What makes a good relationship? Is it more important to have passion and fireworks or companionate love and friendship? Can you have both? How do you make sense of being married and reasonably happy but being tempted by the infatuation and intensity of a new possibility? Is adult love a mysterious passion that simply comes and goes? Is it possible to recover the passion from the oft repeated phrase: “I love him/her but am not in love with them?” When the spark has gone is it permanent and if not, what are the ways to rekindle it?
These questions and more are discussed in couple therapists’ offices around the world.
Most of us would agree that we need to actively shape, maintain and enhance our romantic relationships. The question is, what works to keep love alive?
In the academic world, adult love and desire are increasingly topics of serious research. Let’s start with looking at the challenges couples face in general, and present with in therapy, before moving on to how couple therapists typically understand intimate relationships.
What are the challenges?
Couples frequently present for therapy with four main issues: conflict over raising children, conflict over frequency and nature of sex, conflict over money and conflict over a lack of emotional closeness. There is a growing emphasis on having intimacy and passion, as well as friendship and partnership.
People seem to be looking for a person who will provide them with support, nurturing, understanding and care; the qualities associated with “home”. But they also want the passion, intimacy and desire associated with romantic relationships.
Couples often have various good and rational reasons for the death of passion and desire – commonly these include being too stressed, too tired or too busy with the children. Therapists are also familiar with stories of couples becoming more like good friends, living like flatmates, and becoming project managers trying to fit in both their work and their children’s activities.
Love and desire
“Love is about having and desire is about wanting,” observes Esther Perel, a Belgian psychologist, expert in relationship therapy and author of the bestseller Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic (HarperCollins, 2006). She works with couples who complain about the loss of desire in their relationships. Perel has noticed a paradox – the very things that nurture caring relationships take away from desire. According to Perel, in order for couples to nurture passion, they have to be able to tolerate being apart, mystery and the unknown in their partner. Desire and passion tend to live in longing for the other rather than in the familiar and the comfortable. If you think back to what attracted you to your partner in the beginning, you might remember wanting to know more and more about them. The mysterious stranger was desirable precisely because you didn’t know everything about them and they didn’t need you.
Contrast this with our expectations of our partners these days. We expect our partner to be a supplier of emotional closeness and security, but we also want them to excite us. It is a recent invention to count desire and sexual fulfillment as key ingredients to a happy partnership.
Perel often asks the following question of the couples she sees: “When do you find your partner most attractive?” The answers are often along similar lines – “when she’s engaged in the things that make her happy … when we are doing our own thing … when he comes home confident after a good meeting … when she has been away with her friends … when I hear him making decisions that demonstrate strength and commitment”. In none of these scenarios does the other need us or do we need to take care of our partner. In Perel’s words “Caretaking may be very loving, but it is also a powerful anti-aphrodisiac. In sex, people want to feel wanted, not needed.”
Desire grows in the space between us and the other, yet modern couples often have different expectations of their ideal partnership. One partner may strive for closeness and oneness while the other is content with living parallel lives. It is therefore important to understand our own “relationship blueprints”.
A seminal paper published in 1987 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Hazan & Shaver, 1987) suggested that the way you experience the relationship with your main caregiver when you are a baby and child provides a blueprint for intimate relationships all through life.
This relationship dynamic gets used when dealing with siblings, best friends, peers and intimate partnerships. Known as attachment theory, this now has scientific credibility and psychological research studies supporting it. Before dismissing this as a bit Freudian, consider your relationship history as you read on.
Closeness and distance
Our early relationship experiences contribute to our tendency to favour closeness or distance in relationships. As an example, if Sarah has experienced parents who are overprotective and intrusive, she might unconsciously choose a partner who either is very similar, always asking her how she is and wanting to be with her, because it feels familiar to her. However, her other option is to choose a partner like Dan, her current boyfriend, who is very distant emotionally, as a not-so-subtle way of choosing something different to what she knows. Both options will have strong desire and chemistry associated with them to start with.
The problem arises when the original (usually unconscious) contract we have with our partner doesn’t work for us anymore, eg Sarah presents in therapy because the distance in the partnership is the very thing that irritates her and she longs for emotional closeness. She blames Dan for the change in the relationship, whereas in fact he hasn’t changed; her expectations have. What once seemed highly desirable – Dan not bugging her about how she feels and what she is doing next – now seems like disinterest.
In choosing partners who can dance the dance of intimacy with us based on our history of early relationships, we get hooked into a pattern of pursuit and withdrawal, (eg Sarah starts criticising Dan and asking for more closeness, pursuing him in an effort to get connection, and Dan responds by withdrawing). As with Sarah and Dan, this often leads to conflict, rejection and hurt. When we can understand why distance might be threatening, or closeness feels claustrophobic, we might be able to create a space for desire and passion in the closeness of love, friendship, support and care.
Another example: Chris and Jamie have been together for five years. The first 14 months of the relationship were passionate and exciting but then developed into a warm and caring companionship with little spark. They tend to do everything together during weeknights and over weekends they share an interest in hiking. Their friends are other couples who they spend their holidays with. In therapy they start to explore the possibility of developing separate interests and are encouraged to create individual Facebook accounts as a way to differentiate from the couple relationship. They are also encouraged to create new email accounts separate from work, family and friends, just for the exchange of personal intimate emails.
In this process, Chris and Jamie are able to see the other as separate and somewhat mysterious. In developing separate interests and weekends away from each other, they find the spark returns.
In couples where there is already a lot of distance, the work required is to figure out why closeness is intimidating and start to create a space where being close feels safe and that this can be contrasted with ever-present distance. It is always in the balance of closeness and distance that passion returns.
How do we enhance desire?
• Understand our own relationship blueprints. Not only will this increase awareness of your own relationship patterns, you will have more choices when unhelpful relationship possibilities show up.
• Have hope. It is possible to imagine your partner with new eyes when you are able to see them as separate from you.
• Have patience. Remember that all couples go through periods where desire disappears but when we attend to this part of the relationship with intention and commitment, it can be worth it.
• Be playful. Resist the idea that sex and desire wane in a committed relationship. It is possible to have passion and fireworks as well as companionate love and friendship.
Dr Mary Grogan will be running a one-day workshop on changing habits and building willpower on February 15, 2014. Go to changeitpsychology.co.nz