Making a Connection
by Dr. Joe S. McIlhaney & Dr. Freda McKissic Bush
The important thing to recognize is that the desire to connect is not just an emotional feeling. Bonding is real because it has become a part of the way one’s brain is molded—a powerful connection that often cannot be undone without great emotional pain. Real brain chemicals act on real brain cells, causing those brain cells to mold and to bind individuals together. . . Simply put, the continuation of the human race has always depended on men and women forming relationships, conceiving and bearing children, and raising those children together until they can care for themselves . . . and continue the cycle. Unless they [adolescents] are guided by parents or other caring adults, they cannot know that the cascade of physical contact that initiates an outpouring of oxytocin—then resulting in brain molding . . . may have molded their brain in such a way that it may be more difficult in the future to have a healthy bonded marriage that is a stable relationship and provides a healthy nest for children that might be conceived and born into their home.
The inability to bond after multiple liaisons is rooted in the fact that our behaviors actually physically change our brains. The pattern of hooking up and breaking up and hooking up again can eventually override the natural bonding that occurs between two intimately involved individuals. Although oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine continue to be released with sexual intimacy, the physical rut that is formed between the synapses subconsciously influences the continuation of the promiscuous behavior. The conflict between the natural bonding and the learned behavior can result, in some cases, in a boredom with sex itself.
Taken as a whole, these complicated processes offer a compelling pattern. They are designed to lead toward and strengthen long-term monogamous relationships, supporting and reinforcing the family structure that is so vital to our survival. However, we have also seen that these chemicals and processes are values-neutral. They can produce unconsciously motivated responses that result in all kinds of behavior, including activities that are dangerous or unwise. It is important to note that the brain does not run out of oxytocin or vasopressin or any of the neurochemicals—and there will be no shortage of these chemicals when one enters marriage. As far as we can tell, they will always be produced with the stimulates we have shown here. The problem is the activity may have produced brain wiring or molding that then affects one’s future decisions, emotions, and behavior . . . the brain, then, is very involved in our decisions about sex and the actions that follow, far beyond what is apparent on the surface. We know that no marital sexual activity can produce sexually transmitted infection and unplanned pregnancy, but it is just as clear that some of the most powerful effects of sex are emotional and psychological.
A critical human trait, one that has enormous implications for sex and relationships, is the need to connect to other human beings. . . It is a scientifically validated finding that emotionally healthy humans connect to each other. . . If we try to eliminate this connectedness from sex, we remove the uniquely human aspect of sex and the sexual act becomes nothing more than raw animal behavior. However, when this connectedness is allowed to mature in the context of a life-long committed relationship, sex is a wonderful, sustaining expression of love and humanness. . . [Yet,] if people of any age become sexually involved before marriage, the intensity of the desire for repetition of sexual activity can overwhelm everything else about the relationship. Sex at this immature stage can keep a person from honestly evaluating the other person. Sex can make a person feel the other person is the “right one” because the bonding and dopamine high it brings can blind one to honestly looking at the other’s faults and lack of compatibility. And now the warning that we will repeat throughout this book: multiple studies that that those who have sex before they marry are more likely to divorce after they do marry.
We have seen how experience produces brain molding, both for healthy and unhealthy behaviors or experiences. This process is also powerfully at work in sustained romantic relationships. As these intense and exciting relationships develop, they cause connections between brain cells to grow stronger and more numerous. As we know, when those connections grow and cause more pleasurable behavioral experiences, more dopamine is released . . . in other words, love, on a biochemical level, is a lot like addiction. . . It is probably obvious by now what the natural and healthy inclination for connectedness has to do with sex. . . The relationship that continues long-term results in brain molding that, in a sense, helps hold the two people together for life. . . The point here is that if young people are not guided by parents, mentors, and other caring adults, but make their own decisions based on these less-than optimal types of connecting, they often make poor decisions. One implication is that, as we have shown, young people can develop early connectedness to someone they find attractive. If they feel that “this is the one for them,” they can enter into progressive physical contact with that person until they have had sexual intercourse and are then even more closely bonded to the person and “addicted” to having sex with them, all as a result of unhealthy brain molding.
It is important to remind all reading this that though such unhealthy bonding can result in unhealthy brain molding, it is not necessarily irreversible. A person can later on enter into marriage and have a happy and healthy marriage.
Adapted from Hooked: The Brain Science on How Casual Sex Affects Human Development by Dr. Joe S. McIlhaney & Dr. Freda McKissic Bush (©2019). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.
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