It has long been assumed that couples who are in love will have a satisfactory sex life and that deep intimacy begets great sex. And yet, good sex often fades even for couples who are still in love after years of being together, raising several important questions about the relationship between love and desire.
How is love different to desire? How do they relate and how do they conflict?
What sustains desire in long term relationships and why is it so difficult?
Enter Esther Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist and author who set about to answer these questions. In her quest, Perel observed what appears to be a paradox between love and desire in human relationships in that where there is romantic love, there also seems to be what she terms “a crisis of desire”. She argues that vital to sustaining desire in a committed relationship is the reconciliation of two fundamental and conflicting human needs: our need for security and our need for surprise.
Love and desire in conflict
Perel explains that as humans, we all have a strong need for security, predictability, safety, dependability and reliability. These anchoring and grounding experiences satisfy our need for permanence or “home”. The ingredients that nurture these feelings which we call ‘love’ are mutuality, reciprocity, protection and responsibility for others.
Desire on the other hand comes from an equally strong need which humans have for adventure, novelty, mystery, risk, danger, the unexpected and surprise. Fuelling sexual desire are ingredients such as jealousy, possessiveness, power, dominance, aggression, naughtiness and mischief.
In a nutshell, Perel is saying that the ideas and experiences that support the concept of love are sometimes the very ingredients that stifle sexual desire. As she puts it so eloquently, the erotic mind is not very politically correct because most of us will get sexually aroused at night by the very same things that we rally against during the day.
Reconciling our need for security and our need for adventure pose one of the key challenges for relationships today.
The dilemma of modern relationships
Balancing these two needs was not such a problem in the past when marriage was an economic institution and contractual arrangement entered into for the sake of having children, gaining social status and for the purpose of succession. Everyone knew where they stood and sexual desire was outsourced to dalliances outside of the marriage.
Not anymore. Sexual desire as a concept is now firmly embedded as part of modern love and in individualistic societies as an expression of individuality, free choice, preferences and even as part of our identity.
In contemporary relationships, we expect our partner to be all things to us, in essence, to play multiple roles - best friend, trusted confidante and passionate lover. As Perel puts it, we expect our partners to give us belonging, identity, predictability, closeness and comfort but at the same time, offer us transcendence, novelty, mystery and awe, all in one. With such pressure, is it any surprise that many relationships buckle under the weight of these demands?
But that’s not all, given that desire is about wanting and seeking where we haven’t been before and what we haven’t had, is it even possible to want what we already have?
According to Perel, it is certainly possible to regain or maintain an erotic spark in an emotionally committed relationship by cultivating what she calls, Erotic intelligence, a concept which she writes about in her book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence.
Perel notes that couples who have an erotic spark understand that sex provides them with a way to get in touch with feeling alive, vibrant, vital and energetic. The ingredients that sustain sexual desire are imagination, playfulness, novelty, curiosity and mystery with the key component being imagination.
But because love entails selflessness, we don’t always know how to bring to the person whom we love, the host of things that are going on in our erotic mind. Therefore, a certain amount of selfishness (in terms of attending to our own needs) is necessary to sustain sexual desire because we don’t get excited enough if we spend our time in the body and head of the other and not in our own.
Perel has noted that erotic couples share following:
1. They understand that desire needs space so they have a lot of sexual privacy and understand that there is an erotic space that belongs to each of them.
2. They understand that ‘an erotic space’ is created when each of them leave all their care-taking responsibilities at the door.
3. They also understand that ‘foreplay’ is not just something that they do before sexual intercourse.
4. They understand that passion waxes and wanes but they also know how to bring it back.
5. They understand that committed sex is pre-meditated, focused and intentional because they have de-bunked the myth of spontaneity.
Esther Perel is a Belgian psychotherapist and author, recognised as one of the important voices in modern love, marriage and human relationships. She is known for her work on sexual desire and infidelity.
Material for this post was drawn from a TED talk which she gave in February 2013 entitled The secret to desire in a long-term relationship. As of June 2018, it has received more than 12 million views on TED's website.