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How Mindfulness Killed My Sex Life

The spiritual path will burn away all illusions, including the sexual kind. The good news is that something better is reborn in the ashes.

by Jessica Graham

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Mel was tall and lanky with short dark hair, good tattoos, and a black motorcycle. I wanted her bad. Lucky for me I was in an open relationship with my partner and he was all for it. It had been a long time since I had gone for a bad girl like Mel. I figured since it was just going to be a fling, it didn’t matter that a truck full of red flags were dropped on the first date, the biggest of which was the dopamine rush coming on hard and fast like a fat line of cocaine after a long time sober. I knew I was in trouble the first time I smelled her salty skin and felt her nicotine stained fingertips on my throat.

I wasn’t practicing polyamory, per se, and my partner was my top priority. I’ve always been fluid when it comes to monogamy, depending on the relationship I’m in and how I’m currently feeling. I’m sure my poly friends probably cringe and call me a swinger. I prefer to think of myself as a free spirit. Since I wasn’t looking for another serious relationship, I needed to keep my feelings in check for the sexy butch I was drooling over. This meant getting mindful about lust.

You know the way it goes. Constantly checking your phone, even on the freeway, thinking you see the object of your desire everywhere you go, dreaming about them, the extreme highs and lows that come with seeing or not seeing them. The throes of a new relationship make most of us temporary drug addicts looking for the next fix. I didn’t want to get carried away with this culturally acceptable insanity. Lucky for me, as a meditation practitioner, I had all the tools to observe this crazy ride without climbing on it.

So I let the affair run its course (trust me, it burnt out quick—I’m not a kid anymore), while I deconstructed and carefully explored the activity of my body and mind. At first I fell into the lust trap and caused some trouble with my partner. But soon I was able to ride the wave of new relationship energy like a pro. It was absolutely comical how the chemicals would flood my system and my mind would start to swirl when I got a text from her. Pretty soon the experience became something I could just watch without getting involved in. Those sensations and thoughts were just impermanent activity and they were certainly not me. How could they be if I was witnessing them?

This wasn’t the first time I’d had the insight that I am not my mind or my emotions. Each time that insight deepens, I experience a period of disillusionment. It had happened with my career, with habits, and so on. Basically I see the emptiness in the experience and I “lose” it. That’s to say I lose my attachment to it and my ability to get a fix from it. When I saw through the self who viewed herself as an actor, my acting career crumbled. Once I knew that my enjoyment of a film or a big piece of chocolate cake was simply a collection of thoughts and emotions, I lost my taste for them as well.

This can be a painful and scary part of spiritual development. It can feel like nothing is enjoyable or meaningful. I often have meditation students report that they feel depressed and apathetic during this stage. My first meditation teacher sat me down after few classes and told me, “Meditation is going to ruin your life.” He wasn’t joking. The cost of waking up is everything. With each awakening I’ve “lost’ a little more, but I wouldn’t want to give any of it back.

So here I was getting mindful about the off-the-hook sexual attraction I had for Mel. I didn’t really consider that I was in the process of screwing up my sex life, just like I had once screwed up my career, and my love of cake. The road to hell is paved with good intentions I suppose. By the time my bad girl fling had run out of steam, my sex drive was plummeting overall. Sex just didn’t seem that important anymore. Thanks to good old mindfulness, sexual disillusionment had kicked in.

Now, let me be clear, up until this point my sex drive couldn’t get any higher. I had never had a partner male or female who wanted as much sex as I did. I was insatiable. One might say that I used sex to get “high,” to ease stress, to encourage creativity, and to feel more connected to myself and others. I had been told that one day I’d have to let my attachment to sex go too, just like everything else. But let me tell you I was hanging on tight to this last frontier. Little did I know the romp with Mel was my last hurrah.

My partner and I had always had a phenomenal sex life. It was never less than great, even after three years together. But my merciless dissection of my obsession with Mel launched us into an awkward period. I just didn’t care about sex anymore. Plus we were going through some relationship growing pains (due mostly to my actions in the early days of Mel), and not being able to use sex as a way to connect created a huge sense of separation.

It was incredibly strange for me to feel sexually removed. My sexuality was something I felt so identified with. I was Jessica, the girl who loves to fuck. Meditation has the side effect of tearing your identities from you piece by piece, and this one was no exception. That part of me had vanished. I could no longer use sex as a salve for whatever ailed me. It didn’t work anymore.

As you can imagine, my partner was none too fond of this development and honestly neither was I. I trusted it would shift, but who knew how long that would take? My desire and drive to be an actor took years to come back. But I knew that when my sex drive returned sex would be better than ever. That’s what happened with my creative work. When I lost my attachment to being an actor I became a better actor and started to have a lot more fun doing it. I just hoped my new and improved sex life would materialize before my partner walked out the door.

We had sex every once in awhile, but it wasn’t great or even always good. We didn’t open up the “sex cabinet” next to our bed even once. It started to get a little dark at the homestead so my partner and I decided to keep the focus on having fun and enjoying each other’s company. It was kind of like a lovingkindness meditation for our relationship. I practiced something I call the “Just Be Nice Campaign.” It’s just what it sounds like. I was just nice. When I got annoyed, scared, frustrated, felt not heard, got triggered—I was just nice. Sometimes that meant leaving the room for a moment, but no matter what, I was just nice. I focused on being the best partner I could be and took any focus off of what I thought he was doing wrong. I kept my side of the street clean. I still spoke to someone and/or wrote about my feelings, but I didn’t take problems or negativity to my partner. I also got more clarity on what was actually a problem versus me simply being reactive.

I kept using my mindfulness practice to work with the thoughts and emotions that came up about my lack of interest in sex. People can get stuck in the meaningless trap that can arise along the spiritual path. In reality the self that thinks everything is meaningless is just another self that can be deconstructed. So, I just continued to peel back the layers, keeping my eyes and heart open as I woke up to new truths. Spiritual development is neverending. There is no graduation date. As I learned to be without my nympho identity I found new ways to ease tension and connect with others. I also found I didn’t need sex to be creative.

Not having sex to fall back on also gave my partner and I the opportunity to work through some issues that had been hiding under the surface up until then. A new kind of love and trust bloomed between us, and we started laughing a lot more. We spoke openly about the lack of sex and the challenges that it brought. We don’t lose hope. We figured it could only go on that way for so long. And then one day a few months later, as quickly as it had vanished, my sex drive reappeared. And the angels of carnal joy sang Hallelujah!

When I say it came back I don’t mean that it was recognizable. My relationship to sex had been transformed. It felt fresh, clean, and fluid. It no longer gave me a fix. Without the attachment sex became more fun, more connected, and way more pleasurable. I had been grasping at the pleasure, and now I just let it run through me, unimpeded by my mind. My partner and I dove into a whole new kind of connection during sex. I felt a deeper freedom to let loose. I was no longer limited to a fixed sense of self when it came to my sexuality. I let my sexual self die in the fire of awakening and it had reemerged shining and alive.

So yes, mindfulness essentially screwed up my sex life. But then it was reconstructed into something I never imagined possible. The self that needed to have sex all the time hasn’t returned. Previously I would pass up a good night’s sleep or a social engagement for sex. Now my priorities are a little different. Life feels fuller now, less uneven. My sexuality will continue to evolve as I evolve, and I’m willing to lose it again if need be. I’m also fully willing to embrace a period of non-stop sex. Whatever it takes. Anything to keep waking up.

Complete Article HERE!

Against the cult of the pussy eaters

By Charlotte Shane

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As a thoroughly modern straight woman, I understand the political allure of demanding that a man go down on me. To insist on sexual pleasure—empowering! To tell a man to put his face in my ostensibly shameful genitals—transgressive! The vision of a woman, at long last, being the one to authoritatively order a man to get on his knees? Yeah, I see how that might look like sweet, sweet sexual parity. But after many years and a wide variety of partners, I feel more and more a part of the sorority of women who are ambivalent on receiving oral sex.*

And from all the evidence I’ve found, I’m far from alone. “Too slimy and soft/mushy,” one of my friends declared. “I hate it,” another texted me, not deigning to elaborate. “Too slobbery, too intense, too much gratitude expected,” said one commenter under an anti-pussy-eating confessional. One anti-oral crusader emailed me to complain: “Instead of learning useful hand techniques, most men smush their faces into my pussy and think I’ll be impressed with the effort.” Amen, sister. I’ve lamented the epidemic of fingering-phobia with more friends than I can count, as we wondered what should be done about the many men who’d love to use their mouths for 30 minutes but not their hands for five. And these are the same complaints echoed again and again when women write about why they’re not as enthusiastic about being eaten out as pop culture tells them they should be. One pro-head propagandist asserts it’s only done well about a third of the time. (A pretty generous estimate, in my, and others’, opinions.)

And bad oral is really, really bad. Like, not even worth the considerable risk of complete libido shut down if all does not go well. Where do I begin? There’s the exaggerated head movements. The humming. The saliva application so excessive I start worrying I’m experiencing anal leakage. Not only is it often performative and clueless—all show, no technique—but, for me anyway, stimulation that doesn’t actually feel good ruins me for stimulation that does. Under normal circumstances I might be really hot for that D, but if it’s delivered after ten minutes of bad head? Forget it.

There’s a reason for this recent proliferation of anti-oral screeds, mine included: Modern men are relentless in insisting they do it to us.

It didn’t always used to be this way. In the (very recent) bad old days, not only was women’s sexual pleasure emphatically not a priority, but the only acceptable way for her to derive any was supposed to be penis-in-vagina intercourse. But gradually, thanks to the sexual revolution and pro-clit feminism, men began to adopt a different attitude. Today, books like She Comes First are seminal sex manuals and sites like Bro Bible and Men’s Health share tips about how to better go down on a woman without making it out to be a big deal. American Pie, the movie that (ugh) defined a generation featured one man passing down the crucial skill to another, and getting him properly laid—i.e. “real” sex—as a direct result of his skill. And the rough, crying girl, Max Hardcore-lite gonzo porn of the early aughts has given way to the Kink.com trend of performers trembling through numerous orgasmic seizures, sometimes forced out of them by the infamous Hitachi magic wand.

There’s no doubt that some straight guys still deride women’s genitals as gross or dirty, and refuse to reciprocate the oral sex they inevitably receive, but we’re at the point where even hugely popular rappers brag about doing it. Straight masculinity has been reframed as establishing dominance through “giving” a woman orgasms, even if those orgasms are not—contrary to previous priorities—strictly penis-induced.

So in 2016, pussy eaters are far from rarities. There’s a good chance that by now, men who like doing it vastly outnumber those who refuse. Take the word of women who hate receiving; we pretty much have to physically fight guys off to stop them from latching onto us with their mouths. If you don’t respond positively to the basic experience of being eaten out, even competent oral is pretty icky.

But certain men aren’t willing to hear this. They often won’t listen to our clear statements that we’re not into it, because they’re going to be the special slobbery snowflakes who finally convince us how wrong we are about our own bodies. For men who appear to be in it only for their own ego—like Cosmo Frank—eating a woman out is far from proof positive of respecting her as an equal human being. It’s all about establishing how sexually accomplished and maybe even how feminist (!) they are.

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Certainly, this is an improvement from a time when the entire Western world seemed to have agreed to pretend the clitoris didn’t exist. But patriarchy and the cis-het norms inherent to it have a nasty way of reasserting themselves inside new, ostensibly progressive forms. Dan Savage’s widely embraced “GGG” (good, giving, game) mantra is today’s shorthand for being sexy, which means a wide variety of physical intimacy “within reason” should be on the table no matter what an individual’s own tastes. (Savage bestows a Get Out of Jail Free Card to partners with “fetish-too-far” requests like puke, excrement, and “extreme” bondage.)

Our current social standard for savvy young men and women is the sort of judgment-free fluidity—often called “open-mindedness”—that precludes people of all genders from expressing distaste for any sexual activity, lest they seem prudish and inexperienced. We’ve made oral sex de rigueur for progressive, or simply “standard,” sex—Dan Savage’s decree that you should dump someone who won’t do it to you, for instance, presumes universality of enjoyment.

We’ve gone so far that we’re back in a place where many women are pressured into pretending they enjoy something that doesn’t feel that good to them or else be shamed when they turn it down. It looks a lot like the same situation we were in before when vaginal, PIV-induced orgasms reigned supreme, right down to the outspokenly progressive, allegedly enlightened dudes accusing any woman resistant to a certain type of sex (oral, casual, or simply with them) as standing in the way of revolution.

If you believe the smear campaign against women who don’t like receiving oral, the reason for any distaste is elementary: The chick is just too insecure to enjoy it. Pop psychology says that if a woman doesn’t like a guy tonguing her, it’s because she’s neurotic and hates her own body. “A lot of women don’t like getting eaten out because they’re insecure about how their pussies look,” one site confidently states. “A lot of women have hangups about oral sex,” says another, which goes on enumerate these as “genital shame” and “trust issues.” One doctor’s advice column characterized a typical internal monologue as “good girls don’t have sex just for their own pleasure…”

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In other words, uptight, fretful broads can’t relax enough to enjoy this premium sex thing—which obviously always feels amazing just by virtue of it involving her junk—and so the lack of enjoyment is almost entirely on her and not her partner. This rhetoric is not progress.

Many straight women are sexually experienced, sexually voracious, self-assured people who know what they like in bed. Some of them know that they don’t like laying back and taking a licking. Yet there’s a micro-industry that equates self-confidence with enjoying oral, while tacitly admitting that enjoying it may not be the norm. Articles purporting to help women learn to love being eaten out often suggest recipients are self-conscious of how long it takes them to come, worried that the man administering the oh-so-progressive mouth love is getting bored.

Folks, we aren’t worried about the guy. We know he’s loving it. We’re the ones who are bored. Because in spite of all the hype, some sex educators have found that only about 14% of women report that receiving oral sex is the easiest way for them to get off. And if we do take a long time to come (whatever that means, by whoever’s arbitrary standards) it’s likely because the stimulation isn’t that successful. Women’s orgasms don’t take any longer than men’s—if they’re masturbating. Look it up.

Ultimately, the reason why some women don’t like oral sex is irrelevant. So what if someone is too self-conscious to enjoy it? She should endure an unspecified number of uncomfortable and unsexy sessions in the hope of forcefully changing her own mind? Since when does it show more confidence to allow a man to do whatever he want to your body than it does to speak up about what you actually enjoy? Or to suffer through something sexually unsatisfying to prove some larger point?

And for the record, the number one impediment to men being any good at crooning to the conch is their conviction that showing up is the only effort required. Going down on a woman is like any skill; it takes intelligence, attention, and practice. Putting your face in the general vicinity of someone else’s genitals is simply not sufficient. Combine baseless, wrongful self-congratulation with the already inflated yet desperate male ego, and it’s a recipe for very bad sex indeed. If you’re a guy reading this, and you’re feeling exasperated, please don’t. There’s a very simple rule: Be as effusive about going down on a girl as you want to be, but don’t let your own excitement for it manifest as ignoring her disinterest.

The big secret about eating pussy is that it’s really fun to do. As someone who has tongue-tickled the pearly boat—people call it that, right?—on more than one occasion, I can report that it’s extremely sexy. No man, and dare I say no human, deserves a gold star just because they’re willing to put lips to labia. Such a notion is just another part of the patriarchal conspiracy to keep women’s sexual standards low.

So go forth with your hatred of being dined upon, my fellow harlots. A sexual revolution that requires we endure head when we don’t want it is a revolution that comes at too high a price.

*This article primarily addresses het sex because the vast amount of pro-head propaganda out there presumes the women it addresses are straight, and I’ve not come across forums of queer women speculating that their female partners aren’t wild about being eaten out because they hate their bodies. But if you’re a queer woman pressuring your partner to submit to oral sex when you know they don’t like it, you should feel bad, too!

Complete Article HERE!

In Defense of My Small Penis

By Ant Smith

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A study released this week informs us that the average penis size worldwide is 5.2 inches long when erect. According to the BJUI, the urology journal, which published the findings, this should help to “reassure the large majority of men that the size of their penis is in the normal range.”

I’m sure it does, but that doesn’t mean these results are all good news: My life does not change one bit waking up to find that, today, I am only 1.2 inches below average, as opposed to the whopping 1.8 inch discrepancy of yesterday.

I suppose this whole exercise of laboriously measuring 15,521 penises—both flaccid and hard—demonstrates that, as a society, we do still possess the ability to obsess about size. ( I’m open to that accusation myself.) So, whatever else is said, I’m happy that we’re all talking about penis size in an open, honest, nonjudgmental, serious way. Which we all are, right?

And yes, another positive factor—helpfully pointed out by the folk at BJUI—is that those worried about their average-sized dick being small no longer have cause to worry. Because, at five inches, it’s not small; it’s average. From now on, when someone tells you that your average dick is small, it’s abundantly clear that the problem is in their perception, not your equipment.

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However, I’m unconvinced that second point holds up. For the man with penis size anxiety is a man who takes an enormous amount of convincing. Every time he hears a kindly lady state, “That’s not small,” he gives a blank stare and thinks, Thank you. I wish that were true.’

A penis can’t be measured by inches on a stick—a penis is as small as a man’s confidence betrays it to be, or else as small as the imagination of the partner he is with. We see new research emerging regularly, seemingly always driving down the international standard of “acceptable dick.” But this has never helped—and will never help—a single soul.

At the same time, we find ourselves confronted with language like “average” and “the normal range.” This implies that the rest of us are in the abnormal range, a polarization that doesn’t serve anyone very well. A polarization, in fact, that immediately draws my mind to a solemn story of penis size anxiety leading to teenage suicide. Size is not a mark on a ruler; it really is a state of mind.

There is no doubt in my mind that you know a man of around my stature, or less. Think for a moment who it could be. Your dad? Your brother? Your roommate? Wouldn’t you be angry to see someone point a finger at their penis and shriek, telling them, “Ew, you’re abnormal!” Draw upon the strength of your familial and social bonds and recognize this thinking as the trouble that it is.

When a man suffers size anxiety there is only one solution. Enlargement methods (pills, devices, surgeries) will never yield a result that ends in happiness—though bankruptcy, anguish, and physical deformation are definitely in the cards, if that sounds like your vibe. Likewise, comparison to others will never ease a troubled mind; you’ll go mad questioning the veracity of the data or the quality of the interpretations.

The only answer is to accept who you are.

While these surveys may seem to be devised to help that, they simply do not. Nobody quite believes them. At the rate they crop up, saying different things each time, they don’t even seem to believe themselves. They polarize society into those who are normal, and those who are abnormal. Even if they don’t quite encourage an obsession with size, they certainly endorse the idea that size is a necessary concern.

“But I have to feel something,” a lady recently said to me in an interview on the topic. And I quite agree. But I believe technique and imagination can excite a greater response from a greater expanse of flesh than any dick, of any size, could ever hope to.

Complete Article HERE!

The Toxic Attraction Between An Empath And A Narcissist

by

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We know that “narcissist” has become a bit of a buzzword recently, and some folks are quick to apply it to an ex-lover or family member or friend. While awareness of this concept is healthy, so is remembering that it is, in a mental health context, a serious condition that shouldn’t be applied to someone you’re mad at because they stole your mirror. ~ Eds. 

I am an empath. I discovered I was an empath after I got involved in a very deep and highly destructive relationship with a narcissist.

I am writing this article from the perspective of an empath, however, would love to read the view from the opposite side if there are any narcissists that would like to offer their perception on this.

Through writing about the empath personality type I have connected with many other people who class themselves as an empath and time and again I have heard people tell me how they have also attracted relationships with narcissists. There is a link. So, I decided to explore it further.

This is my theory…

From my own experience and studies on the narcissist personality type, there is always one core trait: A narcissist is wounded.

Something, somewhere along the line, usually stemming from childhood causes a person to feel worthless and unvalued and, due to this, they will constantly and very desperately seek validation.

Here comes the empath, the healer. An empath has the ability to sense and absorb other people’s pain and often takes it on as though it were their own. If an empath is not consciously aware of boundaries and does not understand how to protect themselves, they will very easily and very quickly bond with the narcissist in order to try to fix and repair any damage and attempt to eradicate all their pain.

What the empath fails to realise is that the narcissist is a taker. An energy sucker, a vampire so to speak. They will draw the life and soul out of anyone they come into contact with, given the chance. This is so that they can build up their own reserves and, in doing so, they can use the imbalance to their advantage.

This dynamic will confuse and debilitate an empath, as if they do not have a full understanding of their own or other people’s capabilities, they will fail to see that not everyone is like them. An empath will always put themselves into other people’s shoes and experience the feelings, thoughts and emotions of others, while forgetting that other people may have an agenda very different to their own and that not everyone is sincere.

The narcissist’s agenda is one of manipulation, it is imperative they are in a position whereby they can rise above others and be in control. The empath’s agenda is to love, heal and care. There is no balance and it is extremely unlikely there ever will be one. The more love and care an empath offers, the more powerful and in control a narcissist will become.

The more powerful the narcissist becomes, the more likely the empath will retreat into a victim status. Then, there is a very big change—the empath will take on narcissistic traits as they too become wounded and are constantly triggered by the damage being in the company with a narcissist creates. Before long, an extremely vicious circle has begun to swirl.

When a narcissist sees that an empath is wounded they will play on this and the main intention will be to keep the empath down. The lower down an empath becomes, the higher a narcissist will feel. An empath will begin to frantically seek love, validation, confirmation and acceptance from a narcissist and each cry for help as such will affirm to the narcissist what they are desperate to feel inside—worthy. A bitter battle can ensue.

As an empath focuses solely on their pain, trauma and the destruction of their lives, they become self-obsessed and fail to see where the damage is coming from. Instead of looking outwards and seeing what is causing it, the empath will turn everything inward and blame themselves.

An empath at this stage must realise the situation they are in and wake up to it, as anyone who is deeply in pain and has been hurt can then become a narcissist themselves as they turn their focus onto their own pain and look for others to make them feel okay again.

Any attempt to communicate authentically with the narcissist will be futile as they will certainly not be looking to soothe and heal anyone else. Not only this, they are extremely charismatic and manipulative and have a powerful way of turning everything away from themselves and onto others. A narcissist will blame their own pain on an empath, plus they will also make sure the empath feels responsible for the pain they too are suffering.

An empath will know that they are in a destructive relationship by this stage and will feel so insecure, unloved and unworthy and it can be easy to blame all of their destruction onto the narcissist.

However, an empath should not be looking to blame anyone else. An empath has a choice, to remain the victim, a pawn in the narcissists game or to garner all strength they can muster and find a way out.

Emotionally exhausted, lost, depleted and debilitated an empath will struggle to understand what has happened to the once loving, attentive and charismatic person they were attracted to.

However we allow ourselves to be treated is a result of our own choices. If an empath chooses to stay in a relationship with a narcissist and refuses to take responsibility for the dynamic, they are choosing at some level what they believe they are worth on the inside. An empath cannot let their self-worth be determined by a narcissist. It is imperative they trust and believe in themselves enough to recognise that they are not deserving of the words and actions the narcissist delivers and to look for an escape.

In an empath’s eyes, all they searched and looked for was someone to take care of and love and to ultimately fix.” That is where the trouble began and that is the most profound part of this that an empath must realise.

We are not here to fix anyone. We cannot fix anyone. Everyone is responsible for and capable of fixing themselves, but only if they so choose to.

The more an empath can learn about the personality of a narcissist the sooner they will spot one and the less chance they have of developing a relationship with one. If a relationship is already underway, it is never too late to seek help, seek understanding and knowledge and to dig deep into one’s soul and recognise our own strengths and capabilities and do everything we can to build the courage and confidence to see it for what it is and walk away—for good.

The chance of a narcissist changing is highly unlikely, so we shouldn’t stick around waiting for it to happen. If a narcissist wants to change, then great, but it should never happen at the expense of anyone else. They are not consciously aware of their behaviour and the damage it causes and in their game they will sacrifice anyone and anything for their own gain—regardless of what pretty lies and sweet nothings they try to whisper.

An empath is authentic and is desperate to live true to their soul’s purpose and will very likely find the whole relationship a huge lesson, a dodged bullet and painfully awakening.

A narcissist will struggle to have any connection to their authentic self and will likely walk away from the relationship very easily once they realise they have lost their ability to control the empath. The game is no longer pleasurable if they are not having their ego constantly stroked, so they will seek out their next victim.

The ability for these two types to bond is quite simply impossible. The narcissist’s heart is closed, an empath’s is open—it is nothing short of a recipe for a huge disaster, and not a beautiful one.

Complete Article HERE!

Scents and Sensibility

“Sexual chemistry” is more than just a way of talking about heated attraction. Subtle chemical keys actually help determine who we fall for. But here comes news that our lifestyles may unwittingly undermine our natural sex appeal.

By Elizabeth Svoboda

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Psychologists Rachel Herz and Estelle Campenni were just getting to know each other, swapping stories about their lives over coffee, when Campenni confided something unexpected: She was living proof, she said, of love at first smell. “I knew I would marry my husband the minute I smelled him,” she told Herz. “I’ve always been into smell, but this was different; he really smelled good to me. His scent made me feel safe and at the same time turned on—and I’m talking about his real body smell, not cologne or soap. I’d never felt like that from a man’s smell before. We’ve been married for eight years now and have three kids, and his smell is always very sexy to me.”

Everyone knows what it’s like to be powerfully affected by a partner’s smell—witness men who bury their noses in their wives’ hair and women who can’t stop sniffing their boyfriends’ T-shirts. And couples have long testified to the ways scent-based chemistry affects their relationships. “One of the most common things women tell marriage counselors is, ‘I can’t stand his smell,'” says Herz, the author of The Scent of Desire.

Sexual attraction remains one of life’s biggest mysteries. We might say we go for partners who are tall and thin, love to cook, or have a mania for exercise, but when push comes to shove, studies show, the people we actually end up with possess few of the traits we claim to want. Some researchers think scent could be the hidden cosmological constant in the sexual universe, the missing factor that explains who we end up with. It may even explain why we feel “chemistry”—or “sparks” or “electricity”—with one person and not with another.nice boobs

Physical attraction itself may literally be based on smell. We discount the importance of scent-centric communication only because it operates on such a subtle level. “This is not something that jumps out at you, like smelling a good steak cooking on the grill,” says Randy Thornhill, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico. “But the scent capability is there, and it’s not surprising to find smell capacity in the context of sexual behavior.” As a result, we may find ourselves drawn to the counter attendant at the local drugstore, but have no idea why—or, conversely, find ourselves put off by potential dating partners even though they seem perfect on paper.

Though we may remain partially oblivious to scent signals we’re sending and receiving, new research suggests that we not only come equipped to choose a romantic partner who smells good to us, but that this choice has profound biological implications. As we act out the complex rituals of courtship, many of them inscribed deep in our brain, scent-based cues help us zero in on optimal partners—the ones most likely to stay faithful to us and to create healthy children with us.

At first blush, the idea of scent-based attraction might seem hypothetical and ephemeral, but when we unknowingly interfere with the transmission of subtle olfactory messages operating below the level of conscious awareness, the results can be both concrete and devastating. When we disregard what our noses tell us, we can find ourselves mired in partnerships that breed sexual discontent, infertility, and even—in extreme cases—unhealthy offspring.

The Scent of Desire

When you’re turned on by your partner’s scent, taking a deep whiff of his chest or the back of her neck feels like taking a powerful drug—it’s an instant flume ride to bliss, however momentary. Research has shown that we use scent-based signaling mechanisms to suss out compatibility. Claus Wedekind, a biologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, created Exhibit A of this evidence by giving 44 men new T-shirts and instructing them to wear the shirts for two straight nights. To ensure that the sweat collecting on the shirts would remain “odor-neutral,” he supplied the men with scent-free soap and aftershave.

hair pullAfter the men were allowed to change, 49 women sniffed the shirts and specified which odors they found most attractive. Far more often than chance would predict, the women preferred the smell of T-shirts worn by men who were immunologically dissimilar to them. The difference lay in the sequence of more than 100 immune system genes known as the MHC, or major histocompatibility complex. These genes code for proteins that help the immune system recognize pathogens. The smell of their favorite shirts also reminded the women of their past and current boyfriends, suggesting that MHC does indeed influence women’s dating decisions in real life.

Women’s preference for MHC-distinct mates makes perfect sense from a biological point of view. Ever since ancestral times, partners whose immune systems are different have produced offspring who are more disease-resistant. With more immune genes expressed, kids are buffered against a wider variety of pathogens and toxins.

But that doesn’t mean women prefer men whose MHC genes are most different from theirs, as University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Martha McClintock found when she performed a T-shirt study similar to Wedekind’s. Women are not attracted to the smell of men with whom they had no MHC genes in common. “This might be a case where you’re protecting yourself against a mate who’s too similar or too dissimilar, but there’s a middle range where you’re OK,” McClintock says.

Women consistently outperform men in smell sensitivity tests, and they also make greater time and energy sacrifices on their children’s behalf than men do—in addition to bearing offspring, they look after them most of the time. These factors may explain why women are more discriminating in sniffing out MHC compatibility.

Men are sensitive to smell as well, but because women shoulder a greater reproductive burden, and are therefore choosier about potential mates, researchers are not surprised to find that women are also more discriminating in sniffing out MHC compatibility.

Unlike, say, blood types, MHC gene complements differ so much from one person to the next that there’s no obvious way to reliably predict who’s MHC-compatible with whom. Skin color, for instance, isn’t much help, since groups of people living in different areas of the world might happen to evolve genetic resistance to some of the same germs. “People of different ethnicities can have similar profiles, so race is not a good predictor of MHC dissimilarity,” Thornhill says.

And because people’s MHC profiles are as distinct as fingerprints—there are thousands of possible gene combinations—a potential sex partner who smells good to one woman may completely repel another. “There’s no Brad Pitt of smell,” Herz says. “Body odor is an external manifestation of the immune system, and the smells we think are attractive come from the people who are most genetically compatible with us.” Much of what we vaguely call “sexual chemistry,” she adds, is likely a direct result of this scent-based compatibility.our what?

Typically, our noses steer us in the right direction when it comes to picking a reproductively compatible partner. But what if they fail us and we wind up with a mate whose MHC profile is too similar to our own? Carol Ober, a geneticist at the University of Chicago, explored this question in her studies of members of the Hutterite religious clan, an Amish-like closed society that consists of some 40,000 members and extends through the rural Midwest. Hutterites marry only other members of their clan, so the variety in their gene pool is relatively low. Within these imposed limits, Hutterite women nevertheless manage to find partners who are MHC-distinct from them most of the time.

The few couples with a high degree of MHC similarity, however, suffered higher rates of miscarriage and experienced longer intervals between pregnancies, indicating more difficulty conceiving. Some scientists speculate that miscarriages may be the body’s way of curtailing investment in a child who isn’t likely to have a strong immune system anyway.

What’s more, among heterosexual couples, similar MHC profiles spell relational difficulty, Christine Garver-Apgar, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico, has found. “As the proportion of MHC alleles increased, women’s sexual responsiveness to their partners decreased, and their number of sex partners outside the relationship increased,” Garver-Apgar reports. The number of MHC genes couples shared corresponded directly with the likelihood that they would cheat on one another; if a man and woman had 50 percent of their MHC alleles in common, the woman had a 50 percent chance of sleeping with another man behind her partner’s back.

The Divorce Pill?

Women generally prefer the smell of men whose MHC gene complements are different from theirs, setting the stage for the best biological match. But Wedekind’s T-shirt study revealed one notable exception to this rule: women on the birth-control pill. When the pill users among his subjects sniffed the array of pre-worn T-shirts, they preferred the scent of men whose MHC profiles were similar to theirs—the opposite of their pill-free counterparts.

This dramatic reversal of smell preferences may reflect the pill’s mechanism of action: It prevents the ovaries from releasing an egg, fooling the body into thinking it’s pregnant. And since pregnancy is such a vulnerable state, it seems to activate a preference for kin, who are genetically similar to us and likely to serve as protectors. “When pregnant rodent females are exposed to strange males, they can spontaneously abort,” Herz says. “The same may be true for human females.” What’s more, some women report a deficit in sex drive when they take the pill, a possible consequence of its pregnancy-mimicking function.

The tendency to favor mates with similar MHC genes could potentially hamper the durability of pill users’ relationships in the long term. While Herz shies away from dubbing hormonal birth control “the divorce pill,” as a few media outlets have done in response to her theories, she does think the pill jumbles women’s smell preferences. “It’s like picking your cousins as marriage partners,” Herz says. “It constitutes a biological error.” As a result, explains Charles Wysocki, a psychobiologist at Florida State University, when such a couple decides to have children and the woman stops taking birth control, she may find herself less attracted to her mate for reasons she doesn’t quite understand. “On a subconscious level, her brain is realizing a mistake was made—she married the wrong guy,” he says.

“Some couples’ fertility problems may be related to the pill-induced flip-flop in MHC preferences,” Garver-Apgar adds. No one has yet collected data to indicate whether the pill has created a large-scale problem in compatibility. Still, Herz recommends that women seeking a long-term partner consider alternative birth control methods, at least until they get to know their potential significant other well and are sure they like the way he smells. “If you’re looking for a man to be the father of your child,” she says, “go off the pill before you start your search.”

If you were on the pill when you met your current partner, the situation is more complicated. Once a relationship has progressed to long-term commitment, says Herz, a woman’s perception of her partner’s smell is so intertwined with her emotional reaction to him that it could be difficult for her to assess his scent as if he were a stranger. “If she’s in love, he could smell like a garbage can and she’d still be attracted to him.”

Crossed Signals

The pill subverts a woman’s ability to sniff out a compatible mate by causing her to misinterpret the scent messages she receives. But it may warp olfactory communication channels in the other direction as well, distorting the signals she sends—and making her seem less appealing to men, an irony given that women typically take the pill to boost their appeal in a partner’s eyes.

Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico and author of The Mating Mind, noticed the pill’s connection to waning male desire while studying a group of exotic dancers—women whose livelihoods depend on how sexually appealing they are to male customers. Non-pill-using dancers made about 50 percent more in tips than dancers on oral contraceptives. In other words, women who were on the pill were only about two-thirds as sexy as women who weren’t.

Why were the pill-takers in the study so much less attractive to men? “Women are probably doing something unconsciously, and men are responding to it unconsciously,” says Miller. “We just don’t know whether it has to do with a shift in their psychology, their tone of voice, or if it’s more physical, as in the kind of pheromones they’re putting out.”

The biggest earners in Miller’s study were non-pill-using dancers at the time of ovulation. Other studies have shown that men rate women as smelling best when they are at the most fertile point of their menstrual cycles, suggesting that women give off scent-based signals that broadcast their level of fecundity. “The pill might be producing cues that a woman is in the early stage of pregnancy, which would not tend to elicit a lot of male sexual interest,” Miller says. “It makes sense for men to be sensitive to that and for them not to feel the same chemistry with the woman.”

Drowning in Fragrance

The pill isn’t the only way we might confound sexual chemistry. Every day, far more people may be subverting their quest for love with soap and bottled fragrances. In ancestral times, smelling ripe was just a fact of life, absent hot showers and shampoo. This held true well into the 19th century, when the miasma of body odor in Parisian streets grew so thick that it was dubbed “The Great Stink of 1880.” Back when a person’s scent could waft across a room, a mere handshake could provide valuable information about attraction.

Since the 20th-century hygiene revolution and the rise of the personal-care industry, however, companies have pitched deodorants, perfumes, and colognes to consumers as the epitome of sex appeal. But instead of furthering our quest to find the perfect mate, such products may actually derail it, say researchers, by masking our true scent and making it difficult for prospects to assess compatibility. “Humans abuse body smell signals by hiding them, masking them, putting on deodorant,” says Devendra Singh, a psychologist at the University of Texas. “The noise-to-signal ratio was much better in primitive society.”

Miller argues that modern hygiene may be such an impediment to sexual signaling that it could explain why so many people in our culture get so physical so fast. “Hunter-gatherers didn’t have to do a lot of kissing, because they could smell each other pretty clearly from a few feet away,” Miller says. “With all the showering, scents, and soap, we have to get our noses and mouths really up close to people to get a good idea of their biochemistry. People are more motivated to do a lot more kissing and petting, to do that assessment before they have sex.” In other words, the need to smell our mates—and the comparative difficulty of doing so in today’s environment of perfumes and colognes—may actually be driving the sexual disinhibition of modern society.

Scents and SensibilityOther scientists counter that odor detection is a bit subtler. For one thing, it’s possible we select store-bought scents to complement our natural odorprints, rather than mask them entirely: One study found that people with similar MHC profiles tend to go for the same colognes. And Garver-Apgar points out that in spending hours together each day, partners have ample opportunity to experience each other sans artificial scents. “Once you’re in a close enough relationship,” she says, “you’re going to get a real whiff at some point.”

Scents and Sensibility

There’s no way to know whether couples who shell out thousands of dollars to fertility clinics—and those who struggle to make a relationship work because “the chemistry just isn’t there”—suffer MHC incompatibility. We might never know, since a multitude of factors contributes to every reproductive and romantic outcome. But we can, at least, be cognizant of the importance of natural scent.

“Scent can be a deal breaker if it’s not right, just like someone being too stupid or unkind or short,” says Miller. Nevertheless, smell isn’t the be-all and end-all of attraction, but one of a constellation of important factors. Armed with knowledge of how scent-based attraction operates, we have some power to decide how much priority we want to accord it. Is it more important to be with the partner who smells amazing and with whom you have great chemistry, or with the one who may not attract you quite as much on a physical level but is honest and reliable?

“People tend to treat this as an either-or situation: Either we’re completely driven by pheromones, like moths, or we’re completely in charge of our own destiny,” University of Chicago psychologist McClintock says. “But it’s not a wild idea that both factors are involved.” While people like Estelle Campenni have reaped untold benefits by trusting their scent impressions, it’s ultimately up to us how highly we value what our noses tell us.—Elizabeth Svoboda

Follow Your Nose

How to put your nose to work in choosing a partner—or evaluating an existing one.

Think twice about opting for the pill if you’re seeking a long-term partner. The first few weeks of a relationship are critical to assessing compatibility, so make sure your nose is up to the task.

Try a fragrance-free week. Eliminate factors that could throw your nostrils off. Have your partner set aside scented shower gels in favor of fragrance-free soap, nix the cologne, and use only unscented deodorant.

Keep smell’s importance in context. If you sometimes find your partner’s scent off-putting, don’t panic; it doesn’t necessarily mean fertility issues are in your future. Connections between MHC compatibility and conception problems have yet to be confirmed in large-scale population studies, so don’t plunk down big bucks for MHC testing at this point.

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