The Rewards and Perils of Bonding Behaviours

QuietthoughtsSynergy Explorers

Bonding behaviours are powerful cues that evolved in mammals because they increase survival rates. They keep parents and offspring attached until the latter mature enough to go their merry way. In a small minority of mammals – bonding behaviours (grooming, guarding, sharing resources) also promote long-lasting pair bonds between mates.

Humans are also pair bonders. Between human mates, typical bonding behaviours might include wordless sounds of contentment and pleasure, affectionate touch, preparing and sharing a favourite food, spooning and so on. These nurturing signals evoke subconscious feelings of safety and, often, a desire for further closeness.

In any species, once such a bond forms and solidifies, ruptures can hurt. Have you ever heard calves bawling for their moms just after weaning? A recently discovered two-step process in which the calves are first prevented from nursing for a time, but not abruptly separated. This eases their misery and leaves them healthier.

Unexpected fallout

What about humans? Bonding behaviours are potent. When contemplating a new relationship, it’s wise to employ them only when you and another person intend to explore the possibility of an ongoing relationship in good faith.

In contrast, casually mixing bonding behaviours with sexual foreplay or intercourse can easily produce distress. Examples? Heart-bruising, despair, bewilderment or sensations of betrayal. Remember Congreve’s “Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.”?

The combination of casual intercourse + bonding behaviours is potentially an explosive combination, especially for some women. Perhaps the risk of pregnancy makes women instinctively seek commitment. Bonding behaviours signal their instincts that they have found it. Logic cannot easily overcome subconscious programming.

As pair-bonders, human males often register something similar following intercourse (think: the jealous lover). However, many males experience significantly less angst than females following a casual, affectionate encounter. While individuals differ widely, perhaps men’s evolved tendencies lean more toward leaving no willing flowers unfertilized.

Just friends, casual sex

Friends can still employ bonding behaviours safely if they do it cautiously. Cuddling, foot massage, sharing meals, and even sleep-overs can be very nurturing for both people. Especially if they don’t mix such activities with sexual activity intended to arouse.

In contrast, if your goal is casual sex here’s some advice: Take your prophylactics, but leave your bonding behaviours at home. Or, to say this another way, a casual sexual encounter is not a promising way to start a relationship that you hope may lead to a stable, affectionate commitment. This is true no matter how masterful your skills.

Foreplay and orgasm can intoxicate in the moment. But the most powerful bonding behaviours are selfless and nurturing. These are the signals most likely to evoke feelings of safety and leave behind a longing for deeper intimacy. After all, they tap into an ancient, powerful program that evolved to improve survival odds.

Going forward

As we mammals outgrow our need for close infant-caregiver attention, we engage in fewer bonding behaviours with our caregivers. But, as lovers we can consciously use bonding behaviours indefinitely to keep our bonds strong. This assumes that both partners actively employ them.

Some of the courtship rituals of our ancestors (dances, walks, chaste flirting) furnished opportunities for bonding behaviours. Examples would be smiling with eye-gazing, heartfelt compliments, and hand-holding. No doubt such tame activities at the outset of unions accounted for bonds that endured in some couples even after the roller coaster of sexual activity entered their unions. If you are hoping for the possibility of a long-lasting union, ‘less may be more’ early in a relationship.

Be intentional

One thing seems certain: Bonding behaviours are powerful subconscious signals. Use them intentionally and with integrity. What goes around comes around.

If you’re still making up your mind about a potential partner, consider sticking to bonding behaviours without intentionally arousing foreplay or intercourse while you gain clarity. The affectionate, selfless exchange will nurture you both. Gain insight into your connection – with a minimum of misunderstanding.