We are often taught that being in a long-term, committed relationship requires giving all of yourself to another person— sharing every deep secret, vulnerability, and insecurity with another in order to build trust and most importantly, intimacy. And while this type of emotional closeness cultivates security and lasting love, it also correlates with another staple of long-term romantic relationships … the decline of sexual desire.
Ask any couple’s therapist or sex therapist what is the most common problem their clients present to them and they will almost always give you some version of “we aren’t having enough sex” or “he/she doesn’t seem to want sex anymore.” Having less sex as time passes in a relationship or the dwindling of that initial passion felt during sex is very common. This is usually attributed to “the novelty effect” wearing off or being stuck in a routine. Of course there are other reasons for a decline in sex—health issues, infidelity, and trauma to name a few—but another more pervasive and encompassing issue is the enmeshment and dependency that occurs when we share everything with our partner. Hobbies, favorite foods, books, and social activities often naturally become a “shared experience” or something that “we” do instead of something that “I” do or “he/she does.” Many times our partner is the first or only person we come to with problems about work or with our families. We start to feel that it is not only natural, but necessary to unload all of our worries and concerns onto our partner because this brings us closer, sharing every thought and emotion we may have.
Esther Perel, a psychotherapist, speaker and author of the book “Mating In Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence” theorizes that our natural human need for security and stability in relationships is at direct opposition to our equally important need for adventure, novelty, and discovery. What ends up happening in long-term couples, she says, is the tendency to get “too close” to our partner, making it impossible for that newness and excitement to exist. This makes the passion and desire that fuel satisfying and pleasurable sex difficult to (pardon the pun) come by.
Perel emphasizes the importance of “the space between self and other” when considering how to reignite or maintain desire in a long-term relationship. In a recent article on “reigniting your love life,” she suggests viewing your partner as if “he or she is only on loan, with an option to renew.” Recognizing your partner as an autonomous, independent person with inner thoughts, past experiences, and fantasies that you are not privy to will result for most people in a new found curiosity about your partner. Being curious perpetuates interest and the realization that regardless of how long you have been together, there are still parts of this other person you have yet to discover. Recognizing your partner as separate from yourself creates distance and therefore room for desire to grow.
Spending time apart by engaging in different extracurricular activities or taking a trip without the other is one way to create actual physical space (thus the idiom “absence makes the heart grow fonder”), but creating emotional space can be just as important. Balancing or limiting how often you go to your partner to “vent” about work or family issues by talking to friends or mentors instead or engaging in new behaviors to cope with everyday stress like exercise or journaling are helpful. Resisting the urge to pry for details about your partner’s exes, their family drama, or other past experiences and trying to be content with the fact that if something is important, your partner will share it with you is also worthwhile. Sometimes, simply taking a moment and remembering what it was like when you and your partner first met and identifying what drew you to them, emotionally and sexually, can ignite feelings of longing. Think about that first month when so much was unknown and how their smile, the way they smelled, and the thought of seeing them again caused that little flip in your stomach. Remember that feeling and those memories the next time you are with your partner and see what happens …