Photograph by Ali Mitton
Our Invisible Attachments: Choosing Intimacy over Sterility
Divorce rates in the U.S. are pretty staggering (50% in 2015), which is a testament to the fact that keeping the marriage fires stoked over the years is no easy feat. Perpetual respect, attraction, delight—and not wanting to get divorced at the same time—is hard enough, before you add in that secret sauce of work stress, children, and sometimes not parallel personal growth trajectories. As Dr. Habib Sadeghi and Dr. Sherry Sami outline below, there might be another complicating factor at play that’s far more biological.
The Invisible Ties That Bind Us
Back in 2007, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) predicted that by 2015, 60% of upscale, custom-built homes would have dual master suites, one for each member of a married couple. Demand was strong from homeowners, and the NAHB expected it to continue. To help sell the idea, everyone from marriage counselors to real estate agents were talking about the advantages. No more putting up with your spouse’s snoring. Gone were concerns about disturbing a partner who worked non-traditional hours. Want to watch TV in bed until 2am? Fine. Some even said that such an arrangement could spice up a couple’s sex life by helping to maintain an element of mystery in the marriage.
Separate suites certainly sounds luxurious, and it might be fun to try for a while. Even so, one has to wonder what effect more time away from each other has on a couple’s sense of intimacy. Yes, the sex might be better at first, but are couples gaining convenience while losing connection?
For the majority of Americans, dual master suites isn’t an option, but a similar home amenity is, and it comes with the same pros and cons: separate bathrooms. Many couples swear by them. No more dealing with her tubes and jars cluttering the countertop. He’s such a slob, now he can drop his underwear anyplace he wants. The days of crashing into each other during the morning rush are over. Privacy and peace at last.
“Smith, who specializes in designing upscale estates for powerful people, said that, in her experience, when a couple opts for separate bathrooms it usually leads to separate houses and eventually, divorce.”
Unfortunately, this convenience can come with a cost. It was just last year we met Windsor Smith, interior designer and author of Homefront: Design for Modern Living, at a dinner party where this very subject came up. Smith, who specializes in designing upscale estates for powerful people, said that, in her experience, when a couple opts for separate bathrooms it usually leads to separate houses and eventually, divorce. Can it really be that absence, even under the same roof, makes the heart grow less fond?
The answer is yes, it can. Logistics aside, sharing space keeps us bonded to our partners in ways that are primal. Whether we know it or not, invisible forces are at work that continually reinforce our subconscious sense of belonging and attachment to one another. Nowhere does this happen more than in the most intimate spaces of our homes.
These days, many working couples scramble through their hectic morning routine trying to get themselves and their kids out the door on time. Late work nights and after-work errands mean many couples and families don’t have dinner together anymore. It seems that one of the last opportunities busy couples have for making a real connection is during their evening routine, usually in the bathroom.
In a recent British poll, nearly half (45%) of the couples responding said they share their nightly bathroom routine with their partner as a way to wind down and talk about the day. This was in contrast to just 29% who said they were still able to eat dinner together. For the under-34 crowd, just 16% said they could manage eating dinner together, but the same group largely felt that bathroom bonding, as they called it, was an important way to keep from growing apart.
“It seems that one of the last opportunities busy couples have for making a real connection is during their evening routine, usually in the bathroom.”
A great way to deepen this kind of experience is for each person to participate in some aspect of their partner’s nighttime routine. No, you’re not going to brush your wife’s teeth, but brushing her hair while she talks about what’s on her mind is a very loving thing to do. Although it might sound unusual, mutual grooming is a high-bonding activity in the animal kingdom of which we are a part, and it affects us in a similar way. Even something as simple as applying lotion to your partner’s body or showering together provides the same benefit.
While bathroom bonding is in progress, unseen forces are at work, increasing intimacy on a subconscious level that can deepen our connection to each other even when we’re not together. When we share intimate spaces like a bathroom or bedroom, we’re constantly taking in the scent of our partners, even when they’re not present. Put on your partner’s bathrobe because yours is in the laundry and suddenly you’re smelling his scent. As far as your nose is concerned, he’s practically in the room. Our sense of smell has a strong connection to memory, and thoughts of our partners can enter our minds at times like these, further strengthening our connection to them. Post-workout clothes thrown on the bed, hair caught in a brush on the counter, a spouse’s pillowcase and even a shared towel give off olfactory cues that deepen the bond, whether we know it or not.
Although science has never officially determined that each human has an individual scent, police and trailing dogs have been proving it anecdotally for decades. In fact, a study performed at University College in London in 1955 proved that dogs could even detect the difference in scent between identical twins. Although the source of human scent wasn’t the subject of the study, the researchers inferred that whatever it was, it was probably genetic.
“Although science has never officially determined that each human has an individual scent, police and trailing dogs have been proving it anecdotally for decades.”
Science is beginning to suspect the unique chemical composition of sebum is what gives us our individual scent. Produced by the sebaceous glands, sebum is a fatty substance that helps lubricate the skin. It’s liquid at body temperature and solid at room temperature. Chemically speaking, it’s made up of fatty acids, wax alcohols, sterols, terpenoids, and hydrocarbons. Some of these compounds aren’t found anywhere else in the body. If sebum is removed from the skin, the sebaceous glands work very quickly to replace it. That’s why dogs can still identify someone’s scent after a vigorous shower or even a series of showers.
A structure similar to cholesterol called squalene is also found in sebum. It’s the component that helps dogs and other animals distinguish us as different from their species. It’s estimated that unique combinations of fatty acid components and wax alcohols in squalene are what differentiates one human’s scent from another.
Just to give you an idea of how individual scent bonds people together, studies using T-shirts worn over several days showed that not only can people detect their own scent, but they can identify those of family members as well. Separate studies show that babies only a few weeks old can identify the breast scent of their mother over those of other mothers. Likewise, mothers can recognize the scent of their own babies.
Attachment Beyond Awareness
Sharing our intimate spaces with our partners allows for another powerful chemical swap to take place, the exchange of pheromones. Like human scent, the actual existence of human pheromones and our ability to detect them hasn’t been officially demonstrated by science. A primary reason is that other mammals have a special organ to sense pheromones called a vomeronasal organ (VNO), which humans lack. When pheromones are in the air, a bundle of nerves in the VNO sends messages to the brain that excite the hypothalamus, which controls many functions including aspects of parenting and attachment behavior. Interestingly, a study showed that the hypothalamus of women lit up when exposed to 4,16-androstadien, a synthetic steroid or pherine with male pheromone-like properties. Since the late 1990s, a mountain of evidence has been building demonstrating that humans probably do have a VNO and that it’s most likely connected to the nasal septum. At this point, searching for the existence of pheromones is like trying to discover what wind looks like. Even though we can’t see them, we can clearly see their effects all around us.
Unlike sebum, which adheres to the skin, pheromones are projected into the environment by our bodies. When we’re sharing a bathroom or bedroom with our partners, we’re giving off these signals all the time. Androstadienone is a prominent steroid hormone in men believed to contain pheromones. It’s most prevalent on the skin and hair, under the arms, and in semen. Several studies have shown that when heterosexual women and homosexual men are exposed to androstadienone, it heightens their arousal and promotes a positive mood. This is why a synthetic androstadienone in the form of a nasal spray is currently being developed for women with social anxiety problems. Androstadienone exposure for heterosexual women also alters the length and timing of their menstrual cycle, affecting fertility. In fact, women are so sensitive to masculine scents that they can detect exaltolide, a male musk-like compound, at dilutions 1,000 times lower than men. Some feel this high sensitivity to smell makes women better able to choose a mate because they have more invested in the act of procreation.
“At this point, searching for the existence of pheromones is like trying to discover what wind looks like. Even though we can’t see them, we can clearly see their effects all around us.”
Likewise, estratetraenol, a powerful steroid hormone thought to contain pheromones and found predominantly in female urine, increases arousal and elevates mood in heterosexual men. In addition, distinct activity in the hypothalamus area of the brain (involved in bonding and attachment) has been detected in the brains of heterosexual men and homosexual women when exposed to estratetraenol. The same activity occurs in heterosexual women and homosexual men exposed to androstadienone.
The point to all this science is that a very real physiological and chemical connection to our intimate partners is going on just beyond our awareness. It’s strengthened when we share our intimate spaces because like the rest of the animal kingdom, we’re leaving our scent everywhere. This “marking” of territory subconsciously confirms to the brain that you belong to me.
When we think about how these invisible chemical connections and communications keep us bonded together on a very real but subconscious level, we have to ask: Have we become too clean? The impulse to disinfect everything, especially in the bathroom, might be blocking the important chemical messages we’re supposed to be receiving from our partners. Maybe some simple soap and water would do instead of a caustic drugstore cleaner. It might also be a good idea to reconsider highly fragrant colognes, as well as hair and skincare products that can disrupt the scented signal we’re getting from our mates.
Kissing and Connection
Several times each year we conduct a series of workshops called the Couples Transformational Intensive (CT!) designed to reduce conflict, increase bonding, and bring intimate partners closer together. One of the simplest but most powerful parts of the program is when couples commit to kissing for five consecutive minutes each day. The kissing doesn’t have to lead to sexual activity. If it does, that’s fine, but the main goal is to make a consistent physical connection every day.
Kissing strengthens the connection between people, but especially intimate partners, because the lips contain an enormous amount of touch receptors and sebaceous glands. When we kiss, we exchange sebum that contains our unique chemical signatures along with countless proteins and hormones at homeopathic levels. Research continues to show that the exchange of sebum most likely plays a prominent role in feelings of attachment between intimate partners, as well as parents and children. This is why we instinctively want to kiss those we love. We want to strengthen the bond between us, creating a sort of chemical WiFi that keeps us connected, even when we’re not together. We call this invisible bond psycho-spiritual, and it’s crucial to maintaining the mindset of two becoming one in a marriage.
“Kissing strengthens the connection between people, but especially intimate partners, because the lips contain an enormous amount of touch receptors and sebaceous glands.”
From this simple exercise, our workshop couples regularly report dramatic improvements in their relationships, which parallel much of the research that’s been done on consistent kissing. A recent study followed couples who committed to increasing their daily kissing over a 6-week period. Results showed the couples experienced “statistically significant” decreases in stress and cholesterol levels along with a marked increase in relationship satisfaction.
Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Luc Montagnier, has demonstrated that a substance, although diluted thousands of times over in water, still remains chemically potent and active. This supports the idea that infinitesimally small amounts of sebum and pheromones can have a powerful effect on us. In fact, Montagnier’s research went on to show that even when the original substance could no longer be detected in water, its electromagnetic signals were still present, producing dramatic biological effects. So maybe it’s time to start taking more baths together?
Our primal chemical bonds exist for a reason, and we need to consciously use them to our advantage to keep our modern relationships intact even as the demands of life give us less time together. Quality of time more so than quantity is what will strengthen the 21st-century relationship, and a shared bedroom or bathroom has much to offer if you know how to use it.
If your bathroom is the size of a broom closet, you will likely face some challenges, but do what you can with what you have. If possible, consider expanding your bathroom. Not only will this improve the value of your home, but you’ll naturally want to spend more time pampering yourself and your partner in a larger, more modernized space. Always set rules for sharing the bathroom that support privacy and respect in the relationship. If you don’t like pop-ins while you’re on the pot, say so, but you might want to leave the door unlocked during your shower in case your partner wants to slip in and surprise you.
It’s nice to dream about having a big house and lots of things with which to fill it, but the truth is that big houses and their dual master suites take us further away from each other. They also lessen our need to compromise or to work things out with our partners. This can lead to isolation and narcissism. When we hear people say they fell out of love with someone, we often wonder: Did they really just “lose that loving feeling,” or did they lose their loving connection?
For more health and inspirational insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit Behiveofhealing.com to sign up for the monthly newsletter, as well as his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow Dr. Sadeghi on Twitter at Behiveofhealing.