Mid-Life: Romancing The Hormones, Part 1 by Nancy Cetel, M.D.,
Author of DOUBLE MENOPAUSE
Is Mid-Life Romance an Oxymoron ?
Romantic – inclined to dream of adventure, heroism or love ; imaginative but impractical ; of love or a love affair
Love – intense affection or warm feeling for another
It’s a fact of life. As individuals, we are living longer and staying in better shape, both physically and mentally, than any of our ancestors. But what about the long term health of our relationships? As life expectancy is increasing, divorce expectancy is following suit. Approximately fifty percent of long term marriages disintegrate, without either partner having a real understanding of when and where things went wrong. Sometimes a void becomes apparent after a major change in lifestyle or a life altering event ushers in a wake up call. Retirement, “empty-nest” syndrome, death of a parent, friend or colleague leads to a re-evaluation of our own priorities in life. Sometimes there is emotional pain, especially if we wake up to discover that our relationship is not what we had anticipated. These wake up moments are a normal part of midlife maturation, as in “wake up and smell the roses”.
Too often, in the haste of day to day modern living, we may not even notice the roses, let alone take the time to inhale the sensual aromas. When we do slow down to indulge our senses, we can appreciate what we have missed and ask ourselves why we don’t partake more often. So too, with mid life and the nurturing of mature love. Romance provides the opportunity to rekindle the sensual spirit of a relationship. This is based upon commitment, affection and devotion. Romance also recaptures the essence of what it is like to be in true love.
In reference to the definitions above, it might be easier to relate to the term ‘romantic’ if we view our midlife journey as an adventure, see our partner as our hero (or heroine) and continue to pursue our dreams while nurturing our love for each other. At midlife, all the correct ingredients are in place. Sometimes they just need to be ‘stirred up’ to get maximum flavor. Therefore, the only oxymoron in midlife romance is the term oxymoron.
Romance 101: The Chemistry of It All
“A courtship begins when a man whispers sweet nothings and ends when he says nothing sweet.” (Anonymous)
On the surface, romance appears to be a frenzy of wild, intoxicating, fleeting, feel good passion that works its way into an emotional state called love. Dive beneath the surface and what we discover cascading through the rapids of the bloodstream and literally being pumped from the deep springs of the heart is the essence of real love, those molecules of emotions called hormones. Indeed, romance and love are physiological states with profound repercussions on our mood, mentality, creativity, energy, and even our health and longevity. These chemical molecules of emotions traverse the blood brain barrier and activate neurological synapses with electrifying results. At mid-life, our hormonal systems are primed and eager for just this sort of activation.
Igniting Our MidLife Love Hormones
If we think back to our first experience of “falling in love”, it is not hard to recall the unique blend of energy and exhilaration that resulted in a near euphoric state. Indeed, our heart may be racing, our palms sweaty and our senses in a state of peak sensitivity. When two people are attracted to each other, and by each other, a virtual frenzy of hormone and neurochemical activity occurs. Our “natural high” is fueled by the release of hormones, neurochemicals and endorphins, the body’s own opiate system. The more we bond with the object of our affection, the more opiates are released. Indeed, love can be addicting, but this is just the beginning.
Being held in our lover’s arms, or even touched by the object of our affection, causes a gush of oxytocin – a potent “bonding” hormone secreted by the pituitary gland. Couples entering into the state of love tend to be “floating”, almost immune from the worries of the world. In reality, the immune system does indeed get an overall boost from a “shot” of love.
In the woman, oxytocin works in synergy with estrogen and is directly involved in the forceful uterine contractions necessary for labor and delivery. After the baby is born, oxytocin plays a critical role in milk let down in the breasts and reinforces the bonding between infant and mother. During nursing, it results in pleasurable and relaxing sensations for the mother as even more of this magical hormone is released. In response to the cry of her baby (or even the cry of another baby), oxytocin is automatically secreted from the pituitary causing the breasts to leak or even spurt milk. In essence, oxytocin becomes a “remote control” of mother / infant bonding to the highest degree. So too with touch. The more the mother touches or is touched by her baby, the greater the release of this marvelous hormone.
In a similar manner, oxytocin promotes bonding between a man and a woman through touch. Just as a woman’s breasts are sensitized by the release of this hormone in response to a baby’s cry or touch, so too is there a response to a partner’s touch. Hand holding, cuddling, snuggling, hugging or even being in the proximity of a lover can cause the release of oxytocin. By increasing desire and arousal there is also enhanced bonding between the partners. The sensitization can be so great that even the sound of a lover’s voice, or the scent of their particular “pheromone” or even a certain look can trigger oxytocin release. The more hormone, the greater the chance of touching; the more contact, the greater the release of hormone.
If we choose not to touch, or not to spend time with our mate, oxytocin levels will fall and the bonding cycle will indeed unravel. Emotions do play a role in our ultimate decisions, but our hormones help jump start our physiologic responses. Long distance relationships as well as relationships that are void of touch can indeed be hormonally challenging. The good news is that they can also be salvageable by choice and by reinstating the art of touch.
Scientific studies have shown that touch deprivation can have significant consequences on human life. Babies who are raised without physical affection are more likely to have difficulties with social skills, personality disorders and less ability to express affection as adults. As we grow older our need for touch and physical intimacy does not wane. Couples who stop hugging, snuggling, stroking or even just holding each other have a higher chance of developing depression, sleep disturbances, reduced immunity, irritability, anxiety and the D word …divorce.
In a survey of prominent divorce attorneys,”Lawyers on Love” by Andrew Taber (May 5, 2001), Men’s Health magazine listed the lack of nonsexual touch as one of the top ten reasons midlife couples divorce. “Married men tend to touch their wives only when they’re looking for sex. Lawyers say that’s a mistake. Men underestimate the power of nonsexual touch. Women who come to an attorney looking for a divorce often talk about how their husbands no longer hold their hands or offer unsolicited kisses and back rubs – all things that make women emotionally connected.” Indeed, men benefit from the healing effects of touch as well. Touch is an undeniably potent resource. When was the last time that you gave your significant other a good old fashioned hug? It just may be time to get the oxytocin pumping again.
Next: Twenty Fun Ways to Activate Your Romance Hormones, and Keep Your Lover