What if everything we know about sexual passion in long-term relationships is wrong? What if everything we’ve been told by talk shows, self-help books, and couples therapy—improve communication, deepen security and emotional intimacy—is extinguishing erotic desire rather than reigniting it?
A typical case: Carlos and Amy have been in a relationship for seven years. They are in their mid-30s, have two children, and both work at jobs they enjoy. They describe themselves as best friends and fondly remember the day they met at the coffee shop after chatting online through a dating website. The attraction was instantaneous. All those neurochemicals involved in romantic attraction were kicked into hyperdrive (see Taylor Wade’s previous posts on the Science of Love). Carlos felt his heart sink into his stomach. His breath literally felt like it vanished from his lungs, his breathing became slow and shallow, and his mind was racing with thoughts like, “Wow! She is beautiful!” and “Don’t screw this up!” “She not only looks like her profile pictures,” he thought, “she looks BETTER!”
Amy found herself in a similar state. Her palms began sweating. A normally self-confident and composed person, she found herself at a loss for what to say. She was preoccupied with her hair falling in front of her face and whether she had something stuck in her teeth. She found Carlos handsome, composed, and confident (despite Carlos’ inner experience). She felt a tingling sensation emanating from all over her body.
The flame was ignited and the rest is romantic history. The first several months were a passionate love affair. Things began to settle and lust turned to romantic love. After eighteen months, attachment bonds further developed and a genuinely compatible partnership emerged. Now it has been seven years and the passion, spontaneity, and desire they once felt so easily for one another has waned. The fire that once burned so brightly as to consume them both in its erotic conflagration has dwindled to an occasional spark, a sometime twinkle, in an otherwise healthy, supportive, and loving relationship. As happy as they both are with one another and as much as they love each other, they feel that something is missing. Despite all their efforts, nothing seems to fan the flames of desire for more than a week or two before things settle into infrequent and monotonous sexual encounters.
Normally, it is at this point that counselors and self-help gurus often prescribe assessing their communication and deepening their intimacy through date nights, empathic listening, spending time together without the children, and practicing romantic gestures throughout the day (e.g., leaving love notes around, cooking a favorite meal, having more “deep,” soulful conversations). And the truth is, we all have a need for security and intimacy in our relationships, but we need adventure and passion as well. According to Esther Perel in her thought-provoking book, Mating in Captivity, these suggestions for increasing emotional security may actually make reigniting the flames of desire more difficult. Conventional wisdom states that as couples increase emotional intimacy, they will correspondingly increase sexual desire and passion. If couples learn to communicate better, share more of themselves and their feelings, spend more time together, and increase their sense of trust and safety together, then this deeper connection will serve to reignite the burning flames of passion long gone dormant. For many people, increased intimacy does help, particularly if they have been disconnected and haven’t made time for one another, as often happens for couples with children. It might be that simply being intentional about reuniting and reconnecting fans the flames enough to get them going again…at least briefly.
Unfortunately, for many couples this conventional wisdom, while sounding good on the surface, fails to achieve its desired outcomes. Instead of reigniting the flames, this advice seems to cool them. As a psychologist, professor, and human being trying to make sense of the complex mystery that is human relationships, I seek answers to this conundrum for my clientele and myself. According to thinkers like Esther Perel, the antidote is not more intimacy and security, but increasing mystery, novelty, and curiosity about oneself and one’s partner. Put another way, reducing and replacing the known, the secure, the expected with danger, excitement, and the unexpected. Maybe it is time to get that saran wrap out after all. (“Towanda!”)
In a similar untraditional vein, the sex and couple’s therapist, David Schnarch, writes in Passionate Marriage, that what couples actually need is not more of each other, but more of themselves. In other words, each person in the relationship needs to develop a healthy and ongoing relationship with themselves—their dreams, visions, goals, self-development, and self-fulfillment. He believes that what extinguishes desire over time is familiarity like Perel claims, but also the emotional dependency or merging that often naturally happens between two people who love each other and share a life together. This emotional merging or joining isn’t problematic in itself, it is natural and healthy to bond with one another; however, over time people lose their sense of themselves, their identities, and their own, separate progress toward self-development.
Furthermore, in many versions of romance in Western societies, true love is about merging or losing oneself in the other. Just listen to most pop love songs and you’ll hear the refrain of being incomplete, lost, despondent, and in need of wholly consuming the other person. Too many couples believe that each person is responsible for the other’s happiness and that true love is completely merging needs and dreams with the other. In contrast, Schnarch and others (e.g., Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz) suggest that each person should take responsibility for his or her own happiness, maintain healthy boundaries within the relationship, and commit to self-development and differentiation while supporting and encouraging the same process in one’s partner.
In the final analysis, Schnarch believes each person needs to confront his or her own insecurities about being in a relationship and focus on functioning as an individual, being with oneself, pursuing one’s purpose or passions, and becoming more and more the person we are. Similar to Perel, Schnarch believes it is the space between each person in the relationship that provides the emotional and psychological oxygen to keep the flames of passion, desire, and eroticism alive. If couples merge too closely and lose themselves in the other, those flames are extinguished. We need to be separate and connected to the other. The more each person finds fulfillment in becoming who they are and pursuing their independent dreams and goals, the more space there is to breathe in desire for the other.
How well do you think you know yourself? Do you find yourself puzzled by your own thoughts, feelings, and behavior? Do you feel like a mystery unto yourself? Many of us recognize how complex, paradoxical, and contradictory we can be—how we are constantly discovering new aspects of ourselves and insights into what makes us tick, yet we seldom give this same kind of awe and perplexity to others. Far too many couples assume that after years of spending time together, waking up, eating, traveling, and talking, they know all there is to know about their partner. The mystery, over time, has faded. The novelty that triggered the centers of the brain for passion and romance, that serves as the main ingredient for eroticism, has turned into the rote, the mundane, and perhaps even the obnoxious.
Helen Fisher’s work (The Anatomy of Love) also notes how three sexual centers in the brain—one for sex drive, one for romantic feelings, and the other for deep attachment bonds—may confuse couples. Fisher’s research shows that these three centers, while integrated to some degree, can operate independently. Thus, a person who feels deeply bonded and attached to her partner will likely have sexual feelings for other people. In and of itself there is nothing wrong with this. However, if the person mistakes these feelings for failings in the relationship, boredom, or loss of love, it could result in growing dissatisfaction in the relationship, and possibly seeking satisfaction outside of the relationship. Simply recognizing that these sexual feelings and desires for other partners is a normal part of our brain functioning may help dispel those feelings of dissatisfaction. However, feelings of dissatisfaction may serve a useful function; namely, renewing motivation for couples to reexamine their relationships and seek ways to restore aliveness and eroticism.
Moreover, we all like to feel passion and romance from time to time, but if we lived in that intense, topsy-turvy emotional space every day, we’d never get anything done! Remember being in the throes of romantic love? The starry-eyed, longing, distracting thoughts about one’s beloved, and no ability to focus on work, friends, or getting the dishes clean. Thank goodness that passes!
The sexual center, or libido, also operates by its own rules. These rules were set in motion way back in our evolutionary history and consist of the basic, primal, animalistic desire to mate. Talk about another distraction! While the libido may go dormant for a time, it certainly seems tied into our biological cycles, hormonal activity, etc. It can rear its lustful head at any moment—with that handsome stranger at the coffee shop, that beautiful bartender with her flirty wink, during middle school math class with Ms. Carlisle (thank goodness for desks), or from the sound of Morgan Freeman’s voice narrating March of the Penguins.
Fisher points out that it may be asking too much to expect one person to meet all these needs all the time. This doesn’t mean she advocates for promiscuity or non-monogamy, but it does help relieve some of the pressure too many couples put on themselves to be everything to their partners all the time—romantic Don Juan, erotic Lord Byron, and deeply attached Ward Cleaver. Understanding our brain’s different sexual processing and appreciating that we need other people (not necessarily sexually!) and activities in our lives to keep us fulfilled and balanced, may help relieve some of the misunderstanding and misattribution partners make about sexual feelings and attraction toward other people.
So what is a modern couple to do? How can we maintain and build deep attachments with our partners while also experiencing satisfying levels of romantic love and erotic desire? Well, based on the sources above, I have come up with a list of suggestions:
Learn to look with new eyes at your partner
Proust said “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Decreasing passion does not necessarily mean we need a new partner or landscape. It may mean we have been taking our partner and his or her complexity, depth, and mystery for granted. It is a call to invoke our imagination. If we hardly understand ourselves, why do we assume our partner is like an old, worn out familiar book, one we’ve read and reread and cease to find anything new? Challenge yourself to assume mystery, complexity, and the unknown in your partner. Pay attention in new ways with new curiosity. Imagine you’re an alien first encountering your partner knowing nothing about his or her ways. Why does he put his thumb in his mouth like that? Why does her mouth slightly open when reading? How do other people see him or her? What qualities stand out to others? What new qualities can you find and explore? Finally, observe your partner doing something they love or are good at. Perel believes watching our partners perform at their best or do their thing, often gets the erotic juices flowing.
Create some space in your relationship
Absence makes the heart grow fonder we are told. Create some emotional space. Make space for rediscovering your passions, dreams, interests, and hobbies. Recommit yourself to self-development and self-fulfillment. What happened to that old novel idea you had? How are you continuing to pursue your desire to reduce poverty in your community? Share with your partner your personal dreams and goals and explore ways you can support each other in pursuing them. Perhaps you need to create some physical space. Take some time apart. Go visit your friend in Tulsa. Each of you take a weekend trip with your girlfriends or guy friends. See how the distance and time apart allows some oxygen to reignite the spark of passion.
Increase novelty and surprise
Push your own boundaries and increase a sense of adventure and danger into your love life. You can maintain your vanilla ways and have more than a fulfilling sex life. Show up at his office wearing nothing but an overcoat. Surprise her with a day at the spa followed by an erotic massage. Of course, novelty is not limited to sexual adventures (see #1 above). Learn to be surprised by your partner’s quirks and nuances. As Perel says, foreplay is something that goes on all the time, not just in the bedroom. Examples may include lascivious glances, unexpected touches, erotic notes hidden in her purse, erotic pics sent at lunch time, and sexting throughout the day. Above all, have fun!
Spontaneity and even “feeling like it” are not required
Don’t believe the myth of spontaneity, Perel encourages. Eroticism and desire can be ignited through intentional, deliberate, focused attention and presence (see Slow Sex by Diana Richardson). It doesn’t even matter if you’re tired or have a headache. Close the doors, turn out the lights, shut out the world and simply choose to be naked and alone together with the intention of being fully present and aware. Breathe. Be still. Be quiet. Now simply look into each other’s eyes and begin with a touch. Perhaps that will be enough, perhaps not…
Make it a game and have fun!
One of the crises of modern society is that we take ourselves, our relationships, and our lives way too seriously. What is the purpose of life if not to enjoy ourselves? Carpe diem! Carpe noctem! Introduce play. Remember what it was like to be a child? Introduce childlike (more cupid than toddler, of course) wonder, curiosity, and play into your relationship. Be irresponsible when it comes to eroticism. What do you have to lose but boredom? What do you fear but maybe a bit of initial embarrassment and self-consciousness? What do you have to gain but aliveness and vitality, not only in your relationship but in your life as a whole? Ask yourself, what would you do in your love and sex life if you were not afraid?
Now go out there, enjoy yourselves, discover more of yourselves, seek the mystery in one another, and live.