At a cafe in Greenwich Village we sipped hot chocolate and talked about our hopes and dreams. We had been dating a little over a month now, and we were falling in love. There was an electricity between us as we chatted away.
Then, silence. We didn’t know each other well enough to be comfortable with silence, so we fiddled with our cups and looked down. It was awkward. And in that silence John Mayer’s “Your Body is a Wonderland” played.
“Oh, I love this song!” Amber piped up. I’m guessing she said it because (a) it was true, and (b) she thought commenting on the background music would be a nice way to break the silence. But then it dawned on her that the song was about a couple exploring each other’s bodies in a hotel room, and we both laughed, a little embarrassed.
We knew we wanted to take the physical part of our relationship slowly. We didn’t want to rush into anything without being sure we were right for each other first. We wanted the emotional and physical aspects of our relationship to be in balance. There was trust to be built and vows to be said before we shared everything with each other. We didn’t know it then, but there is science behind why taking it slowly is a good idea.
The fact is, when a woman has sex her brain is flooded with a bonding hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is the same hormone that mothers release when they are nursing children, helping them to feel emotionally attached to their baby. A little less commonly known fact is that men also release a bonding hormone during sex. This chemical, called vasopressin, affects men the same way that oxytocin affects women: It secures attachment. In other words, as one pair of researchers put it, “Just as nature has provided a built-in defense mechanism to ensure that infants are not abandoned, it has also provided a mechanism that works to keep sexually active couples together as well.”
Within the context of a committed marriage, this can be a good thing: Sexual intimacy cultivates a deepening connection and trust. But in a relationship where the couple has not yet made vows of lifelong love to each other, the bonding hormones oxytocin and vasopressin can seal a premature match. For instance, a woman might stay with a man even though she has questions about his character. And vice versa. It can be difficult to break up a bad relationship because of the powerful bond formed by having sex.
That night after leaving the cafe, as Amber and I walked home together, we held hands for the first time. Even that small gesture of intimacy was electrifying, because it was connected to the emotional intimacy we were also beginning to share. We didn’t know all the science behind it at the time, but it felt right. As we took baby steps toward inner intimacy, so we were taking baby steps toward physical intimacy. In other words, the physical connection wasn’t outpacing the inner connection, but matching it.