The Chemistry Behind Couples Therapy

Pat Love Explains the Science of Effective Sex Therapy

Pat Love

If the idea that desire is orchestrated by our body chemistry hasn't yet found its way into the clinical conversation, it may be because the evidence is still largely buried in scientific journals, primarily from the emerging fields of behavioral endocrinology and psychophysiology. The provocative core of the new research is this: Each of us approaches our erotic encounters already primed by a premixed neurochemical and hormonal "cocktail" that influences both the strength and staying power of sexual passion. Having delved into this new biological evidence and observed its impact in my own couples therapy practice, I am convinced that as long as our clients remain unaware of these bodily processes, they are at high risk for making disastrous decisions about their intimate commitments. Some clients will misread their clashing desire levels as the death of love and lose faith in basically sound marriages. Others will choose badly to begin with, making lifelong commitments while under the influence of short-lived, highly irrational brain states.

But I believe that both catastrophes are largely preventable. The emergent data on the biology of desire offers therapists a potent new tool for helping troubled couples---a genuinely new kind of sex psychoeducation. This form of "desire ed," which I now use routinely in my work with couples, doesn't dwell on the usual sex therapy instruction about performance anxiety or the search for the elusive G spot. Instead, its objective is to help clients understand how their hidden neurobiological agendas may operate in the bedroom, so that they can make conscious, thoughtful decisions about their intimate relationships rather than ones that misinterpret the critical messages of the body.

To begin to understand the biology of desire, think back to the last time you fell fiercely, feverishly in love. He, or she, merely walked into the room and your body was zapped by a thousand-watt current, transforming you from a reasonably rational, functional adult into a trembling, mushy puddle of pure yearning. When the two of you were together, the most mundane activity---say, going to Wal-Mart for poultry scissors---became an exhilarating, deeply rewarding event. Not to mention the sex. Remember? The sex was amazing.

Our culture speaks of "falling" in love. Other societies have compared infatuation to divine revelation, and to psychosis. We often say, in jest, that this experience of hurricane-force passion is "like a drug."

But that oft-quipped analogy may turn out to be no joke. Some scientists now believe that the frenzied euphoria of romantic love may well be a bona fide, altered state of consciousness, primarily brought on by the action of phenylethylamine (PEA), a naturally occurring, amphetamine-like neurotransmitter. Michael Liebowitz, a research psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, believes that when we come into contact with a person who highly attracts us, our brains become saturated with a "love cocktail" comprised of PEA and several other excitatory neurotransmitters, including dopamine. This chemical brain-bath theory explains why new lovers can talk till dawn, make love for hours on end, lose weight without trying and feel so outrageously, unquenchably optimistic. Their neurons are soaking in natural speed.

But some scientists theorize that the brain cannot eternally maintain its revved-up, lust-crazed state of romantic bliss, either because the nerve endings become habituated to the brain's natural stimulants or because levels of PEA and related substances begin to drop. It certainly makes sense that if infatuation is a "high" that is chemically analogous to an amphetamine jolt, lovers would develop a tolerance for each other over a period of time. Whatever the precise mechanism involved, all of us have experienced this downshift in desire--slowly but predictably, euphoria sneaks out the back door while reality, that perpetually unwelcome houseguest, makes its sullen entrance.

At first glance, the proposal that something as fluffy-sounding as "desire education" could make any difference to dispirited couples sounds inflated, if not preposterous. As University of Washington psychologist John Gottman's research indicates, on average, couples straggle into therapy a full six years after their troubles first erupt. If anything is going to help at this late date, it seems as though it would have to be an intervention that does something fairly dramatic---something that packs a real emotional wallop or teaches potent relationship skills or both. Faced with the typical couple's end-of-their-rope discouragement, how is dispensing a bunch of facts on body chemistry going to make any difference?

In my experience, the difference is as profound as hope. For beneath the "dry" facts on neuronal and hormonal processes lies a radically normalizing, shame-reducing message: Sexual passion is rooted in our natural body rhythms. That means that if the thrill is gone or if the thrill is different for you than it is for me, I haven't failed and you haven't failed. Nor has our relationship failed. There may be plenty of emotional junk that is also mucking up our sexual connection, but that's not all that's going on. If our desire problems are at least partly innate---mirroring neither messed-up psyches nor a bankrupt relationship, but rather the pulse and flow of ordinary bodily processes---then maybe we don't need to feel quite so ashamed and despairing about the muddle we're in. Maybe each of us, and the embattled, fragile relationship we're trying to sustain, are even fundamentally okay. Maybe we've got a chance.

This blog is excerpted from “What is This Thing Called Love?” Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Couples | Anxiety/Depression

Tags: consciousness | conversation | dopamine | emotion | excitatory neurotransmitters | John Gottman | mirroring | neurobiological | neurotransmitters | psychiatrist | psychologist | psychosis | psychotherapy | relationship fail | relationships | sex | sex therapy | TED | therapist | therapists | therapy

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