As my husband and I stroked a live alligator resting calmly on a trainer's lap at a fair, I asked the guy why it was so tame. "I pet it daily. If I didn't, it would quickly be wild again, and wouldn't allow this," he explained.
Only months earlier I had begun to comprehend the power of bonding behaviors (skin-to-skin contact, gentle stroking and so forth). These subconscious signals, or attachment cues, speak directly to the only part of the brain that can fall in love or stay in love (the limbic system). They make emotional ties surprisingly effortless--once any initial defensiveness dissolves. And bonding behaviors are good medicine for relaxing our defense mechanisms, too. Here's a dramatic example: Adoptive parents had been struggling for years with a Romanian orphan with reactive attachment disorder. Violent, he put over 1000 holes in his bedroom walls, and as he grew bigger his mother had to hire a body guard. Finally, in his teens, the parents tried daily attachment cues. After three weeks, he finally bonded with his parents and began to form healthy peer relationships as well.
But until I met that gator I thought bonding behaviors were purely a mammal thing. To survive, mammal infants need regular contact with Mom's mammaries until they are ready to be weaned. Bonding behaviors are the way mammal infants attach to their caregivers. These signals work by encouraging the release of neurochemicals (including oxytocin), which relax our inner guardian, making a bond possible. They are the way we humans fall in love with our parents and children. Caregiver-infant signals include affectionate touch, grooming, soothing sounds, nurturing, eye contact, and so forth.
In rare pair-bonding mammals like us, bonding cues serve a secondary function as well. They're part of the reason we generally stay in love at least long enough for both parents to attach to any kids. Honeymoon neurochemistry also plays a role, but it's like a booster shot that wears off. In contrast, bonding behaviors can sustain bonds indefinitely.
In lovers, bonding behaviors look different than they do between caregiver and infant, yet parallels are evident:
· smiling, with eye contact
· kissing with lips and tongues
· skin-to-skin contact
· providing a service or treat without being asked
· wordless sounds of contentment and pleasure
· stroking with intent to comfort
· overlooking an error, or forgiving
· touching and sucking of nipples/breasts
· gentle intercourse
· hugging or spooning
· gazing into each other's eyes
· listening intently
· preparing your partner something to eat
· synchronized breathing
· listening to your partner's heart beat
· gently placing a palm over your lover's genitals with intent to comfort rather than arouse
· making time together at bedtime a priority
· cradling, or gently rocking, your partner's head and torso (works well on a couch, or with lots of pillows)
There are some curious aspects to these potent signals. First, in order to sustain the sparkle in a relationship these behaviors need to occur daily, or almost daily--just as the alligator trainer observed. Second, they need not occur for long, or be particularly effortful, but they must be genuinely selfless. Even holding each other in stillness at the end of a long, busy day can exchange the subconscious message that your relationship is gratifying. Third, there's evidence that the more you use bonding behaviors, the more sensitive your brain becomes to the neurochemicals that help you feel relaxed and loving. (In contrast, intense stimulation can bring on satiety and cravings for novelty.)
Fourth, some items on the list above sound like foreplay, but in one important sense they are not. Foreplay is geared toward building sexual tension and climax--which sets off a subtle cycle of neurochemical changes (and perception shifts) before the brain returns to equilibrium. In contrast, bonding behaviors are geared toward relaxation. They work best when they soothe an old part of the primitive brain known as the amygdala.
The amygdala's job is to keep our guard up, unless it is reassured regularly. Yes, it also relaxes temporarily during and immediately after a passionate encounter. After all, fertilization is our genes' top priority. However, regular, non-goal oriented contact seems to be more effective as a bonding behavior than declining bursts of fiery passion. Indeed, loving foreplay followed by intense orgasm can actually send contradictory subconscious signals ("I'm in love," followed by feeling fed up with your partner during the days following). These may account for the "attraction-repulsion" phenomenon lovers often notice after their initial honeymoon high wanes.
Interestingly, selfless exchanges of affection not only bond, but can give rise to the ecstatic experiences sacred sex lovers sometimes report. Said a friend who experimented:
Though it was after 11 PM, we cuddled. For about two hours. I had experiences that I do not have immediate words for. Rich, deep, full. Subtle. Powerful. Moving. Meaningful. Pointing to greater connection with all life. We were in connection. In the same wave, as she put it, like a flock of birds wheeling in the sky as if with one mind.
Whether or not you experience ecstasy, bonding behaviors are a practical means of restoring and sustaining the harmonious sparkle in your relationship. Combine them with gentle lovemaking interspersed with relaxation (and a minimum of sexual satiety signals via orgasm), and you may find that you can sustain the harmony in your relationship with surprising ease.
Maybe those rare "swans" (couples who effortlessly stay together harmoniously) are largely made, not born. Certainly, I now carefully ponder news stories like this one about a couple married happily for over 80 years. The journalist reported that, "The couple never went to bed without a kiss and cuddle."
Hmmm...cause or effect?