Have you ever thought about what kind of a person you are in love-based relationships?
Are you more of a romantic who values intensity over stability? Do you passionately fall in love (i.e., fast and hard)? Are you continuously seeking true love? When passion fades, do you conclude that love is on its deathbed? Romantics tend to be perennial seekers, always looking for the love that will never fizzle.
Or are you a realist who prefers security over passion? Do you believe that passion naturally diminishes over time … that it’s for teenagers … dangerous … or can make you do stupid things? Passion, for the realist, may be considered a weak foundation for marriage. Deep love, mutual respect, shared history, maturity, and companionship are valued over passion, thrill and hot sex.
Needless to say, the realist and the romantic are often disappointed as neither can live happily on either extreme.
What then would the idealist seek? Perhaps love and passion? Let’s imagine the idealist has the belief system that love and desire are not mutually exclusive. However, they simply may not happen at the same time. Passion is like the moon; it has intermittent phases, and the occasional eclipse. The idealist mindset supposes that love and passion ebb and flow between commitment/responsibility and excitement and playfulness. Neither construct ever fully disappears. For the idealist, in the realm of relationships, it is a constant dance between change and stability. Essentially, it is to become the anchor and the wave in a marriage. How do we embody the idealist in love relationships?
When we fall in love and decide to enter into a serious monogamous relationship or marriage, we naturally crave the need for commitment and love. We seek stability and familiarity. We work hard to get there because it calms us and makes us feel loved, safe and secure. We often sacrifice passion to achieve stability. Many couples who come to see me describe similar scenarios; they speak of issues, complaints and struggles in their relationship, reporting a decline in passion, or its near absence from the relationship. They tell me they don’t communicate or connect with their partners. They have sex less, and when they do it’s often met with the same mundane experience and disappointment. They’ve plateaued.
The initial and perhaps logical aim would be for the couple to work on intimacy, with the goal to deepen their connection and enhance their communication skills. In couples’ therapy – especially after infidelity – the primary focus is often to work on intimacy, trust, communication, etc. This is indeed necessary, but often not enough for long-term recovery in relationships to rekindle some level of passion, desire and erotic space within the couple connection. Often, couples fail to consider that they may actually be experiencing too much closeness and familiarity, a paradigm that may contribute to the passionate disconnect. Lack of communication and monotony in the relationship sometimes results from a failure to maintain individuality. The reality is that our partners often become our “personal village”, and we lose sight of our continuous need for freedom, exploration and individual fulfillment. In Mating in Captivity, Perel contemplates this intriguing paradox:
“Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other. With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused-when two become one-connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.” (Perel 2006, p. 25).
Over time, many couples perceive themselves as monogamous ... a unit ... a family ... forgetting how and what it means to be together as an erotic couple. Desire and passion is often diminished when we view our partner primarily in the role we like, grow into, or are accustomed to think of them in: partner, friend, confidante, daddy, mommy, etc. We often begin to de-eroticize our partner and categorize them based on how we see them on a day-to-day basis. To be monogamous in the family often becomes the kiss of death for passion and eroticism. Familiarity, comfort, and our growing roles as partners or parents draws our attention and need (temporarily) away from our erotic perceptions of each other. Couples who maintain a healthy erotic connection (and we’re not necessarily talking about how much sex or how many orgasms a couple has) have the ability to be together and remain adult, sexual people … a different construct than the usual family roles couples might get stuck in.
The ability to see your partner as “other” (the person you may have fallen in love with) is essential to maintaining that erotic connection in a monogamous relationship. It is important to remember to see yourself as an adult, sexual being; not only as a parent, homemaker, professional or friend. Any erotic relationship depends on how you perceive your partner (in their role, but also sexually and physically) in the present moment and over time. The way you sexualize or desexualize a person is crucial in determining how you relate to them in a relationship (erotically, lovingly, etc.).
How do we then remain separate and together as a couple?
Do you remember the “butterflies” in your stomach so often felt at the beginning of a relationship? That feeling is present because of the uncertainty and insecurity each partner has about the other and even ourselves, especially as it pertains to the other. Naturally that feeling diminishes over time as we become less anxious in a relationship. But if we can remain separate individuals in the couple, there may be less chance that things go stale, or the couple grows apart, and instead keeping things vibrant and exciting over time. The concept of emotional space can be threatening for many women and men, especially those in close, loving relationships. Indeed, the idea of introducing distance within the relationship that gives us our strongest sense of togetherness may seem contradicting and strange.
However, this distance is exactly what brings desire back into the relationship and helps re-create the bridge we worked so hard to cross. Lust, desire and passion do not have the same ingredients as compassion, reason, understanding, and camaraderie, or other hallmarks of a close, harmonious relationship. Passion is composed of many elements that don’t necessarily nurture intimacy. We need both elements, though, to sustain a relationship over the long haul. Aggression, objectification, power, selfish desire, unreasoning obsession, and transgression are all part of bringing desire and passion to life. Distance, in terms of maintaining our individuality, is what makes partners yearn for each other and achieve sexual satisfaction in the relationship.
For example, in the movie Unfaithful, Diane Lane shows this in her first sexual encounter with Olivier Martinez. In this pivotal early interaction, he tells her to hit him to overcome her hesitation and fully release herself to her lust and desires. In movies, passionate lovemaking or hot, dirty sex are often depicted in an affair – i.e, not in marriage. I believe this paradox of intimacy and eroticism – the need for both foundational elements - is particularly important for younger couples that are newer to marriage, raising young children, establishing careers, and maturing emotionally into adulthood. Couples at this stage of the life cycle are often stretched thin, youthful, curious, and explorative. They are often not prepared for or experienced with the hardships, the unexpected, and the general disappointments that come with marriage. Without continuing attention to the passionate part of their relationship, couples are more at risk for falling flat, becoming lazy and disinterested, or beginning to have wandering eyes.
Creating emotional space and distance in a relationship will likely mean something different for each couple depending on the relationship dynamics and issues each couple faces. There is no simple formula; no one thing you should be doing or not doing. And we’re not talking about creating physical space and talking less frequently with each other. Instead, the focus should be holding on to your own sense of self and seeking individual fulfillment separate from the couple dynamic. We should be able to move freely within the boundaries of closeness (emotional connection) and distance (individuality/separateness) in both peaceful and anxiety provoking times. In Passionate Marriage, Schnarch states: “Differentiation involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness. Individuality propels us to follow our own directives, to be on our own, to create a unique identity. Togetherness pushes us to follow the directives of others, to be part of the group. When these two life forces for individuality and togetherness are expressed in balanced, healthy ways, the result is a meaningful relationship that doesn’t deteriorate into emotional fusion” (p. 55).
When we can take accountability for our own actions and recognize that relationships are complimentary (e.g. a wife complains because her husband drinks, the husband drinks because his wife complains), we may naturally calm down, begin to self-focus, and step down from a critical, blaming stance. All of this happens in small increments and real change can only be implemented over time. It takes patience, effort, the ability to self-soothe, and an open heart and mind to achieve. There is much more to explore on this topic alone so I will leave it for a separate post. In the interest of brevity, I will now focus on practical approaches for couples to think about and apply to their relationship to help keep passion and desire alive, as well as (perhaps more importantly) to resuscitate it when it falls flat.
Change the Plot by Creating Unfamiliarity in a Familiar Space
A fundamental part to sustaining passion and longevity in a marriage is to not always travel on the same road at the same speed. Bringing new, different and exciting changes into a marriage is necessary to keep yourself interested and your partner interested in you. It’s always a two-way street; the more stimulating and attractive (intellectually, emotionally and physically) you make yourself, the more content you are with your own self and the more exciting you are to your partner. This is why it’s so important to have a sense of separateness from your partner … to not lose yourself in the other and the marriage. Chase your own dreams … have your own friends … masturbate … do things that are purely for you and nobody else. Step outside of your comfort zone from time to time, and do things with your partner (sexually and otherwise) that may be challenging and foreign to you.
Take Action and Be Proactive
Plan things, think out of the box, and surprise your partner with something new and exciting. Then follow through with what you’ve planned. Don’t lament that you don’t do things together anymore but organize them yourself and make it happen. We are all great coaches and capable of giving advice from the sidelines but being a player on the field requires action and confidence. Make small decisions and choices on your own. If that’s a planned surprise concert, a road trip, or a tenting excursion in the woods, it doesn’t matter. The point is that the sparkle of something new is offered.
Like kids who like to break rules and reel with laughter and excitement, it is no different for couples. In order to keep things fresh, it’s necessary to be playful, challenge yourselves, and look for new experiences. We must be imaginative in a marriage to avoid plummeting into stagnation and boredom. Push beyond your normal thresholds and connect with the adventure and naughty side, breaking free from the repetitious and responsible parts of you. You have to create mystery and “disruptions” from the familiar. If these elements are void or lacking in a marriage, couples are more vulnerable to exploring transgression, finding these parts of ourselves elsewhere, often in an affair.
Stretch yourself, and go beyond your limitations. Do things you may have done in the beginning of your relationship, or do things as a couple that you only reserve for doing with friends. For some that means drinking or smoking together while eating M&M’s in the dark and talking for hours. For other couples it may be going to a club and dancing all night. Or it’s a smaller act like deciding to play hookie one day … staying in bed to have sex with your partner instead of going to work … followed by a delicious breakfast. Breaking the rules and prioritizing yourselves can be expressed however you prefer, but it is essential to make whatever you decide to do something outside of the confines of your everyday relationship. Each couple will have to decide what that means for them. One couple’s rule-breaking may mean nothing for another couple, and some couples will go as far as exploring open relationships or threesomes with each other.
Have Conversations When Things Are GOOD
It is rarely a great idea to address heated and sensitive topics with your partner when you or both of you are angry, emotional or upset. It is often difficult, if not counter-productive, to have these types of conversations in such moments. It is, however, a good idea to bring up difficult subjects when you are both calm and feeling good about your relationship. Timing, as they say, is everything. You may be more open to hearing and receiving information that may be difficult or discomforting to process, and both parties are usually more able to talk about sensitive topics in a more objective and thoughtful manner during times of peace.
Date nights, for example, are often excellent moments for meaningful exchanges, and sometimes that entails bringing up pressing and potentially awkward/distressing issues. Also, make sure you have conversations that don’t “invite” your partner to lie. We can accuse and complain about our partner being a liar, but we also have to look at our role in those conversations. Are we playing prosecutor, putting our partner on the defensive as we cross-examine them about a sensitive subject? Setting up a conversation so your partner won’t tell you the truth is not helpful to either of you.
Sex is About a Place You Go, Not What You Do
We should always know why we are having sex with our partner, and do it because we want to do it, not because we think it’s necessary to have sex a certain number of times a week or because that’s the cultural or social norm/obligation. I am often confronted with individuals who think that if they don’t have sex with their partner he or she will cheat on them or look for it elsewhere. At the extreme, a lack of sexual activity is certainly problematic, and will have varying degrees of impact on a couple, depending on the partner’s sexual appetites. However, the risk of engaging in sex for false reasons leaves you in a place of making decisions based on the other and not for yourself. Reasoning with yourself and giving in to gender rules that tell us, for example, “men want and need more sex” and, “women’s libidos are generally lower”, makes you a passive participant in a marriage and the dance of sexuality. You can easily end up being less of a person with less of a relationship. Another question to be raised in those kinds of circumstances: with whom are you really having sex? We can have physical sex with one person, but psychologically you may be having sex with someone else or no one at all. Another topic that should be explored with more depth, but one that is generally the subject of individual examination.
Your Partner Doesn’t Belong to You
Simply because you are married or monogamous doesn’t mean your partner belongs to you (and vice versa). Each person is autonomous, and not the other’s personal property. A person’s erotic world, including fantasies, flirtations, attraction to others, masturbation (e.g., not the act of sex) is sacred and unique to each person individually. Each person is permitted to have their own desires or be attracted to other people without it immediately being a threat that says, “I’m not enough!”
Take pride in being an autonomous person in your marriage, and respect and value your partner being the same. If you can embrace the idea that, in marriage, there is an inherent need for togetherness and separateness, you will navigate more fluidly between the dualities of commitment, love, stability and family life AND freedom, secrecy, exploration, and individual fulfillment.
Lastly, don’t be fooled by the platitudes of marriage. Going into marriage with lower expectations may actually leave us less disillusioned and more motivated to put in the work to make it last. If we can accept that marriage may not be what we think or feel it should be, we may learn to enjoy what it actually just is. If you enter into marriage thinking it’s a fairy tale - a blissful journey with some ups and downs, but sure to reach that “happy ending” - you may be disappointed. Marriage is complicated, confusing, and messy; no one gets through unscathed. Rarely is anyone “ready” for marriage, at least the first time around. Marriage makes you ready for marriage! Simply talk to older couples that have been married for a long time (some in their second marriages) and more often than not you will get a far more realistic, mature outlook on marriage.
The roses and thorns of marriage do not exist without one another. In fact, each compliment the other. They are interconnected; just like love and pain, joy and sadness. As Schnarch (2009, p. 47) states: “…don’t bother looking for sanctuary in your marriage. Seeking protection from its pains and pleasures misses its purpose: marriage prepares us to live and love on life’s terms.” The great thing about marriage is you can choose to go through life with someone, and not alone.
This marks my final post of this series (parts 1-5). I hope you enjoyed this investigation into some of the more difficult issues we face and find use for it in your own relationships, marriage and life. It was a great exploration for me, and a true learning experience. Thank you for reading and for all the supportive feedback I have received from many of you.
I will be coming out with a short-clip video series on couples in the near future covering a variety of topics. I look forward to sharing it with you all.
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Dr. Olivia Schläpfer Colmer offers individual, couples and family therapy in Miami, FL. Her office is located at 4770 Biscayne Boulevard, Suite 1440, Miami FL 33137.
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