Is there a Secret Ingredient for Desire?
Recently, a TED talk (Perel, 2013) introduced me to the work of Belgian psychologist Esther Perel, an internationally acclaimed relationship therapist and bestselling author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking erotic intelligence. The many facets of her narrative coalesce around the idea that reconciling intimacy and familiarity with sexual desire in a relationship is a tough task. Her discourse, born of years of practice as a couples therapist and literature-based research, proposes that emotional closeness and affectionate behaviors, such as cuddling, diminish couples’ sexual desire. Perel goes as far as advising to refrain from gestures of affection in order to maintain a certain emotional distance that will, in turn, enhance sexual satisfaction. She argues that, while love and intimacy are enhanced by familiarity and repetition, eroticism is energized by distance and separateness. The secret ingredient of desire, according to Perel, is continuous elusiveness that never ceases to intensify eroticism.
But is it really the case that emotional (and to a certain degree, physical) disconnect improves the quality of long-term, committed relationships?
Other relationship specialists have discovered quite the opposite to be true. For instance, the Normal Bar study, an online study with 70.000 participants, identified the habits of couples who have an amazing sex life. Surely enough, these habits include cuddling, public physical affection, kissing passionately for no reason. In fact, according to the Normal Bar study, only 6% of the couples that do not cuddle have a good sex life. John Gottman, another influential relationship therapist, comes to the same conclusion – successful couples connect physically and emotionally by turning toward one another with affection.
Cuddling is more important to men in long-term relationships than it is to women
Contrary the stereotypes, a 2011 Kinsey Institute study on 1,009 heterosexual couples in long-term, committed relationships from a variety of countries reported that men who were more likely to say there were happy with their sex lives reported frequent hugging, kissing, touching. In fact, they were three times as happy as those whose partners did not engage in such behaviors.
The couple’s sphere of intimacy is not the only area to benefit from cuddling. Touch, the very first (albeit pre-verbal) language we learn, has immense therapeutic potential. It does not only constitute a secret weapon when it comes to upgrading the quality of personal relations or communicating things that verbal language cannot convey. Studies demonstrate that the hormones hugging produces improve psychological well-being and have a myriad of positive physiological effects.One study examined the effect of received hugs in mitigating against infectious disease susceptibility that is induced by interpersonal stress. Participants were placed in quarantine and monitored to examine illness signs, after being exposed to a common cold virus. What was observed was the anti-stress effect of hugging and its ability to lower the risk of infection. More frequent hugs and perceived social support resulted in less serious infection signs. The study also concluded that hugging may express social support in an efficient manner since it explained 32% of the alleviating effect of social support.
Oxytocin, released during cuddling, inhibits cortisol, the number one enemy of public health
Affectionate behaviors, like hugging, release oxytocin, the neuropeptide that inhibits cortisol, which is the stress hormone that, when in excess, can lead to different forms of physiological damage: diabetes, obesity, gastrointestinal issues, fertility problems, cardiovascular disease, suppression of the immune system. The surprising value of interpersonal touch as a social buffer is further demonstrated by its anxiolytic effect: it reduces brain circuits associated with fear and diminishes existential anxiety in individuals with low self-esteem. Investigators have also found that frequent partner hugs (and, therefore, higher levels of oxytocin) are linked to lower heart rate and lower blood pressure.
The problem, however, is that not all the effects of oxytocin are beneficial and specialists warn against mapping a psychological profile onto a hormone. What the so-called “love hormone” actually does is turn up the volume of one’s social context/interactions and intensify emotions, whether these are positive or negative. The negative category includes envy, jealousy, social anxiety and inappropriate pair bonding, depending on where oxytocin acts in the brain. For instance, social stress in females depends on whether oxytocin is blocked in the stria terminalis bed nucleus, a brain region known to control anxiety, or in the nucleus accumbens, an area that influences motivation and reward.
With that caution being voiced, it is interesting to note that cuddling also stimulates the release of dopamine which has an excitatory effect and amplifies sexual desire.
Hugging leads to the release of another special molecule called anandamide, a THC-like cannabinoid dubbed “the bliss molecule” and known for enhancing happiness and motivation. More exactly, behaviors that stimulate the production of oxytocin result in the release of anandamide which, in turn, activates cannabinoid receptors which strengthen social interaction rewards.
Anyone can receive the amazing high of oxytocin and anandamide in numerous inventive ways – from cuddle cafes and cuddle parties to professional cuddlers
Soineya, the first Japanese cuddle café, is located in the electronic district of Tokyo, Japan’s futuristic, high-tech capital. Its marketing target is stressed out individuals who would like to benefit from the relaxation-inducing effects of cuddling (for a fee) but have no significant others. Cuddle parties, on the other hand, begin with changing into pajamas, continue with self-introductions and ice-breaking exercises, after which everybody starts to “cuddle mingle” – that is, finding suitable and willing cuddle partners.
With such a variety of platforms, how accurate would it be to conclude that hugging a stranger activates the beneficial biochemical cascade that is activated when hugging someone with whom we have built a deeper sense of intimacy?
Azar, B. (2011). Oxytocin’s other side. Science watch. APA. Vol. 42, No 3. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/03/oxytocin.aspx
Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Turner, R. B., & Doyle, W. J. (2015). Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness. Psychological science, 26(2), 135-147. ISO 690
Cross, C. L., & Weeks, G. R. (2007). Sex, sexuality, and sensuality. Low-Cost Approaches to Promote Physical and Mental Health, 385-394.
Gottman. J. (2017). Building a great sex life is not rocket science. Retrieved from: https://www.gottman.com/blog/building-great-sex-life-not-rocket-science/
Kirsch, P., Esslinger, C., Chen, Q., Mier, D., Lis, S., Siddhanti, S., … & Meyer-Lindenberg, A. (2005). Oxytocin modulates neural circuitry for social cognition and fear in humans. Journal of neuroscience, 25(49), 11489-11493.
Koole, S. L., Tjew A Sin, M., & Schneider, I. K. (2014). Embodied terror management: Interpersonal touch alleviates existential concerns among individuals with low self-esteem. Psychological science, 25(1), 30-37.
Light, K. C., Grewen, K. M., & Amico, J. A. (2005). More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. Biological psychology, 69(1), 5-21.
Northrup, C., Schwartz, P., & Witte, J. (2013). The Normal Bar: The surprising secrets of happy couples and what they reveal about creating a new normal in your relationship. Harmony.
Perel, E. (2006). Mating in captivity: Reconciling the erotic and the domestic. Harper Collins.
Simonitch, S. (2012). Japan’s first ‘cuddle cafe’lets you sleep with a stranger for Y6, 000 an hour. Japan Today.
Perel, E. (2013). Esther Perel: The secret to desire in a long-term relationship. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/esther_perel_the_secret_to_desire_in_a_long_term_relationship#t-8852
Steinman, M. Q., Duque-Wilckens, N., Greenberg, G. D., Hao, R., Campi, K. L., Laredo, S. A., … & Walch, K. (2016). Sex-specific effects of stress on oxytocin neurons correspond with responses to intranasal oxytocin. Biological psychiatry, 80(5), 406-414.
Wei, D., Lee, D., Cox, C. D., Karsten, C. A., Peñagarikano, O., Geschwind, D. H., … & Piomelli, D. (2015). Endocannabinoid signaling mediates oxytocin-driven social reward. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(45), 14084-14089.