In an intimate relationship it is the tension between security and adventure that is the paradox that must be managed. Are commitment and excitement mutually exclusive? Both are required at different times in a long-term relationship yet they cannot co-exist at the same time. So love and desire are clashing forces which are constantly moving and constantly looking for the point of balance. Many of us lament the dwindling passion within our relationships with feelings of loss, melancholy or acquiescence. But does it have to be so?
Connection and independence are central themes in our developmental histories. Growing up we must find the delicate balance between profound dependence on our primary caregivers and our need to be independent. The extent to which these childhood positions are nurtured or obstructed will determine the vulnerabilities that we bring to our adult relationships. That which we most want and that which we most fear. The psychology of desire lies buried beneath the layers of our childhood – this is the archaeology in which we learned to love. Did we learn to experience pleasure, to trust, to receive? Were our needs monitored or were we busy monitoring our parents? Were we rejected, humiliated, abandoned, held, or rocked? In this setting we learnt who and how to be. This in turn shaped our beliefs about who and how to behave and our expectations of others in our adult lives.
The project of self-discovery in the early years was also often hampered by parental messages that induced fear, guilt, shame and mistrust. That which was supposed to protect the child had the potential to turn into a source of anxiety in adulthood. We bring these lessons to our adult love and much of it is unspoken and often even unaware. What is it that draws you in, leaves you cold, how much closeness are you able to bear? Yet what is miraculous is that our erotic imagination has the ability to transform and redress the traumas of the past. In addition we often choose partners whose disposition matches our own vulnerabilities. Some of us look for partners with whom we can connect, be close to, not feel alone and not feel abandoned. Others require heightened personal space which helps us to feel as though we are not being devoured by the other. Yet what felt initially secure can later in the relationship feel confining. We want to feel close but not to feel trapped. It is the space between couples that allows them to imagine ‘no space at all’.
Love is often confused with merging which is a bad omen for sex. There is an assumption that if we improve ‘the relationship’ the sex will follow but unfortunately this is not so. In the beginning you are grabbed by love – you enjoy the rush and you want to hold onto the feeling. The seeds of intimacy are time and repetition. We choose each other repeatedly and create a duo. You enter into each other’s world of habits and the familiarity reassures the couple. Creating routines helps foster the sense of security. With the familiarity comes the end of ceremony and restraint. But this too becomes the anti aphrodisiac. Love promises relief from aloneness but it also heightens dependence on the other. You are scared because the more attached you become the more you have to lose.
Love seeks closeness but desire needs distance – this is the Intimacy/Sex paradox. More intimacy often equals less sex. In long term relationships ‘predictability’ is favoured over ‘unpredictability’. Yet eroticism thrives in that which is unpredictable. Desire and habit do not sit well together. Our need for constancy limits how much we are willing to truly know the person who is next to us. We need them on one level to conform to the image we have created of them based on our own particular set of needs. Grounding ourselves in familiarity allows us to achieve a peaceful domestic arrangement. But the result is often boredom. ‘Whatever happened to the way we were – fun, excitement, transcendence, awe?’
So what is it that makes sustaining desire over time so difficult – it is the fact that we are required to reconcile two opposing forces simultaneously – freedom and commitment. This is the existential dilemma which is both unsolvable and unavoidable. It is part of the human condition. These tensions are common in many other areas of our lives – stability and change; passion and reason; personal interest and collective wellbeing; action and reflection.
‘Love rests on two pillars – surrender and autonomy.‘ Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. With too much distance there can be no connection but too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there’s nothing more to transcend, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused connection can no longer happen. ‘Separateness is a precondition for connection.‘
Families are about self-sacrifice yet a healthy sense of entitlement is a prerequisite for erotic intimacy. When faced with the laundry that needs ironing, the unopened mail, the toys everywhere – it’s a desire killer. Not to mention the disappointments, the blame, and bickering. And if that wasn’t enough, add to this sexual conservatism (a legacy of Puritanism) as well as the cultural and familial messages which block sexual expression and cause shame and anxiety. All these aspects lead to partners withdrawing from each other.
It is scary to be both erotically exposed and emotionally intimate with the same person. So what is the answer to the paradox? We need to re-create the distance that we worked hard to bridge in the first instance. Erotic intelligence is about creating distance and then bringing that space to life. It is important to nurture your sense of selfhood. The individual’s intimacy with one’s own SELF as a counterbalance to the couple. Develop a secret garden. Love enjoys knowing everything about you – desire on the other hand needs mystery. Desire requires ongoing elusiveness. It is less concerned with where it’s been and more interested in where it could still go. If you become so focused on the incessant demands of daily life you short circuit any electric charge between the two of you.
Passion in a relationship is commensurate with the amount of uncertainty you can tolerate. Eroticism is risky and people are afraid to allow themselves moments of idealization and yearning for the person they live with. The desire to want more from your relationship will require a degree of personal courage. Take the risks and reap the rewards.
This post is based on the book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence by Esther Perel (2007). This is a good book and if you’re in a long-term relationship – a useful one. It addresses the inherent tension between our two greatest needs in a long-term romantic relationship: continued sexual chemistry and emotional safety. The book has some great ideas for maintaining or recapturing eroticism in your relationship. Though it is not a self-help manual in the full sense of the word. It is an exploration of the philosophical tension between intimacy and eroticism. The book leaves one hopeful that long-term relationships can maintain and even increase, passion and desire.
If you would like to talk about some of the issues in your own relationship that this post raised – contact us.