Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Human Connection is the Best Relapse Prevention

Troy had been sober from porn for 40 days. When we talked yesterday, he was so delighted: "Life's better. I can sit and read to my little boys--sometimes two or three books--without feeling so impatient. Celeste and I go for walks and it feels good to just hold hands."

What surprised Troy most is the improvement in his sexual relationship with Celeste. "What we both feel when we're together has been electric. Of course the whole package is better than porn because I'm living with integrity now. What blew me away is that the intensity of pleasure is reaching a level almost as high as what porn was in its best moments."

I remembered back to a few months ago when Troy talked about "porn at its best." Part of his motivation to get sober was that he was devoting more of his time and energy and receiving less and less in return. When he was craving, he might recall the most euphoric incidents of porn consumption, but once he gave in to the craving the actual experience was rarely living up to those memories.

Troy wasn't alone in this. It's porn's law of diminishing returns. Another word for it is tolerance, and it's a fixture on the landscape of all addictions.

Now he was experiencing one of the sweet laws of recovery: human connection is the best relapse prevention. Here are a couple of reasons why:

1. A committed relationship is porn addiction's nicotine patch. The chemical oxytocin is a source of natural biological bliss. It calms anxiety and makes us more easily satisfied. It's released in our brains and bodies when we spend time working beside, caressing, conversing with, resting a hand on the shoulder of, or even touching base by cellphone with our beloved.

This "cuddle chemical" has also been found to diminish addictive urges. In 1998 G. L. Kovacs and colleagues administered to rats regular doses of heroin, cocaine, and morphine in order to develop dependence. Then they gave half of the rats oxytocin. Those oxytocin-dosed rats opted for less of their "drug of choice" when they had unlimited access and also showed fewer signs of withdrawal. In 2006 Billings found that oxytocin had the same effect on rats' cravings for sweets.

2. Oxytocin makes commitment more appealing. Scientists didn't have to dose up any rats to discover this; nature had already done the experiment for them on some other rodents. All they had to do was compare the "Family Values" of Mountain Voles to those of Prairie Voles. These cousins are biologically similar in almost every way, but the brains of Prarie voles produce and release more oxytocin and have more receptors for the chemical in key areas. The effects of this difference? Prairie voles are more sociable, they mate for life, and both parents care for their young. That's a far cry from Mountain Voles, which are promiscuous, solitary, and the dads of the species are deadbeat, leaving the mothers to care for the young on their own.

Some have wondered whether philandering humans have brains more like these promiscuous rodents. I think a different implication of this research is more interesting: As humans, we can influence our own oxytocin levels. Why not do the things that lead to the production and release of oxytocin rather than remaining victims of our original set point, whatever it happens to be?

Couples who are the happiest and most satisfied touch and talk to each other more. But let's not assume that the causal relationship just goes one direction. Sure we can respond to feelings of contentment in our relationship by connecting physically and verbally... but we can also make an effort to touch more and talk more. When we do we're dosing up with oxytocin, which in turn makes us more satisfied with our partner and less likely to even want to wander.

It was fun to see Troy's face light up as we talked about this miracle chemical. He was understanding more about what he'd already been enjoying in his life. I could tell how good it felt to be in the driver's seat of his life--so much better than his former enslavement to porn.

[Just a brief final note to twelve-step adherents: By calling human connection the best relapse prevention, I'm not trying to diminish the role of our Higher Power in recovery. After all, who else would get the credit for having put these loved ones in our lives?]

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