This page is intended to discuss how addiction has impacted our relationships with our spouses, focussing mainly on the bedroom. Sex is not often spoken about by Imams and Islamic teachers. Muslims often shy away from this subject. Sex is a part of our lives as married Muslims and as we enter into recovery from addiction this is a very important matter to discuss. Before we go any further, let us take a look at the science behind sex, what happens in the brain and how the body responds, in order that we might reflect on why this is such an important aspect of our lives – especially when in recovery from addiction.
It’s all about chemistry
From the first point of thought – not always conscious – a chemical reaction is taking place. Men and women produce these chemicals differently, each partner having a different yet unifying experience as those chemicals play unique roles in preparing the person, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually for this unity. Not only do the chemicals ready the body for the act of sex but those chemicals that are produced thereafter have a cementing effect on these two souls coming together and staying together. The main players are dopamine, the reward hormone; prolactin, the hormone of satiation; oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’, and levels of androgen receptors, which all powerfully affect our mood, our desire for intimacy, the way we feel about our spouse, stress and anxiety levels as well as our susceptibility to addictive activities and substances. These hormones play very different roles, yet are also interlinked to one main role – the desire to keep having sex! Let us look at how they all work:
DOPAMINE: Dopamine is the hormone responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. Its the feel good hormone that the brain releases during times of pleasure. It is the neurotransmitter produced when we take drugs. That is what can potentially make sex so addictive. Just as we might continue to crave drugs or engage in gambling, we can also crave the feeling that dopamine gives us through acts of sexual pleasure. It is the neurotransmitter that tells us that a reward is imminent. The body will respond to the expectation that the reward will arrive soon, in this case an orgasm. This expectation of reward is what causes the person to crave sex, to seek it out or to turn to impermissible means in order to relieve oneself of that urge. In marriage, this reward expectation can sometimes be triggered through the use of certain words, expressions on ones face, or generally through the flirtations of each spouse towards the other as well as visual triggers. Once the hope of this reward has been triggered, dopamine continues to secrete and the sexual urges become stronger. During sexual activity dopamine levels steadily increase until the ultimate release of the highest ‘explosion’ of dopamine during orgasm – the reward.
After orgasm dopamine levels fall sharply and can cause withdrawal symptoms similar to that of one craving their drug of choice. This reaction tends to be immediate in males and delayed in females. As dopamine levels fall the brain begins to counteract the withdrawal symptoms, including a drop in feelings of pleasure and contentment, by producing a different chemical that helps bond the couple together, oxytocin. We shall come back to this shortly.
The male hormone responsibly for sexual urges and desires as well as strength, bravery and the ability to fight and be aggressive. Build up of testosterone can cause the male to feel greater urge to have sex. Once he has achieved that goal and reached orgasm, the levels of testosterone dramatically drop. Low testosterone is associated with irritability and anger.
With a drop in both dopamine and testosterone levels following sex is it any wonder that some men in recovery have claimed that they often crave their drug of choice following sexual activity. This is an important factor to think about when in recovery from addiction.
Substances and other addictions can lead to the damage of the part of the brain responsible for producing dopamine. Levels can remain low for many months as the brain takes time to repair the damage caused by addiction. This often means recovering addicts can take a while to begin to enjoy the activities they used to do prior to their drug use. With lower domapine levels it may mean that the sex drive is lower or less enjoyment is experienced in the bedroom with their partner. This can lead to feelings of frustration and also cause problems with emotionally connecting as the partner may sense that they are not really interested or enjoying this moment together. This can leave recovering addicts vulnerable to going back to their addiction. The best advise is to have patience and realise that this is one of the consequences of ones addiction. Considering the damage that has been caused is something that ought to incite relapse prevention.
How often have you heard things like “men think with their penis”? Well it is true that in many cases once a man becomes aroused he can find it difficult to control his actions. Testosterone has men doing things they don’t even know they’re doing, like getting erections. According to Louann Brizendine in The Male Brain, “These reflexive erections are different from true sexual arousal because they come from unconscious signals from his spinal cord and brain, not from a conscious desire to have sex. The testosterone receptors that live on the nerve cells in a man’s spinal cord, testicles, penis, and brain are what activate his entire sexual network. Women are surprised that the penis can operate on autopilot and even more surprised that men don’t always know when they’re getting an erection.”
Also known as ‘the cuddle hormone’ Oxytocin helps to counteract what would feel like a downward decline of emotions what with the sudden decline of both testosterone and dopamine. What goes up must come down and preventing a painful crash, oxytocin is what brings you down to that warm, fuzzy, post-coital place and makes the couple feel loving towards each other. Oxytocin also counteracts fear, which is associated with high cortisol levels and stress, which is why sex can be a great sex-buster too.
Oxytocin leads to strong pair-bonding and is the same hormone that is released during breastfeeding to help bring a connection between mother and baby. Similarly that post-sex feeling of closeness is brought about my oxytocin and helps couples feel more emotionally close and trusting of each other, something that we often need to build in when in recovery. Oxytocin is also a pain-relieving chemical, hence also why we feel that warm feeling that some of our drug of choices can offer (without the nasty withdrawal).
Serotonin is often nick-named the happy hormone and is released during sex. This hormone is responsible for lifting our mood and making us feel good.
So all these chemicals combined have the capacity to help us feel happier, closer to our partners, relieve pain, life mood and avoid depression, feel pleasure and bond to our spouse. This all has a very relaxing effect on the person too. The part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex winds down after ejaculation. This, along with the release of oxytocin and serotonin, causes an overall feeling of relaxation, and in men especially, a feeling of sleepiness and reduction in worry about the here and now day to day life struggles.
So as you can see, Allah has created us in such a way that sex can produce a chemical experience. It is Allah’s way of providing us a space to almost lose ourselves, momentarily, with our spouse. During sex, we forget all our problems, we receive pleasure as well as take pleasure from giving pleasure. This is something Allah has given us to reach a state of consciousness that is out of the ordinary – something we as addicts we are constantly seeking. So in the right way, sex can provide us with this escapism we are seeking. With all these chemical changes happening, no wonder sex can be addictive for some. As Muslims, we live in balance, without taking anything to the extreme and when it comes to making love, it must stay within the limits and boundaries of Islam.
Sex is a spiritual thing
As Muslims we believe all acts that are permissible are acts of worship. When we make love to our spouses we do so with the intention that this is pleasing to God. One day the Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, informed his companions that they would be rewarded when making love to their wives. One of the companions asked him “Oh Messenger of Allah! A person would be rewarded while satisfying his sexual need? Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) replied: Yes. Isn’t it that he would be punished had he practiced sex illegally? The same applies if a Muslim practiced a lawful intercourse with his spouse. As such, he would be rewarded” (Ahmad)
Studies have shown that sex has similar effects on the brain as do acts of worship such as prayer and meditation. In particular aJefferson University neuroscientist Andrew Newberg scanned the brains of praying Catholic nuns and meditating Buddhist monks and found some overlap between their neural activity and that of sexually aroused subjects (as seen in scans from other researchers). “The correlation makes sense, according to Newberg. Just as sex involves a rhythmic activity so do religious practices such as chanting, dancing and repetition of a mantra. Religious experiences produce sensations of bliss, transcendence beyond one’s self and unity with the loved one that is very like the ecstasy of orgasm. That may be why some mystics, such as St. Teresa, describe their rapture with romantic or even sexual language.”
Therefore, as we do our best to steer clear of substances or behaviours that we were addicted to, forming a healthy sexual relationship with our spouses can help to achieve this spiritual state, physical pleasure, togetherness and bonding, belonging and sensuality. All those things we would crave through drink, drugs or gambling. The difference being that there are no negative consequences to the escapism sought through two consenting spouses in love-making.
Cocaine: Although cocaine has a reputation as an aphrodisiac, end up having the reverse effect. It increases sexual desire while impairing or delaying orgasm. However, a symptom of heavy cocaine abuse is a massive decline in sex drive and activity. Chronic cocaine use can impair sexual function in men and women. In men, cocaine can cause delayed or impaired ejaculation.
Marijuana: Overall, scientific research seems to discredit the drug’s ability to heighten sexual stimulation and arousal. Marijuana may distort users’ sense of time, thus, creating the illusion of prolonged arousal and orgasm. Marijuana usually transcends each partner into his or her own personal space, therefore, emotionally distancing partners instead of bringing them closer.
Heroin/opioids: Generally opiate users lose interest in sex and find it difficult to engage in sexual activity. It can also have a detrimental affect on the reproductive organs for both male and females meaning it can be difficult to conceive. Opiates stop the hormone testosterone from being released, hence causing secondary psychological problems such as lack of motivation and can lead to low mood and depression.
Drugs do over time damage the parts of the brain responsibly for producing all the hormones we have discussed above, which can not only take the enjoyment away from sex but can reduce libido so that a person can lose interest in sex all together. This can then cause more difficulties in the marriage as well as lead to other psychological problems such as depression and anxiety and perpetuate a cycle of issues that further break down the relationship with one self and each other. The good news is, with abstinence, the brain does often repair itself and the neurotransmitters can begin to be produced again naturally as they did before drug use began.
How to improve sexual relationships in recovery
First, we need to remember that our drug use and behaviour has been the cause of a break down in our marriage and our partner may not be ready to resume things with us in the bedroom. A healthy marriage is built upon trust and love. Where trust has been questionable one partner may lose the desire to fully let themselves become available sexually. In our recovery, it is important to understand that we have hurt our spouse and that we need to make amends with them on an emotional level and begin to rebuild trust and accept that this might take more time than we anticipated.
Husbands need to understand that there is one particular saying of the Prophet Muhammad that is often misused in order to try and coerce their wife into making love with them. Abu Hurayrah (may Allaah be pleased with him) said: “The Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: ‘If a man calls his wife to his bed and she refuses, and he spends the night angry with her, the angels will curse her until morning.’” (Reported by al-Bukhaari, 4794). The understanding of this hadith is that this relates to a woman who refuses her husband for no good reason other than to upset him. This does not relate to a woman who has good reason, even if it is that she is not emotionally available to him to be able to engage in this. Husbands will do well to also remember the saying of the Prophet, pbuh, who also said;
“When you approach your wife, do not come to her like the animals do, but send a messenger before you. The companions asked, “And who should be this messenger?” The Prophet (SAW) answered, “A kiss, a caress, some kind words.”
Recovery, is about changing the dynamics of our relationships, especially with those closest to us. Our spouse is most deserved of our kind words and sensitivity and we must put effort into rebuilding our relationship with them. Allah describes the spouses as supporters to each other and in such a beautiful way as calling the spouse our garment.
“Your wives are a garment for you, and you are a garment for them.” (2:187)
This means we protect each other, comfort one another and be as close as we can be to each other just like our clothes touch our skin. When Adam was in Paradise, he had all that his heart could desire but without Eve, he felt something was missing. He felt a sadness within him that was only cured when Allah gave him Eve.
“It is He who created you from a single soul, And made its mate of like nature in order that you might dwell with her in love….” (7:189)
Recovery, is all about balance in all things. As addicts, we can often have the urge to do even the halal things in excessiveness. It is important that we begin to take enjoyment from the natural ways to induce happiness in a way that is not out of balance. We must seek refuge in Allah from turning to the forbidden ways of relieving our urges. Allah has given us the opportunity to have this halal chemical change that is naturally good for us. As addicts, we must not abuse this nor our spouse and also be aware of how drugs effect our brains in more ways than we like to realise. Thinking of how they damage our sexuality and reflecting on this can motivate us to prevent relapse. Drugs will never give us that sense of contentment and pure happiness that lying in the arms of your spouse, loving you and you loving them, can give you on an emotional, physical and spiritual high.
By Lynne Ali-Northcott (Addiction Counsellor)