Intimacy and passion are different, advises couples therapist Esther Perel

My fabulous British journalist friend Jane Mulkerrins travels the globe interviewing celebrities (Kevin Kline, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob ThorntonTilda Swinton, Victoria’s Secret models … it goes on and on) but that’s not all she does. She recently interviewed Esther Perel, a couples therapist in New York.

The headline on Jane’s article in the Telegraph tells you this is going to be good reading:
The closer the couple, the better the sex? Not so

Received wisdom teaches that intimacy and openness lead to satisfying sex, yet Perel was witnessing plenty of low libidos and sexless marriages even among the closest of couples. “It led me to begin an exploration of the nature of erotic desire in long-term relationships,” she says. The result of her explorations was a book, Mating in Captivity, and a somewhat counterintuitive conclusion: that intimacy can often impede desire, and closeness, rather than fanning the flames, can quash the sexual spark.

Perel tells Jane that love and desire are “parallel narratives,” that being secure and intimate with someone is different from erotic desire. That broken in sweatshirt you love to lounge around in is comfy, but it doesn’t make your heart race.

Plus pursuit seems to be an important element of desire. Have you ever really wanted something — a job, a vacation, a car — and once you got it, the thrill of having wasn’t as big as the thrill of wanting? Maybe that’s because we take for granted what we have, maybe it’s because the distance between you and what you wanted closed.

How many television series have lost a spark once the “will they or won’t they” sexual tension gave way to two people becoming a couple?

 In her TED talk, Perel asks if we can want what we already have:

Perel further told Jane:

“Intimacy as we define it today is about transparency, sharing everything and being known, and transcending our existential aloneness by the shared connection with one other. We still want everything we wanted from traditional marriage – a family, companionship, social status, economic support – but we also want that person to give us mystery and transcendence.”

In the past we derived our sense of security and of self not just from marriage, but from our bonds with the wider community, she says. Consequently, marital intimacy has become burdened with expectations, some of them highly contradictory. In short, love and security need closeness; passion and desire need space.

Absence makes the heart (and maybe other parts) grow fonder. This feels very natural to me. Thankfully John and I have never been an attached-at-the-hip couple. We enjoy each other’s company, but we’re also comfortable going our own way.

As I wrote a few years back in tips I’d learned in 10 years of marriage, I don’t expect John to be just like me and we don’t depend on each other to fulfill every need. When we’re together too much, I can feel overdose coming and we need to get away for a bit — after which, we enjoy reporting back on where we’ve been and what we’ve done.

Sounds like Esther Perel would say we’re on the right track.

I encourage you to read Jane’s full story, both because she has an intelligent, fun-to-read style and because Perel has so much to say on relationships, infidelity, parenting and more.

If you do, you’ll be rewarded with practical suggestions for creating space in your relationship so the passion can heat up:

Go to the cinema solo, to see the films you want to see, not only those that both of you agree on, she advises. If your partner loves to stay longer at parties than you, take two cars, or let him arrange a lift home for later. If he hates to travel, go away for a long weekend with some friends instead.

“It is about not being threatened by the difference of the other, not being threatened that if you don’t do everything together, then it means that you’re not close, that you are not intimate. We need multiple connections, multiple attachments. If you start to feel that you have given up too many parts of yourself to be with your partner, then one day you will end up looking for another person in order to reconnect with those lost parts.

Past Newvine Growing posts on marriage:

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Categories: home and family, lifestyle

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