Dear Loving Milk Maid,
In April my husband and I decided to start an ANR, and it was the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened in our marriage. He seemed to love it, too, but, then, about two weeks ago, things changed. He stopped nursing. I’ve asked him why and suggested that he suckle, but when I do, he becomes distant and says he’s too busy, or maybe some other time. I’m so depressed. Things feel so different now, and we’re starting to fight more, mostly, I think, because he won’t talk to me about this. I guess he has ended our ANR and doesn’t want to tell me. I’ve really never felt this way before. Could I be going through nursing withdrawal? What can I do?
Withdrawal is a word that often makes us feel uncomfortable because it is commonly linked to addiction, and is the act of removing something (that we typically find pleasurable) from our lives. While it’s difficult to openly discuss, withdrawal is a very real possibility within the adult nursing relationship, and this is typically caused when the relationship is suddenly ended.
Because oxytocin, along with endorphins and the “power chemical” dopamine, is released in large amounts when we become intimately bonded with another person through various forms of physical contact, engaging the reward circuit in our brain, it is very natural to experience an emotional high when we nurse, particularly if we’re nursing a lot (as we frequently do when we enter that new “honeymoon phase” of ANR). We enjoy those feel-good sensations of peacefulness, relaxation, comfort, and trust that arise when we connect intimately with our partners. When distance is placed between the nursing couple, or the relationship abruptly stops, we can experience very real withdrawal symptoms attributed to our body’s sympathetic nervous system and three major hormones released by the adrenal glands that are often described as feelings of loneliness, sadness, depression, anxiety, and confusion. This happens because our bodies begin to release the stress hormone cortisol, which is the very opposite of oxytocin. When combined with adrenaline and norepinephrine, cortisol can cause us to feel frustrated, resentful, and angry, and our bodies react to this stress by undergoing a “fight or flight” mechanism that can lead us to behave irrationally with our partners. Suddenly, we are arguing, accusations are flying, our defenses are up, and we’re more miserable than ever before. We don’t mean to behave this way, but we just can’t help it. We’re unhappy.
This is the antithesis of what we were experiencing while we were nursing, and many times, it occurs when one partner realizes that nursing just isn’t right for them. The best way to avoid any of this unpleasantness is to openly communicate before you ever begin to nurse. You both need to be aware of what the other hopes to gain from the suckling experience, and the level of commitment you are willing–and prepared–to offer one another. If you find that your views on nursing are just a little different, then compromise, and find a way to nurse that works perfectly for both of you. Remember, an ANR is supposed to bring two people together. It is never supposed to pull them apart.
Oxytocin withdrawal doesn’t just happen to adult nursers; couples can experience it after the ending of traditional relationships, too. It’s what makes people feel so miserable after a break-up or divorce. It’s painful, but it will get better over time. My friend Sue, who is a relationship therapist, offered this tip: “If a relationship truly cannot be fixed through communication, it’s sometimes better for once person to understand that this particular part is simply not viable, and no matter how deeply you want it, you need to realize that you have to let go. Letting go and allowing yourself to mourn for what is gone are the first steps to recovery and building a stronger relationship.”