The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship

There have been nearly 7 million hits on the Ted Talk by Esther Perel:


She questions, ‘Why does good sex fade – even for couples who continue to love each other as much as ever? And why does good intimacy not guarantee good sex?’

 
She explores the nature of erotic desire and the dilemmas for modern love relationships. She suggests that we live in an age where the expectation of sex is that it should continue over time to be about ‘pleasure and connection rooted in desire’. Yet that expectation can be confounded when there is a struggle to sustain the desire.

 
Perel’s research identifies this as a clash of two ‘fundamental human needs’. We have a human need for the intimacy, closeness and attachment offered by a loving relationship. It creates a feeling of wellbeing and emotional security that nurtures and sustains. However, we also have an urge for excitement, play, mystery – and for change and novelty.

 
These needs can clash and can be hard to reconcile. We want our partner to be a trusted confidant and offer warmth, friendship and understanding. But, from the same person, we want heightened excitement of passion.

 
We want the comfort of familiarity, being known, loved and appreciated. But then, in the sexual relationship, we want variety, surprise and adventure. While technique, toys and sexy lingerie can add spice, it is not about novelty. Perel says sex is not just something you do. It is not just a behaviour but about speaking a language too. Sex is a place you go for a conversation and for that you need a sense of a separate self, autonomy and self-esteem.

 
To challenge expectations, we need a more profound understanding of arousal, desire and unconscious longings and Perel concludes that ‘desire needs space; fire needs air’. For desire we need imagination, curiosity, playfulness and the spark of interest created by a sense of ‘Other’ and ‘Difference’.

 
The contradiction of a long-term relationship is that it offers the closeness, familiarity and sameness that can create ‘a kind of fatal erotic blow’. She suggests that desire is ‘to want’ and is about attraction and enticement. It is about looking with new eyes each time and seeing the other as different and unknown. Desire starts with an idea of separateness and the urge to move towards one another. She suggests the idea of a bridge to cross in order to find each other anew – starting from a point of willingness to play and want and give pleasure.

 
Interdependence, caretaking, parenting, while soothing, reassuring and comforting, can decrease the erotic charge between the couple. Sex makes babies and great joy, and yet babies can spell erotic disaster for the couple. Feeling weighed down by responsibilities, disliking your body, feeling anxious or depressed, stressed at work, can have a similar deadening effect. However, a couple can use the love and connection and emotional warmth to provide a springboard of energy for lovemaking.

 
Sex in a long relationship is premeditated sex as much as it was in the beginning and there is a need to debunk the idea of spontaneity. In a trusting relationship, there can be permission and a willingness to lead, or be led, into an erotic space. Foreplay starts with accepting and allowing the thought of sex to germinate in the mind. It is about encouraging thoughts of sex to keep ‘simmering’. It is about taking responsibility for making gestures and taking opportunities to initiate.

 
The couple understands that passion waxes and wanes but they know how to find the generosity needed to reconnect. It is accepted by both that a definition of their relationship includes ‘This is what we do’.

 

Kathy Rees

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