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Relationship Advice: De-stress With Your Mate Using Bonding Behaviors

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Want to use your relationship to de-stress? Try something playful and totally unfamiliar: three weeks of brief, daily bonding behaviors.

Humans are pair bonders. That means an ancient region of our brain is wired slightly differently from the 97 percent of mammal species who don't pair bond. We're built to register regular, affectionate touch and close, trusted companionship with a mate as especially soothing and rewarding. (If you're single, you can get a lot of the same benefits from friendly interaction with your pals. Remember the hugs!)

If you have a mate, let mutual affection ease your stress. For example, research shows that cohabiting couples who first engaged in hugging and handholding had lower heart rates and blood pressure when subsequently facing intense stress (spontaneous speaking before an audience).

Often couples make climax the primary goal of their intimacy, in part because it feels like orgasm is a stress-reducer. It's true that it briefly lowers sexual tension. What's really happening, though, is that dopamine, the "gotta get it" neurochemical, rises during arousal and then drops at climax, offering fleeting relief.

Orgasm reduces cravings, but not necessarily stress. Warm affection, however, measurably reduces stress. Social support, such as smiling at each other or offering a reassuring hug, reduces the prime stress neurochemical: cortisol . In contrast, lab tests show virtually no drop in cortisol after climax. The difference probably comes down to the "cuddle chemical," oxytocin. Couples who exchanged more warm touch showed rises in oxytocin and greater improvements in multiple stress-sensitive body systems. The husbands, for example, had significantly lowered blood pressure.

Daily affection with a trusted mate can also improve your outlook. How? Oxytocin turns down defensiveness and fear in your brain's primitive amygdala. Bingo! Your mate looks better and more loving--at least to you.

In short, your relationship is a goldmine of anti-stress "meds"--if you know how to work it. So, even if you don't have time or energy for sex, make sure you exchange daily affection!

What are these behaviors that de-stress couples? It looks like they're the same ones that strengthen their emotional bonds. Talk about convenient...

They're surprisingly powerful--yet far more effortless than vigorous lovemaking. Evolutionarily, these "bonding behaviors" are closely related to the cues that bond mammal infants with their caregivers before weaning. In couples they look different, of course. And the good news is that we adult pair bonders can use them to sustain bonds for life.

The key point is that all mammals are deeply wired to respond to these signals, whether male or female. Our sensitivity to them evolved long before language or logic, so these signals bypass our rational brains and operate subconsciously.

Bonding behaviors rely on actions to work--and quantity matters. For example, dads who have lots of contact with their kids during a play session produce more soothing oxytocin than those who have little contact. This suggests that couples, too, benefit from frequent affectionate touch. Loving each other isn't enough. Nor will occasional passionate sex do the trick.

Typical bonding behaviors between couples include skin-to-skin contact, gazing into each other's eyes, wordless sounds of pleasure and contentment ("mmmmm...."), occasional gentle intercourse (orgasm optional), warm hugs, providing a treat or favor, gentle stroking, synchronized breathing, kissing and so forth.

Want to experiment with using a few weeks of daily affection to de-stress? Try this collection of playful activities for couples, all of which incorporate bonding behaviors. Most take just a few minutes, but can be extended if desired. Here's a sample:

Have your partner lie face down on the bed and gently relax your partner by stroking up the spine from the sacrum to the neck for several minutes. Switch roles.

Keep in mind that bonding behaviors are not foreplay. Foreplay increases sexual tension. Bonding behaviors work because they help relax the brain. So do them just for their own sake, purely to de-stress. See what you experience. Again, to gain their full benefit, do them daily (or almost daily), even if only for a few minutes.

Bonding behaviors can be great news if you have been over-stimulating yourselves with particularly exciting foreplay techniques or viewing today's extreme porn. Paradoxically, too much of a good thing can temporarily dampen the pleasure response of the brain. A few weeks of bonding behaviors help return the brain to its natural sensitivity and simple pleasures once again become fulfilling. It's then easier for you and your partner to make each other purr with contentment.

Why not find out how enjoyable and relaxed life can be after a few short weeks of generous, affectionate exchanges?

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