How Much is Too Much Cuddling?
It Feels Good
First, let’s turn to the wonder drug, oxytocin. Our bodies produce the feel-good chemical oxytocin during sex, breastfeeding, touch, and cuddles. The “bonding drug” creates attachment. Just as it bonds a woman to her baby to aid in survival, oxytocin bonds a mate to their partner for safety, trust, and reproduction.
Referred to as the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is the chemical released during hand-holding and hugging. As oxytocin increases, cortisol, the stress hormone, decreases. Oxytocin bathes us in the joy of attachment. It also includes our attachments with our friends and family. This leads us to a great appreciation for having distinct areas of the brain. In addition, there are two different chemicals involved with lust and attraction.
Lust and Attraction
Sexual desire, lust, and sexual gratification are driven by estrogen and testosterone. Attraction, a related but distinct phenomenon, involves the brain’s “reward pathway”. Attraction is created by the surge of dopamine and a related chemical, norepinephrine. As an article by Harvard states, “these are chemicals that make us giddy, energetic, and euphoric.”
So, here we land in the throes of love’s arms: dynamic, complex, and chemically relevant. My level of intrigue stems from the countless couples I see in my therapy practice. They all have a similar story. “We’re so in love. We have a great relationship. We’re not having sex.”
I’m also obsessed with author and therapist Esther Perel. She’s the sassy couples therapist famous for her work on intimacy, infidelity, and desire. The couples that come to my office talk about decreased libido and work stress. They also report that they “can’t get out of their heads”. If we marry our chemistry lesson with Esther’s body of work “Mating in Captivity,” it could be true that “loving someone” is chemically different than “desiring them.”
What’s the Balance of Lust and Love?
This brings us to that scary question posed in the title. Is there such a thing as too much cuddling? Could it be our ideal balance of bonded love with erotic love, is actually a chemical balance? Is it possible that we’re over-saturating the sizzle with cuddles of oxytocin? Are we leaving no room for the ignition of lust’s estrogen and testosterone and attraction’s dopamine?
I’m not a chemist so I don’t know if there’s a limited amount of space for each of these interactions. But I do know that sexual happiness means stepping out of the comfort zone and taking risks. It means engaging the healthy part of the sympathetic nervous system. This is the part responsible for action, excitement, arousal, and passion.
So, playing mainly with cuddles alone could potentially lead to an over-engaged sympathetic nervous system. And that can also lead to apathy, boredom, and dissociation. Simply put, distance is essential to eroticism. Stepping back from the comfort of the cuddles and tolerating feeling more alone is a precondition for maintaining interest.
For more information on balancing your lust and love life, visit our couples sex therapy page. For more insight into “over togetherness” and how closeness can actually extinguish the passion fire, check out Esther Perel’s books and podcasts. As Esther puts it, “When there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek.”
Lastly, if you want to get started understanding yourself and your partner, take our short quiz. You can learn how to satisfy both of your needs.
Marni Levy, MFT Counselor
Marni Levy is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Her work with couples is a compassionate and loving approach which honors the anger and frustration that comes up when the bond is being threatened and transforms reactive cycles into positive, connected cycles of empathy and repair, emotional responsiveness and affection. Areas she works in: navigating conflict, assertiveness, expressing feelings and needs, physical/emotional intimacy… Read More!
Mating in Captivity. Ester Perel. Harper; New York, NY 2006.