Sustaining and maintaining desire in long term partnerships can be difficult. Many long term partnerships, whether monogamous and non-monogamous, come to treatment with desire-based difficulties and a longing for the return of eroticism in their relationships. Ester Perel encourages us to explore how conflicts between our desires for security and reliability and novelty and change can impact our relationships. Perel, in “Mating in Captivity,” encourages us to consider how we might "introduce risk in safety, mystery to the familiar, and novelty to the enduring."
Eroticism thrives in separateness, longing and newness while love and care thrives in security, emotional intimacy and familiarity, which can be oppositional. Many partnerships come in to therapy feeling too “merged” or too “separated,” struggling to find both closeness and separateness, and seeking both relationship harmony and sexual excitement.
It’s important for each member of a partnership to think about and know your relationship to closeness and to separateness. Does being close make you want to run away and/or feel like a threat to your individuality? Does being apart trigger an overwhelming amount of anxiety and/or feel like a threat to the certainty of your relationship? Understanding your “attachment style” can better help you understand your relationship to closeness and separateness and then may provide some insight into the impact that could be having on relationship harmony and sexual excitement.
Some, historically and in the present, focus on the impact emotional intimacy has on the sexual lives of partners (i.e.- if you feel emotionally safe in the relationship then your sex life will prosper). However, too much intimacy may harm an exciting sex life. Being loved and being desired are different and may exist simultaneously, but can certainly also exist without the other.
Here a few tips that we like to promote and that we’ve seen positively impact our client’s lives:
1. Finding a balance between having your lives together and having times apart. Having both shared and separate hobbies, passions or interests are important. Spending time apart and missing each other can have a positive impact on your sense of longing for the other. It’s important to have a self, your partner and then your shared space. Having this differentiation and individuation can look like having some hobbies, passions and interests that are different and/or socializing separately while in the same social space. Some people find watching their partner be charming with others or others desiring their partner to be a turn on and to generate desire.
2. Challenge your assumptions about what types of fantasies, desires and sex you can have with a partner. Respecting and caring for someone doesn’t mean that your sex can’t be wild, aggressive, degrading and/or rough. Seek and question assumptions you’ve held about sex, long term desire, sex with someone you love and sex in long term relationships. Challenge your assumptions about how sex is supposed to be initiated. “Spontaneous” sex, what many cite as how their sex was early on, is in many ways an illusion and was more planned and intentional than we admit. Planning and planning for sex can be erotic and doesn’t have to be mundane - brainstorm what that might look like for you.
3. Boring sex is not fun!! Explore ways to increase excitement and playfulness in your sexual lives and possibly modify a rigid repertoire. This could look like incorporating new toys, kinky/bdsm practices, role playing, sex parties, swinging, dirty talk, sexting, talking about your sexual fantasies, having sex in different locations (such as a car, your kitchen, the shower, etc), trying new positions, and/or attending a sex specific class together. While we don’t want any actual legal consequences, morality crisis, or to promote anything non-consensual, there is something exciting about illicit sex for a reason and exciting sex can exist in long term relationships.
4. We culturally place value on and find security in "knowing all there is to know" about our partners. However, our sense of predictability is an illusion and a fantasy, and a way to seek comfort. It also reduces curiosity we have for our partners over time as we think we know all there is to know and it doesn’t allow our partners to grow. In reality, there is a lot we don’t and can never really know about another person, and that’s okay! If we can accept this about our partners we can remain curios. If we trap our partners and our relationships in fixed narratives, it can be difficult to grow, express that growth, share newness and maintain excitement (and to do #2 and #3). People’s desires and fantasies can grow throughout their lives and that doesn’t have to be threatening - it can be exciting, invigorating and erotic!
5. Re-focus on eroticism and ask yourself what turns you on, what makes you feel pleasure, and what makes you feel desired.
6. Don't be afraid to think about and talk about the lack of sex - it's a common occurrence in long term relationships and ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away. When thinking and talking just remember that lulls in desire and caring about that lull can be an opportunity for change and expansion, to question the scripts of your relationship in ways that facilitate growth together, to share fantasies you’ve yet to share and to re-energize your sex life.
7. Be mindful of and challenge any narratives you've internalized in the context of the reduced sex and eroticism in your relationship. For example, have you created narratives about your own desirability or your partner’s?
8. Jumping from not having sex to having sex, regardless of if you intend on incorporating kink, can be intimidating. Try following sensate focus exercises and start with intentionally touching and massaging, and specifically not having sex.
9. Schedule a session with a sex therapist as an individual or within your partnership to work with you to challenge beliefs about sex and sexuality, unpack sexual shame, explore and incorporate desires and take steps to incorporate the above steps.