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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.