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The Problem of Desire in Long-Term Relationships

Therapist and Author Esther Perel on Desire

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The Problem of Desire in Long-Term Relationships
Image courtesy of Harper Paperbacks

Esther Perel is a couples and family therapist and author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. Her book has become an international bestseller (translated into 25 languages in the first year of publication) and she has traveled the world several times over, giving talks and countless interviews about her book and it’s compelling thesis: That our culture’s demands for intimacy in long-term committed relationships may be leading to the disappearance of desire from those relationships.

Below are excerpts from an interview with Esther Perel for About.com. Here she discusses the difficulty of maintaining desire and good sex in long-term committed relationships, and what couples can do to reconsider what in their relationships may be contributing to the diminishing of desire.

Is It Possible to Maintain Desire and Great Sex in Long-Term Relationships?

“All couples struggle with intermittent disappearance of desire. What happens in relationships is that often people end up sapping the freedom and the separateness in the name of a kind of connection and safety that is illusory at best. And they sap the very erotic vitality out of their relationships. At first they welcome the unknown. That’s how they met. But then they start to find the same dimensions at home threatening. Now they don’t want surprise. And they slowly start to create something that is more and more fixed and flat, more safe, more secure, but also more boring. And they complain of marital boredom.

The question is, why doesn’t good intimacy guarantee great sex, contrary to what we’re being told? It would not have been difficult to write a book about people who can’t stand each other, don’t communicate, and therefore don’t have sex. What was interesting was that I have all these couples come to see me saying, we have a great relationship, we love each other very much, we have no sex. They say, I know he loves me but it’s been years since I’ve felt wanted. And they know the difference. These are good relationships with caring, loving, and good intimacy, and they don’t experience desire. And it’s not because the lack of desire is a consequence of a breakdown in the relationship. Actually it’s paradoxically an unanticipated consequence of this wonderful intimacy they created.

Maybe it’s not lack of closeness that stifles desire, but too much closeness and the familiarity that is inherent in intimacy. Maybe the caring and protective elements that nurture love and the way that love flourishes in an atmosphere of mutuality and reciprocity are the very ingredients that block the unselfconsciousness and freedom that is needed to experience desire with the one you love.

But those who have the spark are those who know how to resuscitate it. It’s about surprising the other person, maintaining an interest. It’s about relating to them as a person that you don’t yet know. And not because you’re pretending you don’t know them, but because you actually welcome the unknown, the persistent mystery of your partner, and that you don’t pretend like you actually know them like the inside of your pocket.”

How Desire Changes in Long-Term Relationships

“I don’t think all couples start hot and that passion has only one way to go and that’s down. I think some people have different needs at different times in their life and the person they mate with is not necessarily the one they look for passion or have the best passion with.

I really don’t think we have one sexuality, I think in the course of our lifetime we all have multiple sexualities. I used to think sexuality was something like a characteristic rather than an ongoing process of self-definition. I actually think that for many people it gets better. It may get less intense, there may be less drive, less libido floating around your veins, but your head frees up, and when that happens you have a much better time.

When couples complain about the listlessness of their sex life, they sometimes want more sex, but they always want better sex. And the better sex that they long for is to reconnect with that quality of aliveness and vibrancy and exuberance. With the sense of renewal and connection and playfulness that sex used to afford them.

If you want to link it to infidelity, I think that’s one of the prime reasons people go to experience relationships outside of their own. It’s to beat back that sense of deadness that has creeped in on them. Because when you have an affair, by god, you feel alive. Not that it’s the right thing to do, but it is definitely a moment when you feel in touch with life. I don’t think it’s the only way to get there, but it’s that connection to sexuality to the erotic energy that I’m more interested in.

The way that people cultivate pleasure for its own sake, the way that people can step out of their roles as mom and dad and husband and wife and responsible citizen and maintain a connection with this other more transcendent dimensions of life. And that you find in the erotic.

Also, I think sometimes you connect well with someone for a period in your life and then sometimes you move on. I used to think you move on because what you had wasn’t good. Now I think of it more in terms of life stages. Some people will accompany you through certain stages and not necessarily into the next one. That doesn’t mean you have to trample everything that you had. What you had was probably good -- but for the time you had it. And there’s going to be a lot of relationships where couples raise kids together and may not necessarily stay together afterward. We tend to look at that it as empty nesters who are unable to reconnect. But maybe they actually were couples who knew that a long time ago but they decided they were good as a family and that this was the thing they would do together for the next twenty years.”

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