Is it possible to be deeply committed to your spouse and intensely desire one another throughout the years?
Recall your first crush: the exhilarating high, the twitterpated racing heartbeat, and the rush of insecurity about whether they felt similarly about you. In her bestselling book Mating In Captivity (2006), Esther Perel suggests that the excitement you felt was likely a response to a combination of attachment to that desirable person and anxiety about the risk of losing their affection.
To cope with the anxiety inherent in infatuation, couples may agree to make a commitment. Commitments in relationships tend to create a sense of security for those involved, and are often a welcomed opportunity to give oneself over to one’s beloved. Marriage is often perceived to be the ultimate commitment in a romantic relationship because it vows to sustain the union despite emotional turbulence: “To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part."
Does Marriage Make a Difference?
The consistency of a long-term marital relationship may increase the relationship’s sense of trustworthiness, but might it simultaneously diminish desire? The relationship’s reliability provides comfort, but it also could also chip away at the intense high that results from the initial insecurity of attraction. Although married couples tend to have more frequent and varied sex than unmarried couples (National Survey of Sexual Health and Behaviors, 2010), a common complaint in marital therapy is a loss of robust sexual passion.
Humans tend to defend against anxiety through attempts to control. However, control extinguishes passion. Consider this: if you knew that you and your spouse would have sex every other day for the rest of your lives, would you feel secure? Possibly. But desire thrives with mystery: adventurous pursuit with unknowable elements. C.S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves (1960), “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one.”
Risk and Predictability
The challenge with maintaining passion in marriage is not just that individuals become intimately familiar with their spouse: the challenge is that predictability often requires an absence of risk. How can couples maintain both the relative security of a loving commitment, and the thrill of possibility in a relationship? One approach is recognizing and accepting that two separate, complex and changing people exist in the marriage, each with their own set of desires.
Marital psychotherapist David Schnarch contends that independence contributes to passion in committed relationships in a 2012 interview by Pam Weintraub in Psychology Today: "Marriage can't succeed unless we claim our sense of self in the presence of another." Schnarch suggests that the route to passionate marriage is differentiation: the process of engaging in intimate relationship and yet maintaining a wholly separate identity. According to Schnarch, over-dependence on one's spouse squelches desire.
In response to the need for increased self-sufficiency in passionate marriages, Schnarch recommends that couples work on four areas of personal development: operating according to one's own deeply held personal values, handling one's own emotional life, not overreacting to challenging situations, and persevering through failure to accomplish one's goals. When spouses resist the urge to conform to one another, they have the opportunity to experience self-validated intimacy. Through maintaining their own self-worth and managing their own challenges rather than constantly depending on one another, Schnarch observes that spouses increase their respect for one another and "open enough space to get closer and provide room for passionate love to return."
Is it possible that some spouses may not know each other as well as they perceive? In the attempt to create safety in a relationship, individuals sometimes categorize and caricaturize each individual’s personality or mannerisms with short-hands like, “he’s the dreamer, I’m the doer,” or “ she’s the social butterfly, and I’m a loner.” There is a sense of control involved in creating a static identity for one’s partner – and oneself. Individuals may willingly enter into these identity contracts wherein they suppress feelings or needs that exceed the allocated roles in relationships because predictability begets trust. However, in their quest for stability, these categories stifle authentic relationships and limit each partner's perceived abilities.
The truth is, humans are not static characters. Particularly when they are challenged through intimate relationships, humans are complex, emotional creatures who grow and change. When married couples allow one another the freedom to express their unique and changing perspectives, needs, interests, imaginations, skills, and feelings, those committed relationships are able to experience the mystery and risk that underlies desire: authenticity and individuality abounds and excitement is reignited.
“Desire is fueled by the unknown, and for that reason it is inherently anxiety-producing,” notes Perel. Rather than defending against anxiety through rigid roles and rituals in marriage, Perel suggests embracing anxiety as a valuable aphrodisiac. Will increasing honest self-assertion in your relationship potentially increase conflict? Probably. When two complex, differentiated, whole individuals honestly express their constantly-transforming opinions and feelings to one another, conflict is certainly more likely – as is the likelihood of personal growth and passion.
Benefits of Committed Relationships
One benefit of committed relationships is that there may be safety for space and differences without risking the loss of the relationship. In marriage, couples can take advantage of opportunities for personal reflection and exploration without the degree of jeopardy within a less established union. Perel notes that couples report increased desire for their partners when they see them from a distance. Individuals who allow themselves to readjust to the individuality and “other-ness” of their spouse allow for longing in the relationship to thrive.
Psychoanalyst Mark Epstein writes in Open to Desire (2006), “our willingness to engage the mystery of the other person keeps desire alive.” When individuals in a relationship lose a sense of their individual identities, sometimes in response to a well-meaning intention to serve each other’s needs, curiosity in the relationship wanes. Tending to one’s own well-being through the development of friendships, interests and goals is associated with passion in romantic relationships, according to research by Daniel O’Leary published by Scientific American in 2013.
In addition to self-sacrifice, what are other barriers to independent expression in marriage? The risks of rejection is a significant hazard. In a 2012 Spirituality and Health interview, renowned researcher and author Brene Brown was asked, “Why should we foster vulnerability in our relationships?” Brown reflects, “There can be no intimacy – emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy, physical intimacy – without vulnerability. One of the reasons there is such an intimacy deficit today is because we don’t know how to be vulnerable. It’s about being honest with how we feel, about our fears, about what we need, and, asking for what we need. Vulnerability is a glue that holds intimate relationships together."
When couples maintain the space for each person’s autonomy, including openness to honest expression of complex and changing needs, emotions, and life experiences, mystery and passion flourish. In marriage, unified commitment begets trust, and untamed growth and individuality begets desire.
Perhaps the key to cultivating desire in marriage is to promote each person’s confident self-expression and accept change. Inspired to imagine fresh perspectives and vulnerably share their desires, couples may re-learn how to long for one another.
Through attending and participating in relationship therapy, couples have the opportunity to explore how marital commitment and passion can coexist when the relationship has room to breathe. Esther Perel makes this point succinctly: “Fire needs air.”
Perel, E. (2006). Mating in captivity: Reconciling the erotic the domestic. New York: HarperCollins.
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Reese, M., Herbenick, D., Fortenberry, D., Dodge, B., Sanders, S., & Schick, V. (2010, January 1). National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. Retrieved February 12, 2015.
Lewis, C. (1960). The four loves. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
Weintraub, P. (2012, May 1). How To Grow Up. Retrieved February 13, 2015.
Epstein, M. (2006). Open to desire. New York: Gotham Books.
Bouris, K. (2013, November 27). Brene Brown: How Vulnerability Holds the Key to Emotional Intimacy. Retrieved February 12, 2015.
Seppala, E. (2012, February 12). Discovering the Secrets of Long-Term Love. Retrieved February 13, 2015.
Esther Perel: The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship [Motion picture]. (2013). USA: TED.com.