The Scientific Purpose of Intimacy in Relationships

Studies consistently show that between 80 and 90 percent of men consider sexual intimacy to be “the most important aspect of their marriage.” According to Patrick Morley, author of Understanding Your Man in the Mirror, “When asked what one thing they would like to change in their marriages, they wish that their wives would be more interested and more willing to initiate physical intimacy.” Some women tend to feel guilty for withholding intimacy, while others wish the whole ordeal could be swept away. Unhealthiest of all is when women avoid talking about the issue.

Men are from mars…

It is often said a fundamental difference in the wiring of males and females is that men can separate physical intimacy from a relationship whereas, for a woman, the two are intertwined. According to research from Concordia University in Montreal, “emotional attachment can grow out of sexual desire.” The study disclosed that love and lust, two apparently isolated emotions, actually originate in the same location in the brain.

Unquestionably, this doesn’t mean love and physical intimacy are the same things but, rather, they’re not as separate as you might believe. Human sexuality is more complex and about far more than reproduction. Physical intimacy is a combination of an emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and social interaction uniting partners in a close relationship.

Based on research conducted by a team of scientists led by Dr. Helen Fisher at Rutgers, “romantic love can be broken down into three categories: lust, attraction, and attachment.” This research found that each category is characterized by its own set of hormones stemming from the brain. Testosterone and estrogen initiate lust; dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin generate attraction; and oxytocin and vasopressin enable attachment. This is not surprising since physical intimacy leads to a sense of unity.

Your brain on love

One of Fisher’s undertakings has been analyzing love using an MRI machine to evaluate results. Fisher and her partners, Arthur Aron and Lucy Brown, recruited subjects who had been “madly in love” for an average of seven months. They then showed subjects two photographs: one that was impartial, the other of their loved one.

Once each subject looked at his or her significant other, the portions of the brain linked to reward and pleasure lit up. According to the research, “love lights up the caudate nucleus because it is home to a dense spread of receptors for a neurotransmitter called dopamine.”

According to Fisher, dopamine produces “intense energy, exhilaration, focused attention, and motivation to win rewards. This explains that when you are newly in love, you feel like you can accomplish anything. Sexual intimacy is a physical expression of an inward attachment resulting in a feeling of devotion and commitment. Fisher also suggests “that this kind of passion is valuable. We need enough passion to start breeding, and then feelings of attachment take over as the partners bond to raise a dependent human infant.”

Findings around the world confirm that this type of early passion fades. Biologically, we may discover the reason in the way our brains respond to the surge of dopamine that accompanies passion. Fisher explains, “From a physiological point of view, [a long-term couple] [moves from the dopamine state of romantic love to the stable oxytocin-induced attachment category.] Oxytocin is a hormone that promotes a feeling of connection and bonding. We release oxytocin when we hug our long-term spouses or our children or when a mother nurses her infant.” This demonstrates the beauty of physical touch in all forms.

Oxytocin and relationships

In long-term relationships that last through the years, oxytocin is plentiful in both partners. In long-term relationships that collapse, chances are the couple has not found a way to sustain oxytocin production. Fisher suggests that to maintain oxytocin production you can build on physical intimacy. For example, you can give your partner a massage or engage in intimacy. These things activate oxytocin and thus make you feel much closer to your partner. Fisher debates that you can [become more attached to your partner by increasing oxytocin.]

Recent studies show that oxytocin makes us more sympathetic, supportive, and open with our feelings. “Psychology professor Ruth Feldman at Bar-Ilan University in Israel spent years studying oxytocin’s role in the mother–child bond and recently decided to evaluate romantic bonds by comparing oxytocin levels in new lovers and singles. “The increase in oxytocin during the period of falling in love was the highest that we ever found,” she says of a study she and her colleagues published in Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Intimacy as an act of love

New lovers had double the amount Feldman usually sees in pregnant women. Marriage is so much more than physical intimacy, but it distinctly fosters deep connection. A healthy marriage relationship is created by living out the daily commitment to one another that can be strengthened through intimacy.

By understanding the male and female differences in desire for connection, both partners can ultimately attain closeness. Union is a remarkable mixture of factors that require intentional effort to nurture mutual satisfaction. Couples can achieve this ultimate bond and sense of closeness in marriage by focusing on intimacy as an act of love resulting in a more connected and fulfilling marriage.

Featured image by Madeleine Sandrolini

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