My terrier-boxer mix, Amelie, is in love. Her new paramour is a purebred boxer by the name of Mack. I spied them French kissing one day. He was on one side of the fence and she was on the other. They stood there for more than a few minutes swapping spit through the gaps in the fence. Mack loves to roam the forest and values his freedom of movement but he willingly subjects himself to a locked gate behind my fence just to spend the day with Amelie.
Amelie is spayed and Mack is intact. If you believe most scientific thought pertaining to sexuality, procreation is the primary objective for sexual coupling. That suggests Mack has made an extremely unfortunate choice because Amelie will never produce pups. Since she will never go into estrus, she will never engage in sexual intercourse either.
Mack certainly wanted sex the first time he came calling on Amelie. He spent hours following her around with an erect penis — making multiple attempts to copulate with any part of her body he came into contact with. His advances were consistently rebuffed and eventually he took to resting his love-struck face on her rear-end while his erect penis thrust into empty space.
Eventually he abandoned all hope of ever being able to mate with Amelie. Well not entirely. He still licks her vulva to make sure she isn't in heat. But essentially, he has settled into a romantic connection devoid of actual sex but rich with affection and devotion. Considering all the fertile female dogs that roam this forest, Mack's bonding with Amelie speaks volumes about this dog's priorities. It would seem Mack values the love connection.
What is the science of love?
Testosterone and estrogen drive our initial attraction to a potential partner. At this stage, the feelings might more accurately be described as “lust.” But if you are “falling in love” the next stage will find you under the influence of some powerful chemicals including adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin.
Adrenaline evokes symptoms we usually associate with stress, such as sweating, a rapid heart rate and a dry mouth. That doesn't sound terribly sexy but in the right context, we interpret those symptoms as excitement.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that has the same effects on our brains as cocaine. The pleasure it provides motivates us to “do it again.” The release of this chemical causes you to want to see your love interest over and over again.
Serotonin is known as the “happiness hormone!” It is actually a neurotransmitter, not a hormone, but if you have enough of the stuff in your system, you won't care.
Oxytocin and vasopressin kick in during the final stage of falling in love. You are deluged with this chemical cocktail during and after sex as well, which explains why it is possible fall in love with someone just because you shared sex.
The hormone, vasopressin, plays an important role in social behavior and pair bond formation. Known as the “love hormone,” oxytocin is released during orgasm, breastfeeding, birth and most touching. Because of oxytocin, mammals begin to bond almost as soon as they begin to touch.
As you can see, sexual attraction and sexual activity activate an intoxicating brain chemistry that can induce a very pleasurable leave of your senses. But is love merely a “drug” induced “high?”
Love counts for a great deal, for mammals at least, and there are some very good reasons why this is so. Mammals need to form emotional bonds in order to live in packs, herds or community. By definition, mammals must care for their young and this requires bonding between the mother and her offspring. Bonding between mated pairs also facilitates proper care of their young.
But while love may have originally evolved in order to perpetuate various species of mammals, it has morphed into a force that can and does transcend much of the mundane business of being. Love can lead to transformation by activating our creativity, defining our purpose, inspiring us to be of service and ultimately connecting us to the Divine. But more about that later!
Romance and love were once thought to be the province of affluent people with too much time on their hands. However, anthropologist William Jankowiak, states “[Romantic Love] is ... a universal phenomenon ... that stretches across cultures ... the lack of resources in other cultures [does not indicate] the absence of love.”
My paternal grandparents were quite poor. Their marriage was based upon a division of labor devoted to putting food on the table for themselves and their eleven children. The half-century they shared required exhausting physical labor. There was not much energy left over to muse about being in love or keeping romance alive.
When my grandparents celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary (50th), I wondered, were they ever “in love?” Their relationship evidenced mutual affection but despite all that procreating, the sex was not that hot. Grandma complained that Grandpa still wanted sex in their late 60s; a fact which disgusted her.
Love often exists without sex, but when it comes to romantic relationships (even those devoid of passion or sexual heat) there is a sexual overlay which dictates the nature of the connection. For instance, even though Grandma resented sex with Grandpa, she would have been furious had he pursued sex outside the marriage. Amelie feels the same way about Mack, by the way. Mammals can be quite possessive of their love interest regardless of whether there is sex between the bonded pair.
Love and sex have a unique connection. Sometimes it seems sex can occur quite happily in contexts that are devoid of love but upon closer examination, even the most superficial hook-up contains elements of love by virtue of the chemical reactions that occur in our brains beyond our control.
Next month I explore the many ways love and sex intersect while confusing us and inspiring us to follow our dreams.
Next month: What's Love Got To Do With It? Part Two: How Love and Sex Can Transform You and Fuel Your Creativity!