How can sexual intimacy be a lasting part of a relationship? How can partners find that spark again? What are the ingredients for desire?
Living during the time of a pandemic sure has been hard on relationships. For many, the uncertainty surrounding work, finances, health, and more over the past 2+ years has had a negative impact on sexual intimacy. Even without a pandemic, it’s normal for couples to experience a decrease in sexual desire when they’ve been together for a while. Add on top of that the fact that couples have been spending virtually all of their time together during the pandemic, and it becomes clear why they might feel a damper on their desire for each other. So how can couples improve their sex lives to feel connected to each other in this way again?
Esther Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist, has studied how people live with vitality, and she views eroticism as a way humans embrace being truly alive. In her book Mating in Captivity, Perel explores the ways in which love—which encompasses reliability, dependability, care, and a sense of being home—is in opposition to desire. This is because desire is an emotion resulting from unpredictability, novelty, and otherness. It is within this paradox that Perel explains couples can cultivate sexual intimacy.
One key aspect of this is to ask yourself, “When am I most drawn to my partner?” Perel has found that the answer to this question can fit into one of four categories: “…When I see them in their element;” “…When they are away; when we are apart; when we reunite;” “…When they surprise me;” and “…When I see them through the eyes of another.” Seeing our partner in their element is seeing them engaged in what they are passionate about, and this gives us a chance to shift our perspective and see the inherent mystery of our partner. Being away from our partner and “not having” allows space for “wanting” to grow. Absence allows space for our imaginings about our partner, and imagination is necessary for desire. Being surprised by our partner can look like a lot of different things, from them making us laugh, to an old argument going a different way than it usually does, to going on vacation. It’s encountering novelty within the partnership; seeing parts of our partner that we may not have seen before, and showing parts of ourselves to our partner that we may not have shown before. (In other words, the concept of novelty is way bigger than new positions or lingerie.) Finally, seeing our partner through the eyes of another, like watching them interact with others at a party or work event, or even seeing them get hit on by another, can make us feel proud and lucky and even remind us of what we may be taking for granted. Perel says, “It reminds us that we can always find the stranger within this person who has become so familiar to us.”
In her TED Talk called “The secret to desire in a long-term relationship,” Perel points out that the myth of spontaneity is a hindrance to sexual intimacy for couples. We have to be intentional about creating eroticism within our relationships and making time for sexual experiences. Additionally, we must each acknowledge our own agency in experiencing pleasure. This means developing awareness of questions like: “I shut myself off when…” or “I turn off my desires when” rather than “What turns me off is…” or “You turn me off when…” Explore the reverse as well: “I turn myself on when; I turn on my desires; I wake up when…” Perel explains that desire includes “a certain amount of selfishness in the best sense of the word: the ability to stay connected to oneself in the presence of another.”
So next time you need to rekindle passion within your relationship, ask yourself how you and your partner can create ways to experience the mystery and otherness in each other. At the same time, understand that it’s normal for sexual passion within any relationship to wax and wane. Be open to discovering (or rediscovering) how you feel turned on and connected to your imagination and desires. In the words of Paris Hilton, “That’s hot.”