While waiting for a concert to begin at our local county fair, my husband and I checked out a reptile exhibit that included an animal trainer with a live alligator resting calmly on his lap.
As we stroked the gator, I asked the trainer 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. I was surprised.
Only months earlier I had begun to grasp the power of bonding behaviors (skin-to-skin contact, gentle stroking and so forth) to evoke the desire to bond without our having to do anything more.
I didn’t realize reptiles ever responded similarly.
Bonding behaviors, or attachment cues, are subconscious signals that can make emotional ties surprisingly effortless, once any initial defensiveness dissolves.
(Bonding behaviors are also good medicine for easing defensiveness.
Here’s a dramatic example: After three weeks of daily attachment cues an orphan with violent reactive attachment disorder finally bonded with his adoptive parents and began to form healthy peer relationships as well.)
These behaviors are effective because they are the way mammal infants attach to their caregivers.
To survive, infants need regular contact with Mom’s mammary’s until they are ready to be weaned.
Bonding behaviors work by encouraging the release of neurochemicals (including oxytocin), which lower innate defensiveness, making a bond possible.
In short, these generous behaviors are the way we humans fall in love with our parents and children.
Caregiver-infant signals include affectionate touch, grooming, soothing sounds, eye contact, and so forth.
In rare pair-bonding mammals like us, bonding cues serve a secondary function as well (known as an exaptation).
They’re part of the reason we stay in love (on average) for long enough for both parents to attach to any kids.
Honeymoon neurochemistry also plays a role, but it’s somewhat like a booster shot that wears off.
In contrast, bonding behaviors can sustain bonds indefinitely.
In lovers, bonding behaviors look a bit different than they do between caregiver and infant, yet the parallels are evident.
These potent behaviors include:
- Gentle intercourse
- Skin-to-skin contact
- Synchronized breathing
- Smiling, with eye contact
- Gazing into each other’s eyes
- Kissing with lips and tongues
- Stroking with intent to comfort
- Hugging with intent to comfort
- Sharing or receiving shared food
- Preparing your partner something to eat
- Touching and sucking of nipples/breasts
- Making time together at bedtime a priority
- Holding, or spooning, each other in stillness
- Wordless sounds of contentment and pleasure
- Listening intently, and restating what you hear
- Providing a service or treat without being asked
- Giving unsolicited approval, via smiles or compliments
- Massaging with intent to comfort, especially feet, shoulders and head
- Forgiving or overlooking an error or thoughtless remark, past or present
- Lying with your ear over your partner’s heart and listening to the heart beat
- Gently placing your palm over your lover’s genitals with intent to comfort rather than arouse
There are some curious aspects to bonding behaviors.
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 be enough to send each other the subconscious signal that your bond is rewarding.
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.
Fourth, some items on the list above may 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 sometimes unwelcome 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 with these subconscious signals.
To be sure, 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.
This suggests that loving foreplay preceding a wonderful orgasm is great…but can send mixed messages.
Perhaps these contradictory subconscious signals account for the “attraction-repulsion” phenomenon lovers often notice after their initial honeymoon high wanes.
In any case, nurturing touch not only creates a space of comfort and safety. It can also be surprisingly ecstatic, as a friend shared:
Though it was after 11 PM, we cuddled. For about two hours. Ecstatic cuddling.
I had experiences last night 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 a relationship…even with an alligator.
Combine them with gentle lovemaking with lots of periods of 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?