It seems almost redundant to say “sex brings you closer to your partner.” I don’t think you need us to tell us that. But few of us consider why it makes us closer? What is it, scientifically speaking, that allows sex to enhance intimacy?
Luckily, we have our fingers deep in many scientists’ bookshelves, so allow us to explain. Here are four ways sex makes feel closer to your lover.
Two Bodies, One Mind
The experience of love and sexual desire is common across all our brains, processed primarily by the thalamus, hippocampus, and anterior cingulate cortex. These sections are all activated when we feel anything like desire, and there are additional similarities too. Our anterior, insula, posterior cingulate cortexes were all active when we view images of partners. These neural pathways, common to love and sexual desire in all of us, lead researchers to suggest that love grows out of the pleasant feelings of sexual fulfillment.
Since both (or all) partners in a relationship experience this in synch with each other, the feelings are reinforced and reflected, leading to a deeper sense of intimacy and affection.
Since 2017, the warm sense of contentment many of us experience has been given a scientific definition: “enhanced sexual satisfaction that lingers after sexual activity.” In short, it codifies what a lot of us already knew, that some of us stay sexually satisfied long after sex has finished – some people claiming that their afterglow can last up to two days. According to research, the longer the sexual afterglow lasted, the happier the couple rated their relationship over time. The researchers suggest that afterglow is an evolutionary phenomenon that encourages people to bond romantically and strengthen their commitment to each other, for the benefit of raising offspring. It’s also speculated that afterglow reduces the risk of infidelity.
Related to afterglow, pillow talk after sex encourages us to briefly be more honest than usual, and allows more self-disclosure. This, in turn, leads to increased closeness and relationship security. Interestingly, according to research, women who achieved orgasm during sex engaged in more pillow talk than men, and more than women who didn’t climax. Women who orgasmed tend to say more positive things about their relationships in their post-sex disclosures, reinforcing their own and their partner’s confidence in the partnership. Sharing secrets has been shown to increase intimacy, which, in turn, may then increase sexual desire.
Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that reduces stress and increases feelings of trust. It’s also associated with feelings of love, sexual desire, and bonding among romantic couples. In a study, couples who had remained together over a six month period showed higher levels of oxytocin than couples who had broken up in the same period. Sex and orgasm further increase the levels of oxytocin across genders, which increases intimacy between partners. Oxytocin not only makes you feel closer to your partner, but also prevents you from becoming close to other potential mates, decreasing the chance of infidelity. This was proved in a study in which monogamous men were given oxytocin intranasally maintained a greater distance between themselves and attractive women who were not their partners.
Science helps explain exactly why sexual activity can help us get closer, and stay closer. Intimacy has yet to be scientifically defined, and it’s a hard thing to measure, but it’s safe to say that sex only affects it positively.