Pair bonding in humans

Davi Bockhome

image source:Bjorn Anderson

What follows is based on observation of myself and others. When I share these ideas with people, I am usually met with agreement and recognition. However, I do not know if what I am about to say is biologically accurate in any direct way. I suspect it is, and think that if I did some research and digging, I would find a bunch of evidence to support my suspicion. (The results of such research, along with some elaboration of the discussion, would, I think, make for a successful self-help/popular psychology sort of book.) In any case, what follows is speculative, albeit compelling and possibly useful.

Like many animals, humans pair bond. The main mechanism by which pair bonding is established is through sex. Unless you are a highly unusual human, if you have sex with someone on a fairly regular basis over a period of a few months, you will pair bond with them. It is possible to pair bond without sex, but the process is much slower.

Dedicated pair bonding circuits exist in our brain. A subset of this circuitry is activated (or hyperactivated, as the case may be) by various addictive drugs. By having regular sex with someone, you are essentially establishing an addiction to them. Let me hasten to say that this addiction is not necessarily a bad thing -- in fact, it may be the only form of addiction which has any potential for beauty. The biological purpose of this addictive process is to maximize the energetic input from both potential parents into their offspring, particularly during early childhood, when survival is least assured. (It's interesting to note in this regard that the rate of formation of the pair bond is often higher in women than in men.) Although pair bonding originated for this purpose, contraception permits the formation of pair bonds without offspring.

Pair bonding is an immensely powerful force. Individuals who are structurally incompatible in fundamental ways can still pair bond, often to their detriment. For these people, the pair bond is like scar tissue holding together mismatched bones. The familiar case of the abused woman who will not leave her abusive mate is an extreme manifestation of this dynamic. She is literally addicted to him, and cannot leave him. More positively, for people who are structurally compatible, the pair bond can become the deepest sort of love.

Pair bonding does not always occur for both people involved, but it does most of the time. Asymmetries in the rate of pair bonding are scary to both parties, and can destabilize the process. Pair bonds also do not necessarily last forever, particularly if the couple stops having regular sex. When a pair bond is broken, a process of withdrawal ensues, which is certainly painful, and potentially destructive in its own right.

Don't have regular sex with the same partner unless you want to pair bond with him or her. Conscious intentionality is almost irrelevant: for example, you both can 'decide' that it will be a casual, friendly sort of thing, but if it goes on for any length of time, you will not be friends, you will be pair bonded.

4/8/05, Adria writes:

I think the chemical involved is oxytocin, released in sex and upon first sight of baby by mother.

also about rates and times of female and male pair bonding: a female is at a much greater risk if she is pregnant but without a partner, thus it makes evolutionary sense that she should pair bond faster/more in the months before the baby exists. Anecdotal evidence from one of my old ev psych profs says that males pair bond once they first see the child.

what do you think about sibling pair bonding? often when my relationships start losing steam, my pair bond shifts from a romantic one to a more familial one. or dog/human bonds, which you could like of think about like hierarchical/clan group bonding...

word. interesting post.

later, yo.

email: dbockATdavibock.netpage last modified 4/10/2005
(substitute "@" for "AT" and you'll be all set)home