A note on habituation in longterm relationships

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In the preceding paragraphs, we have seen that men habituate to a constant sexual stimulus in a laboratory setting. A very important question is whether habitu-ation also occurs outside the laboratory. One way to approach an answer to that question would be to determine the sexually arousing properties of a stable female partner. Humans and some other mammals have the habit of forming relationships of such a kind that all or at least most sexual activity is performed with one single partner for considerable periods of time. One consequence of this is that the members of the pair are repeatedly exposed to each other, perhaps hundreds or thousands of times if the relationship lasts very long. Repeated exposure to a constant stimulus should lead to habituation, as we know by now. Although women have the habit of changing hair color, perfumes and soaps with an amazing frequency, thereby changing some of their potential sexual incentive characteristics, I have the impression that most men do not notice any of these changes. They rather regard their partner as a reasonably constant stimulus. Most men change hairstyle, after shave and hair color less frequently and can be expected to constitute a constant stimulus for their partner. This constancy should, logically, lead to habit-uation. Indeed, some scientists have suggested that the reduction in the intensity of sexual behaviors occurring in most couples as a function of the duration of the relationship is caused by habituation (Klusmann, 2002).

Explanations of diminished sexual activity as the duration of relationship increases in terms of habituation need some qualifications. The most important is that there is no habituation to a stimulus containing useful information. No animal will habituate to a light signaling the proximate availability of food, for example. No car driver will habituate to a red light at a busy intersection, independently of how frequently he passes that crossing. In the experiments on habituation of sexual responses, the arousing stimulus was a pornographic movie, or an audiotape describing sexual activities, or a slide with some exciting content. None of these stimuli had any consequence, except that of producing erection. As it turned out, the erection was useless since no sexual activity followed the presentation of the stimuli. In other words, sexual incentives were repeatedly presented in the absence of sexual reward. Within the stable couple, sexual reward will be obtained, frequently or occasionally, depending on the couple. The incentive stimuli emitted by the partner will, consequently, be associated with sexual reward with a frequency determined by the intensity of sexual activity in the couple. When that reward is obtained sufficiently often, the incentive stimuli emitted by the partner will signal a rewarding event and no habituation will occur because these stimuli carry meaningful information. On the contrary, if the association between stimuli emitted by the partner and sexual reward is infrequent or entirely absent, then these stimuli cease to carry meaningful information and habituation can occur.

There is not necessarily any reciprocity between the members of the couple with regard to the obtention of sexual reward and the ensuing habituation or absence of it. A man may obtain sexual reward (orgasm) at every single one of the frequent sexual encounters with his partner, while the partner may never do so. This means that the man will never habituate, but the partner may show a fast progression in habituation until the man has lost his sexual incentive properties.

It is possible to maintain that the notion of habituation is irrelevant for sexual incentives. Accepting that all sexual incentives are learned, any reduction in the propensity to respond to a sexual incentive as a consequence of non-reward is not habituation but extinction of a conditioned response. In the human, the concept of habituation of sexual responses is perhaps unnecessary. Extinction and negative alliesthesia can explain behavioral changes in all the situations where habituation has been employed as explanatory element. In non-human animals, the mechanisms of habituation may be of some importance.

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