Whether you are mid scoff wondering “who this wacky therapist is claiming negative impacts of cuddling,” or the other type, scanning your week to pinpoint all the potentially “too-much” cuddling you may have done, let’s pause.
Allow me to pull the release valve: cuddles are allowed, abound, and wonderful.
Let’s turn to the wonder drug, Oxytocin, to learn a bit more about cuddles. It’s true, our miraculous 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 the survival of the child, it bonds a mate to their partner for safety, trust, and reproduction.
Referred to as the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is the chemical scientifically found to be released and increased in hand-holding and hugging, while cortisol, the stress hormone, goes down.
While oxytocin bathes us in the joy of attachment, it also includes our attachments with our friends and our families. This leads us to a great appreciation for having distinct and separate areas of the brain, and chemicals, that are involved with lust and attraction.
Lust and Attraction
Sexual desire, lust, and the selfish pursuit of sexual gratification are driven by estrogen and testosterone. Attraction, a related but distinct phenomenon, involves the brain’s “reward pathway” and is created by the surge of dopamine and a related chemical, norepinephrine.
As an article published by Harvard University 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. If you haven’t already guessed, my level of intrigue stems from the countless couples that come to see me in my therapy practice with the same story, “We are so in love. We have a great relationship; we’re not having sex.”
If you also haven’t already guessed, I am also obsessed with author and therapist Esther Perel, the sassy couples therapist famous for her work on intimacy, infidelity and desire.
The couples that come to my office talk about their decreased libido, how they are stressed from work, and can’t get out of their heads. All this may be true, but if we marry our chemistry lesson with Esther’s body of work “Mating in Captivity,” it could be terribly true that in fact “loving someone” is chemically different than “desiring them.”
What’s the Balance of Lust and Love?
This brings me to that horrific question posed in the title of this article. Is there such a thing as too much cuddling? Could it be that our ideal balance of bonded love with erotic love, is actually a chemical balance?
Is it possible that we are over-saturating the sizzle with cuddles of oxytocin leaving no room for the ignition of lust’s estrogen and testosterone and attraction’s dopamine.
Unfortunately for y’all, I’m not a chemist so I don’t actually know if there is a limited amount of space for each of these chemical interactions.
What I do know is that sexual happiness means stepping out of the comfort zone and taking risks. It means engaging the healthy part of the sympathetic nervous system, the part of our bodies responsible for action, excitement, arousal, and passion.
Am I saying that playing mainly with cuddles alone could potentially lead to an over-engaged sympathetic nervous system that can also lead to apathy, boredom, and dissociation? Yes.
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 put the passion fire out, check out Esther Perel’s books and podcasts. As Ester puts it, “When there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek.”
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!
Love, Actually: The science behind lust, attraction, and companionship
Human Connections Start With A Friendly Touch
Mating in Captivity. Ester Perel. Harper; New York, NY 2006.