It’s February, love is in the air and so is desire. At least it should be. But for many couples in long-term relationships, passion is a distant memory. Why is it that even for couples who continue to love each other as much as ever, the passion so often fades? And, what’s the secret to stopping it from doing so?
These are the same questions Belgian born psychologist Esther Perel asks in her bestselling Mating in Captivity. According to Perel, we’re currently experiencing a kind of existential “crisis of desire”: “On the one hand, a relationship must satisfy our deep-seated need for security, dependability and permanence, while at the same time meeting our equally strong need for adventure, mystery and the unexpected.”
Perel points out the psychological love-desire paradox that exists at the heart of modern-day marriage: the fact that the very ingredients that nurture love – mutuality, reciprocity, protection, worry, responsibility for the other – are sometimes the very ingredients that stifle desire.
But why now? Surely, the demise of desire over time has existed for as long as the institution of marriage has been around?
Perel draws attention to historical changes in the “function” of marriage. “Reconciling our need for security and our need for adventure into one relationship, or what we today like to call a passionate marriage, used to be a contradiction in terms,” she explains. “Marriage was an economic institution in which you were given a partnership for life in terms of children and social status and succession and companionship. But now we want our partner to still give us all these things, but in addition I want you to be my best friend and my trusted confidant and my passionate lover to boot… So we come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide: Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one.”
While a decline in sexual desire over the course of a relationship is typical, is it not, however, inevitable. So why are some couples able to maintain strong feelings of passion and desire for several decades, despite changes in lifestyle, the arrival of children and the ravages of the age?
Understanding the factors that contribute to the experience of sexual desire in romantic relationships also has important implications for the overall quality and functioning of romantic relationships, it would appear. In an article published in the international journal of Social Behavior and Personality, US psychologist Dr Pamela Regan claims that people who report higher levels of sexual desire have fewer thoughts about leaving their current relationship, while studies conducted by psychologists at the University of Colorado and published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, show that those reporting higher levels of sexual desire also appear to be more satisfied in their relationships. Indeed, it comes as no surprise that low sexual desire is the most common reason couples seek sex therapy.
Given the importance, then, of sexual desire for the maintenance of satisfying relationships, it is clear that exploring the factors that help couples maintain desire over the course of their relationship is key. Despite this, though, few studies have investigated those magic ingredients that help promote sexual desire, especially in the context of established relationships. One that does, however, yields some interesting findings. Conducted by psychologists at the Universities of Toronto Mississauga, Cambridge and Guelph in Canada, the study reveals that individual differences in the motivation to meet a partner’s sexual needs is a predictor of the intensity of feelings of sexual desire in long-term partnerships.
According to the authors, being motivated to meet a partner’s sexual needs can help keep the spark alive in long-term relationships. “Partner-focused sexual goals are a critical mechanism that link sexual motivation to sexual benefits,” they say, adding that their findings also “provide the first clue as to why individuals who are highly motivated to care for their partner’s sexual needs also experience boosts in their own feelings of sexual desire.”
In other words, caring about your partner’s sexual needs not only buffers your relationship against the future diminishment of desire but has libido-boosting benefits for you too!
Perel, meanwhile, insists that our current “crisis of desire” is, in fact, a crisis of imagination. “Animals have sex… It’s the natural instinct,” she points out, “but we are the only ones who have an erotic life, which means that it’s sexuality transformed by the human imagination.”
And it’s this decidedly cerebral understanding, then, that fuels the flames of desire, she says: “Erotic couples understand that passionate love waxes and wanes. But what they know is how to resurrect it… and they know how to bring it back because they have demystified one big myth, which is the myth of spontaneity. Committed sex is premeditated sex. It’s willful. It’s intentional. It’s focus and presence.”