Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Desire in Long Term Relationships: Keeping it and Finding it When It’s Gone.

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There might be love. There might be commitment. There might be a solid friendship at its core. But that doesn’t mean there will be desire in a long-term relationship. No wonder they’re such hard work! Worth it – but hard.

Desire feeds physical intimacy which in turn feeds connection, nurturance and the protective guard around relationships. Intimate relationships in which desire has faded can take on the shape of housemates or colleagues. There can still be love and a deep emotional bond in these relationships, there might even still be sex, but without desire the way we see ourselves and feel about ourselves changes and will ultimately play out in the relationship. Understanding the nature of desire is key to getting it back. 

The intensity of desire in relationships will ebb and flow. Kids, work, life stress, hormonal changes and those ‘but-they’re-just-so-comfy-feel-them’ grey trackies that glue themselves to you in winter have a way of putting out the fire a little, but problems come about when it stays out for too long. Intimacy might fade, the connection might loosen and sex just doesn’t happen any more.

Slowly, the protective guard around your relationship might start to chip away. The very thing that makes your relationship different to every other relationship in your life slowly stops. You can spend time with other people, laugh, cry, argue, share a meal and go on holidays with them – but sex is something that is only for the two of you, building and nurturing an intimacy and connection that is shared between the two of you and nobody else. This is why it deserves attention.

The fading of desire happens slowly. It comes with the vacuuming, the cleaning, stress, work, busy-ness, familiarity, predictability and just trying to make it through the day. Above all else, it comes with the assumption of responsibility for the needs of our partner over our own. As explained by Esther Perel, a leader in the area of desire in relationships, desire fades when we disconnect from ourselves and become selfless, which is the enemy of desire.

The clue is in the word – ‘self-less’ – as in the lack of self. It’s impossible to switch on desire if we’re not there to switch it on.

Desire then, isn’t about what our partner does, but about what we do and the connection we have with ourselves. It’s about a psychological space we go to during intimacy, where we are with another person but able to let go of responsibility for that person and engage completely with ourselves – our physical needs, our sexual needs, our fantasies. We become selfish – ‘self-ish’ – in the very best sense of the word. We show up completely. We’re fully available for ourselves and this is critical for desire to flourish.

What you need to know about desire.                                                                            

From the work of Esther Perel, we know that desire in long-term relationships involves two needs that push against each other. On the one hand, we need security, safety, familiarity and predictability. But we also need adventure, unpredictability, mystery and surprise.

We need to feel safe and secure in a relationship – we can’t build intimacy and closeness without it. We need to feel as though the relationship has staying power and that the person we love isn’t about to walk out the door. We need a sense of familiarity and predictability. We need to know what happens when we reach out and we need an idea of where the relationship is headed.

But we also have a need for adventure and excitement. As much as we need predictability, we also need mystery and surprise. As much as we need security and safety, we need adventure and risk. It’s how we feel the edges of ourselves and stop ourselves and our relationship from stagnating. 

The problem is that we are asking for all of this from one person. It’s a lot. We want a predictable, safe partner we can trust and we want an exciting, passionate lover. We want to be in a relationship where we feel a sense of belonging, but we want to expand our own identity. We want to feel safe, but we want the excitement and growth that comes with teetering with our toes on the edges of unpredictability.

Why Desire Fades 

There is a difference between love and desire. To love is to have, to desire is to want.

In love we feel the having, the closeness, the belonging. The wanting is fulfilled and there’s a security in knowing that it won’t leave – that it’s safe and stable. We want that from love. We want to feel that it’s safe to give ourselves over, that we will be received and not left exposed. We want to have the person we love. We want to be physically close, as in no distance between us. We want to know the other, to be familiar and to feel the warmth of that. We want to feel comforted by their physical nearness.

But in desire, we want something else – something unpredictable and unfamiliar. We want the excitement that comes with seeking out and discovering that the one we are seeking has been seeking us too. We want the excitement that comes with the mystery, the uncertainty and the unpredictability of that.

As explained by Perel, the qualities of a relationship that grow love – mutuality, protection, safety, predictability, protection, responsibility for the other – are the very things that will smother desire.

The desiring mind is not necessarily a politically correct one – but it is an exciting one and one we deserve to experience. Desire comes with a range of feelings that would make our everyday, socially appropriate selves gasp with the inappropriateness of it all – jealousy, possessiveness, naughtiness, power, selfishness. Too often, the very things that turn on our sexuality and our desire between the sheets are the same things we will push against once the bed is made. 

We make the mistake of not asking for that which might nurture our desire because we confuse it with selfishness. So instead we act from a place of selflessness. The problem with this is that is can starve our desire. Desire by its very nature is selfish – but the very best kind of selfish – the capacity to stay in tune with the self, while being with another. 

Now the Good Part – How to Get it Back

The secret to desire lies in being able to stay connected with the part of ourselves that’s powerful, passionate, playful, sexy, mysterious, selfish, while also being able to be generous, considerate, socially appropriate, responsible and respectable. 

There is a time and a place to fully engage with our self so we can be aware of and meet our sexual needs and feel the feelings that come with desire. There is a time to put our responsible, selfless part aside and experience our desiring self in the fullest.

Neediness and desire cannot exist together. Nothing will kill desire quicker than neediness. Nobody will be turned on by somebody who is needy for them or who has an expectation of them as their caretaker.

In relationships, the more connected we become, the more responsible we also become and the less able we are to be selfish – to let go – in the presence of another. Over time we lose the connection with the part of ourselves that experiences desire.

Desire involves letting go enough to be able to fantasise, to imagine, to be completely in our own head and our own body while being with another, but not responsible for another. It involves having the security to turn the focus from our partner to our self in order to look after our own sexual needs, and to trust that the relationship will still be there when we’re ready to come back. Through her research, Perel has found a number of ways to increase desire.

  1. Spend time apart.

    We know this one. Desire flourishes in absence. It’s something we all have in common regardless of gender, culture or religion. When we are apart, we shift away from the day to day responsibility we feel for (and share with) our partner and reconnect with that which is unfamiliar and exciting. We move from ‘having’ to ‘wanting’. Desire is cramped by the familiar. With distance we are able to feel mystery, longing and anticipation – the hallmarks of desire.

  2. Watch them in their element.

    Our desire grows when we watch our partner doing something that’s driven by their passion and knowledge. We see others drawn to them and we see them exude a confidence that we may not typically see. However much we might love the person we see at home or on holidays or in the everyday, seeing them in an unfamiliar light as confident, knowledgeable, expert and sought after, inspires the unfamiliar which in turn feeds desire. During these times, we are not close up. We watch from a comfortable distance and in this space, this person who is so familiar becomes mysterious, exciting, unpredictable. In that moment, we are changed for a while and we are open to the excitement and mystery that is within touching distance. This is when love and desire share the space.

  3. Know what shuts desire down for you and what turns it up.

    To find the desire or to bring it back into a relationship we have to look to ourselves first, rather than making the issue one of what our partner can do to make us desire him or her more.

    Ask yourself the question: When do you shut yourself off from desire? Is it when you feel exhausted? Old? When you don’t like the way you look? When you haven’t connected in with each other? When you feel selfish for wanting? When you feel as though you can’t ask? When you feel as though you can’t take? When you’re tired of giving? When receiving pleasure feels wrong? When? 

    Similarly, ask when you turn your desire on. When do YOU turn your desire on. This is a different question to asking what turns you on. One comes from the self, one comes from the other. Is it when you miss your partner? When you feel good about yourself? When you’re not busy? When you’re able to loosen from responsibility? When you’re confident? When you feel like you deserve to look after yourself?

  4. Who are you when you feel desire? Embrace that part of yourself.

    Desire is about a space you go into where you stop being the responsible, well-behaved human who looks after others and takes care of things. Desire happens when you can be completely available to, and connected with, yourself while you are with another. Where do you go when you don’t have to be the responsible one? Is it a spiritual space, a naughty space, a playful space or a place of complete surrender. As Perel explains, ‘Sex isn’t something you do, it’s a place you go, a space you enter inside yourself or with another.’ Give yourself permission to do this and if you’re worried that it might feel too ‘selfish’, ask your partner what it would be like for him or her if you were to completely let go during sex. I’m betting it won’t be a problem.

  5. Respect that each of you are entitled to sexual privacy.

    For desire to flourish, there has to be the capacity to psychologically ‘leave’ the relationship and enter your own erotic space. We’ve made the mistake of making intimacy about transparency but it’s not. You don’t have to know each other’s every thought, fantasy and imagining for the relationship to thrive. It’s just too much. Entering somebody’s psychological space is a privilege, not an entitlement, and though being invited into that space is important, being there all the time will hinder desire. 

  6. Forget spontaneity. It takes effort.

    Bringing back passion into a relationship takes a deliberate effort. It’s important not to stand still and wait for it because it won’t come to you by itself. Passion isn’t going to appear from nowhere when you’ve packed the dishwasher and finished your chat about which tiles would look best for the kitchen splashback. It just doesn’t work like that. What does work is deliberately creating opportunities and space to be with each other. 

If the desire has faded, reigniting it might feel awkward at first and that’s completely okay and completely normal. Don’t take the ‘awkward’ as a sign to stop. Take it as a sign to keep going because you’ve already been stopped for too long. 

Desire, sex and physical intimacy are worth the fight and should never be looked on as a bonus extra. They are the heartbeat of relationships and the lifeblood of connection and intimacy. We deserve to experience desire in the fullest. We deserve it for ourselves and for our relationships.

 

(Image Credit: Unsplash | Charlie Foster)

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23 Comments

Karen

I had no idea that this is what was at the root of the problem! So interesting. Thank you, I believe this can help us old dogs.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome. It’s fascinating research isn’t it – makes so much sense! I think there’s something in it for all of us

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Rosi

So good to read! You completely nailed the downfall of my first marriage. Thank you for your research and for your suggestions.

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lisa

Does this mean it’s okay to have an affair if it’s ‘desire”? An then what… work on love, passion and desire in the marriage?
Thanks!!
lisa

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Hey Sigmund

This article is about desire within the relationship you’re in – without going outside the relationship and having an affair. The idea is that over time, desire diminishes as we take on responsibilities and caretaking for each other at the expense of ourselves. The way to get it back is to find a way to psychologically let go of that sense of responsibility temporarily during intimacy and to attend to our own needs. We can get back desire within our relationships by entering a space where we can fantasise, imagine and completely look after our own needs sexually rather than taking responsibility for our partner. It’s very hard to do that if we’re worried about the other person and assuming responsibility for their sexual needs. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about our partner – we absolutely do – it’s just that during intimacy, desire will be enriched if we can attend to ourselves first. It was a good question. I hope this has answered it for you.

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Lisa

Thank you. What if the other partner needs desire outside his marriage to satisfy that need while working on the desire with his wife? Is there ever room for that?

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Thomas

I still feel love and comfort in my 10 yrs relationship, but… very often I find desire in thinking about other women. Sometime this desire is answered by those other women… Allthough we defenitly had some passionate first yrs in our relationship, I just dont feel the real desire in this anymore. Your article was helpfull but I’m still in doubt what to do… Thank you.

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Hey Sigmund

This is a difficult one. Relationships eventually reach a point where the euphoria of the earlier times in the relationship settles to a more secure, deeper love – this is really normal. If you are looking to other women it will always be very difficult to find desire with your partner because your time with these other women will be ‘euphoric’, kind of like the earlier days with your partner. It doesn’t mean that your current relationship isn’t capable of having this, it just means it’s compromised because it will come so much easier with new people. It’s really up to you how committed you are to your relationship. If you are committed and want to stay in it, the best chance of rebuilding the desire is making the decision not to look outside of your relationship for this. A new person will always be exciting and interesting because you haven’t reached the point of stability and security and attachment that you have reached with your partner. This will always undermine your capacity to feel desire with your partner. It can be difficult to find the desire when it feels as though it’s gone, but there are ways to do this. It’s about recommitting and rediscovering each other again. You might find that somewhere over the last little while you’ve both slipped away a little bit, and spending time together and connecting intimately, not just physically but talking together, doing things together – especially exciting things that you may not usually do, not just side by side but actually together where you start to see other other as individuals again, rather than the person you live with. It’s about being vulnerable with each other again, appreciating each other, being open with each other and seeing with each other. Sexually, it’s about letting go of having to be the caretaker and feeling some sort of responsibility for the other person and being able to really move into yourself, whether that’s through fantasy or whatever. It’s important for your partner to be able to do this too – desire brings desire – so sharing the article with her and talking openly about what you both need would be a good place to start. Relationship counselling can really help with this as it’s a safe way for both of you to openly explore what you need to move the relationship forward.

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Thomas

Thank you so much… I really appreciate the fact you clearly acknowledged that I truly feel at comfort and love in my relationship. I notice that often people can’t seperate desire and love in these matters. Thank you.

I can really connect to what you’re saying. Maybe because we’re both still quit young (26), it is tempting for me to look at other friends and see their ‘euphoric’ times again and again. It’s true: this might be something to talk about with my girlfriend- or should I start saying: significant other? :-), but I’m still afraid of hurting her… On the other hand: I wrote the first comment when I was really down and my head was spinning in a negative circle that evening. Later that night I found the courage to openly talk with her about some of those issues I felt. She responded really well. I guess she keeps on surprising me, even after 10 yrs.

I feel like we’re gonna be ok, but it will remain an issue in our relationship. Thanks again for your response and beautiful/interesting website!

Thomas

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome. It’s great that you could both talk about this – it says a lot about your relationship, and about the both of you that you had the courage to bring it up and that she had the courage to listen. Sounds like a relationship worth fighting for.

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Nah

You mentioned in your article that neediness can diminish your partners desire. What’s the best way to approach your partners neediness without making it seem you don’t care about their feelings or needs?

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Hey Sigmund

Have a discussion but the more tenderly you can do this, the better your chance of being heard. Try and make it a positive, ‘this is how we can make us even better’ conversation. Naming and acknowledging a feeling helps to tame that feeling, so in your conversation, try to name the feelings you’re aware of in your partner. If you’re not sure, ask what happens for your partner when they do what they do that feels needy. Acknowledge that the behavior is important for your partner and that you just want to understand it more. This will help your partner to feel heard and understood and as though you’ve ‘got this’.

What seems to trigger your partner’s neediness? Then try, ‘I understand that when … Happens it triggers something in you and you feel uncomfortable. I want to understand more about it so we can work on a way to feel better about it.’ Then gently address the impact on you. ‘I really understand why you feel like that but when you do … I feel …’ Hold or touch your partner while you talk. That in itself can release oxytocin, the bonding chemical, and nurture feelings of closeness and security while you are having your difficult talk.

Talk to your partner about the article and the effect of one person feeling like a caretaker. Try not to use the word ‘neediness’ though – it’s a word that will trigger all sorts of things. If you can describe it positively, you’ll be more likely to be heard. Rather than neediness, try ‘the way you love me’. Try, ‘I love the way you love me and it’s important to me that you feel loved and secure in the relationship. Sometimes I feel as though you don’t feel that way, and that puts a distance between us. I know we can sort through this. Can we talk about what we each need to do that?’ Effectively, it’s naming the specific behaviors that feel needy, acknowledging your partner’s feelings behind it (fear of ….), and validating that.

Neediness can have nothing to do with the present and a lot to do with past hurts. If you’re doing what you can do to help your partner feel secure (by being loving attentive, being accountable, calling when you say you will, being where you say you are) then it may be a leftover response to past relationship or childhood hurts. If it feels safe for both of you, this might be something worth gently exploring because people automatically, without realising, people respond to new situations as though they are old ones. This is really normal and we all do it. If this is what’s happening (and it might not be) talk then about how you and your relationship are different to the past ones that were hurtful. If this becomes a real barrier in your relationship, counselling will be able to help you both to move to through this. I wish you all the best.

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A

Hi, I’m currently almost entering 8 years of my relationship with my fiancé. And after a few difficult weeks, he’s finally called for a cool off period. He tells me things like he knows logically he still wants to marry me, but the emotional attachment has changed. I can understand it’s probably because for the last few months I’ve been very busy with work and he’s been helping me out with it. So much that I’ve been dependent on him being there and while I show my appreciation, it’s not enough with him. He tells me that he feels like he has no time for himself, and also another main thing is physical intimacy. We have tried to have sex during the first few years but I’ve always felt pain and am unable to carry it though. I also don’t find myself desiring sex with him, maybe because my knowledge of it is always a painful experience. After that, he just stopped trying during the last few years. He finally expressed that he’s been quite affected about it, even though I’ve said I’ll seek help if I need to, or we can use external help like lubricants etc to minimize the pain.. But he says that it might not help too? Coupled with the feeling of being stuck in a rut, he’s really lost as to if he wants to go on with this relationship. Please give me any advice to find back my desire for him, as I would still want to fight for this relationship. Right now we are working on distance as we have agreed to not meet or contact unless necessary for the next one month..

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Hey Sigmund

This sounds like a difficult time for you. Physical intimacy in a relationship is something that’s can break a relationship if the couple aren’t on the same page. It’s so much more than the physical aspect – it’s nurturing, bonding, connecting and is one of the things that makes your relationship with your partner different to every other relationship in your life. A relationship can work without sex provided that both people agree that they are honestly okay with that, or provided that there is an alternative way of creating physical intimacy that doesn’t involve intercourse and that both people are happy with this. I would really strongly encourage you to speak to a doctor to see if there is something physical that’s causing your pain, not only because your fiancé has flagged the lack of physical intimacy as an issue, but because pain is usually a sign that something isn’t right and it’s important to take notice of that. It’s also going to be difficult for you to find your desire again if you expect to feel pain. If there are no physical reasons for the pain, there may be psychological things, like stress or worry, that are behind it. If this is the case, a counsellor would help you to understand what’s happening and they would also be able to help you find strategies to deal with it. Here is some information that also might help https://www.heysigmund.com/6-reasons-people-leave-relationships-and-how-to-avoid-it-happening-to-yours/ . I wish you all the very best.

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Kelley

Thank you for writing this. I have been on this off and on rut now with my boyfriend, more so me having a push-pull routine. He’s the most amazing guy I’ve ever met in my life and I truly can see myself spending my life with him. I have went through many growing pains within myself the past year and it’s caused me to disconnect from him pretty massively– as well as health issues that gets in the way of our intimacy (as well as my completely out-of-whack hormones taking a huge role of this). We are compatible and nothing in this world tells us we shouldn’t be together. I am making doctors appointments and I am going through the awkward stage of reconnecting after disconnecting for so long (a year of disconnection is a long time) Your article after all of this gives me hope we can get back to where we were and live a happy life together with the intimacy, love, and desire we both deserve. Thank you 🙂

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Hey Sigmund

Kelley you’re so welcome. I’m pleased the article has been able to give you hope and comfort. You sound so motivated – you deserve to have someone in your life who you adore and who adores you. Sounds like this man is it. I hope you are able to work things through.

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Alkan

This is the best article that I’ve read about intimacy and desire. Thank you for putting in the effort and sharing these amazingly valuable information Karen!

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Melissa

Such a great article. I’ve been married for 10 years and desire has certainly been something I’ve had trouble with. I think growing up in a very religious home desire and selfish sexual thinking have been discouraged my whole life. It is a tool that is deeply hidden and not used. This has been an issue in our marriage from the start. I feel I go through the motions most of the time, and that is bad for both of us. We have a deep love for one another and are committed, but I want that desire in our marriage. Any tips on how to exercise that feeling when it has been unused for so long, and not feel guilty about it?

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Karen Young

Experiment gently with what that feeling would be like for you. It might feel awkward for a while, but that’s ok – it’s about discovering and trying something different until it feels right.

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Chris

Great article. Wondering when you speak having one’s own private sexuality or private sexuality space in the relationship what do you mean. Masturbation? Pornography? Or do these things make desire with your partner less powerful?

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Karen Young

It doesn’t necessarily mean finding a way towards sexual satisfaction in a way that is separate from your partner, but more being able to be with your partner, but also focus on yourself.

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