Oxytocin is released upon intimate touch and greatly increases feelings of love, trust, security, and bonding. It also decreases feelings of stress. When you cuddle, kiss, or engage in other forms of significant physical contact with another person, oxytocin is released and bonding occurs.
In both sexes, oxytocin levels rise dramatically during orgasm. At the same time, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released. Dopamine creates a strong sense of pleasure, excitement, and well-being. Dopamine is addictive — we want more and more of whatever brings us that pleasurable feeling.
The combined effects of oxytocin and dopamine cause you to not only feel attached to your partner, but to associate your sexual partner with a sense of pleasure, trust, and happiness. In men, vasopressin acts similarly to oxytocin to increase feelings of attachment and love.
In a word, no.
Oxytocin and dopamine levels drop after orgasm. How steep these drop are and when they happen depends on the person and their unique biochemistry. Oxytocin, however, can be kept at high enough levels to sustain feelings of bonding if two people remain in contact. The problem is with dopamine and an associated hormone called prolactin.
At first, due to the action of oxytocin and dopamine, physical intimacy causes you to want more physical contact — you want that high that comes with the person you are attached to. But with a drop in dopamine levels comes a sense of irritability and depression. Over time, these highs and lows may become associated with your sexual partner.
Prolactin adds to these negative feelings. Prolactin levels increase after orgasm and work to curb sexual desire. But such high levels of prolactin eventually cause moodiness and feelings of anxiety and depression. In combination with the “downs” involved in a decrease in dopamine, you begin to see your “love” for what it is — a biochemical high.
So you’re not in love?
Sex is not love and the feelings created by sex can not sustain a relationship. What you feel post-coital is not love, but a very strong sense of attachment created by the action of molecules in the body. It would be helpful to keep this in mind before you declare your love for someone you barely know, begin shopping for wedding rings and a new home, or otherwise commit yourself to a sexual partner.
What are your experiences with this phenomenon? Have you ever become attached after physical intimacy?