Dodging Love's Heartache

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My first heartbreak was with an English doctor during a holiday in Thailand.   I bonded with him instantly and remember the feeling of being in love – being encapsulated by it, feeling as if my heart suddenly was big enough to surround and embrace us both, the feeling of his touch, the way he made me laugh, and the feeling that I could talk to him forever without ever getting bored.  Later, after a vicious heartbreak that – just like love – cannot actually be described in words, I started to wonder:  Is it possible to experience the wonders of love without the pain of heartbreak?

In Thailand, when the doctor was rock climbing, I spent the majority of my time with my peers participating in other events such as swimming, snorkeling, enjoying Thai food, sunbathing (I was not yet a rock climber). My friends and I could not help but include a family from Australia: Miranda and Dean and their two kids - about 8 and 10.  Although the couple were in their late 30’s, and had been married forever, they were loving and harmonious in their union, and as kids in our early 20s, we could not get enough of them.  We didn’t know why this ordinary family held such magnetic power for us.

  One day, during an all-day boat excursion, Miranda and Dean opened up about the drama that had not long before been in their relationship.  The turmoil even reached a place where they had filed for divorce several times in the past, but had since found a harmonious place in their relationship.  This was due to Marnia Robinson’s first book, “Peace Between the Sheets” (now updated as “Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow”).

They spoke to us about what they had learned from the book: the neurochemical roller coaster everyone experiences to some degree after orgasm, and how they now make love without orgasm.  We looked at Dean incredulously, “You gave up orgasms forever?” Dean dropped his head down in mock shame, gave a little laugh, and said, “Yes.” His wife added, “But we make love for hours now.” Both nodded, smiling. 

As soon as possible, I pulled Miranda aside in private, and asked her what I might be in for, as I knew too well how much fun I was having with the doctor at night. She explained how we experience a rise in dopamine (the “gotta get it” neurochemical) during foreplay, and that an orgasm drops this dopamine and simultaneously causes other neurochemical responses.  The chemical fluctuations can continue for as long as two weeks, often shifting lovers’ perceptions of themselves, each other, and reality for the worse.

Even in the few short days of passionate lovemaking, numerous orgasms, and feeling absolutely wonderfully in love, I had already begun to experience the chemical effects she spoke about.  Despite our deep connection and love for each other, I noticed our relationship starting to change.  For instance, sometimes when I felt warm and loving, he was suddenly aloof.  It was if he was looking right through me.  His mood would quickly pass, but when he would later reach out for me, I would feel withdrawn and said things I would later regret. The separation between us grew.  Our affection toward each other became inconsistent, and it felt as if we were out of sync.  I was emotional, sensitive, and took things out of proportion.  He felt confused and rejected.  A wall had come between us.

Could these effects be due to the neurochemical changes that Miranda had talked about?  Again, I found Miranda in her bungalow and asked to speak with her.  Upon entering her bungalow, I began to cry – and noticed that I had been doing a lot of that lately.  As she explained again about how orgasm can cause perception shifts and mood swings—anger, depression, clinginess, jealousy or pining over a lover. She called it the ‘hangover.’  During our talk, as if on cue, another couple on the porch of their bungalow started shouting angrily at each other.  Their rage was quite disturbing, and I commented how inappropriate it was to be yelling like that in public.  She said, “I’ve been there…with my husband.  That is a good example of how brain chemicals can shift perception during the hangover after too much passion.  I have a lot of compassion for couples suffering from the fallout.”

I remember the end of our love affair, not long after, when the post-orgasm neurochemical fluctuations were so intense that I could not bear our impending separation. If love is an addiction, then I was a happy addict who needed my fix.  Even more, I wanted to feel as harmonious as Miranda and Dean. I wished I had focused more on generous affection and bonding that was not goal-oriented, both of which could increase the attraction between mates. Moreover, I wish I had focused less on the orgasms that indirectly increased the drama.

We must be addicted to the chemicals of being in love. Why else would we ever fall in love again after our first heartbreak?  It’s like self-perpetuating torture until you find the one who will keep your heart safe.  If we took the time to learn more about how hot, steamy sex affects our perceptions and physiology, would it be possible to steer for the joys of romance without the heartache?



As an acupuncturist, I am trained to look for the root causes of illness.  For example, I am always on the lookout for past psychological injuries that manifest as physical ailments.  I have found that heartbreaks – until healed – have no time limit or expiration date.  I have not found the old saying to be true, “Time heals all wounds.”  When a relationship is over, both men and women are often consumed with thoughts of how the relationship could have been better, different or more sustainable.  The energy that fuels these thoughts can create the physical ailments that I treat, such as backaches, infections, weight-loss or weight-gain, and generalized pain. How much distress could be avoided if lovers could forego the neurochemical cycles that plague them after too much intense sexual stimulation?  If lovers switched from orgasm-driven sex to a gentler, less goal-oriented approach (except for those wishing to procreate), would I see less relationship turnover among my friends and patients?

At some point in their lives, both males and females will want to be in a mutually loving and fulfilling monogamous relationship.  That’s why we put ourselves (and our hearts) out there over and over again - knowing the potential for heartache - until we find the one who will keep our heart safe and nurtured. Even though some advocate open relationships or polyamory, if we could get our needs met with one person, we would.  We would not be running around town, trying to get our fix in multiple places. So how do we get our needs met in one place, so that we can live “Happily Ever After” instead of getting our hearts broken the way we do?

I will assert that love is an addiction disorder.  One aspect of addiction is that when you go without the ‘thing’, you have withdrawals.  Dutch scientist Dr. Gert Holstege began mapping events in the brain during orgasm using brain scans of the event, and found that each orgasm activates the brain similar to shooting heroin.  Talk about drug overdose! As you withdraw from a person after a break-up, the mind has the ability to create fantasies so real that you essentially get your fix of the same drug, but without the soothing contact a real lover can supply. 

Worse yet, when you overload your brain with too much stimulation, you temporarily numb it to subtler pleasures.  You’re left craving a way to find more of the stronger stimulation. This can drive people to feel horny, seek multiple orgasms and kinkier sex, and also ‘rebound’ as soon as possible after a break-up. 

When consistently subjected to artificially high levels of dopamine from multiple orgasms or use of a drug, however, the brain "downshifts" its internal supply of this neurotransmitter.  This is why you are left hungrier than ever for stimulation. This kind of subconscious neediness can present itself in different ways, such as anger at your partner, depression, resentment, feeling inappropriately overjoyed, etc.

Even if a relationship with lots of hot sex seems sustainable at first, it can suddenly, without warning, go off.  I asked a man recently, “What do you think an orgasm is?”  He responded that he thought it’s the carrot that is dangled in front of your face shouting, “Procreate!” Biologically, when you have an orgasm your body says, “Okay, I’ve fertilized her (or been fertilized by him). I’ve done my duty to procreate. Now let’s move on to a new partner.”  While thrill-seeking is a valid form of learning about your body, and generates great stories for your friends and Facebook, it’s not conducive to long-term romantic relationships.  How can we get around this built-in restlessness and still be satisfied?

As I said before, I’m all for sex… with the emphasis on bonding behaviors.  Karezza provides ways to connect with your partner, without causing the separation that exhausting sexual desire brings on – which might lead to that heartbreak!  Once biology has had its way, it is quite a struggle to undo the damage.  Our brain chemicals can take us on a surprisingly lengthy roller coaster ride until they level out.  It’s like a virus that produces a lot of mischief until it passes.  It is biology’s way of causing emotional bonds to fray.  It is thus our job to outsmart biology if we want to stay bonded with a partner. Both daily, generous affection and lovemaking without orgasm as the goal help us tiptoe around this biological program.  Again, I’d like to stress that I propose sex used as a bonding behavior, rather than as a fun time for yourself only or as part of your duty to procreate. (Practical tips for employing this concept are also discussed in Richardsons’ Tantric Sex for Men.)

The other day, one of my rock-climbing partners was boasting that he had three (!!!) orgasms with a girl the night before.  I asked, “Now that you’ve attempted to fertilize her, are you still attracted to her?” (Note that it doesn’t matter if you use birth control or not.)  He hunched his shoulders, suddenly looking quite sad, and said, “No.”  From a biological standpoint, it is our duty to procreate and spread our genes, which is why orgasms feel so good - just as high calorie food tastes great because our ancestors needed those calories for survival. Yum! 

To me, this is proof that we evolved to be socially monogamous, but not sexually monogamous.  Our genes want us to find fault in our current partner and move on to new ones so as to create variety in our offspring.  Our genes’ play tricks on us making us want to bond, and then stray.  Soon after starting a relationship - or over time, we perceive our partners as not as attractive as they used to be, or not as good providers as we want them to be, or it seems that they don’t do enough around the house, are annoying - and on and on.  We want this mutually loving relationship, and then when we find a prince charming (or a princess), it seems like it all goes off—sometimes in the instant after we “got off.”  As humans, we are wired to fall in love, and we benefit from close, trusted companionship and lots of affectionate touch.  Why would we put all our attention on the one thing (exhausting our sexual desire) that gets in the way of sustaining our bonds?

Some of us understand the importance of generous touch, which releases oxytocin in the brain, the bonding hormone.  When a friend came back from a trip to San Francisco having met a woman there, I teased him, “Oh, good!  You got some lovin’.”  His eyebrows went up as he said, “I got to give some love; that is really what I needed.” 

I find that this man is not an exception, but the rule.  Men want to provide nurturing touch, but get distracted by the cultural meme that lovemaking success is measured in performance or number of orgasms.  As I began openly exploring karezza, I was actually shocked by how many men want their cuddle time more than I want mine – once it’s an option.

When a patient (male or female) opens up about their heartbreak, I am always humbled by our fragility as human beings.  I wonder if our relationship turnover will decrease if we stop humoring our biological urges and make love in this old-fashioned way.  So many will come to a crossroad and have to choose between opening their hearts again to love, or shielding their hearts so they don’t get battered by life.  I also wonder about the long-term result of people going into their next relationship with a semi-closed heart, and what our society would look like if we could learn to sustain love and decrease our relationship turnover.