• Part of an essay in progress

Is continued sexual passion even possible in long-term love?

Posted December 2, 2013 11:34 am  

Fisher argues that romantic passion is time-limited and exists to get us to choose a partner with whom we can conceive a child. Usually, passion ultimately changes to attachment, which has different brain chemistry and is designed to get the couple to stay together. Fisher does not say that romantic passion and attachment are mutually exclusive, but she does suggest that our biology does not have an investment in their co-existence.

Esther Perel, a couples and sex therapist, has made a career of discussing the conflict between love and desire and suggesting how we might promote their simultaneity. An article in the NYTimes (1/26/14) describes her perspective on human sexuality. Watch her Ted lecture to get a sense of who she is and how she thinks. You will be impressed with the speed, élan, and cleverness with which she describes the inherent conflict, as she sees it.

Perel, it seems to me, is very adept at laying out the problem but less expansive in suggesting solutions. She describes how we seek security, mutuality, and closeness in love and says, “How can you desire what you already have?” and “When there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek.” She claims that couples therapy has for the last 20 years emphasized the need for “security in a relationship” but suggests that too much security squashes sexual charge.

Having asked couples around the world what draws them to their partners, she reports that there are three types of answers that seem universal: when the partner is absent; when the partner is in his/her realm and is being admired by others; when there is novelty in their interaction. This all comes down to the necessity of some distance between the partners, just enough space for the separateness and otherness of the person to be apparent. It is this space that allows the erotic charge. Perel describes and illuminates these issues wonderfully and is very convincing. Her suggestions for creating this space, for introducing novelty and playfulness into the relationship, however, do not sound very new to me. Haven’t couples therapist been saying this for the last 20 years, too?

Perel’s work looks at passion and love from a different perspective than Fisher, but their views are completely compatible. Fisher has documented the decline of erotic passion (recognizable in the subject’s brain chemistry) with the increase in long-term commitment. Perel sees this decline anecdotally in her patients and in her readers. Fisher sees the decline as having an evolutionary purpose. Perel seeks to offer ways of curtailing it, but then so does Fisher: the end of her book offers approaches to reducing the decline that are similar to Perel’s. The two writers are really two sides of the same sex and love coin: one neurobiological, one psychological.

What is not considered by either is the possibility that sex can change in the way that love changes. If passionate love evolves naturally into a less exciting but more comfortable and intimate form of attachment, cannot sex evolve similarly? As we age we change. Why should sex at 19 be the same as sex at 39 or 69? (I suspect that men may not agree with me on this.) Isn’t the goal to embrace each stage of life for its specialness while simultaneously maintaining as much as possible the sense of aliveness in every thing we do?


share    site feed
  • Paula Chandoha   February 4, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    I think that perhaps Ms. Perel, referenced above in a 1/26/14 NYT article, is asking the wrong question,”How can you desire what you already have?” when referring to a long time relationship between partners, spouses.
    Please see the book, “The New Rules of Marriage” by Terry Real. In this timely book, the questions and point of view laid out by TR’s work with couples in long relationships are quite relevant to 21st century relationships and our complex lives; and esp. those relationships begun in the 20th century and still ongoing now in 21st. I would answer this question, “Is sexual passion even possible in long term love? ” with a evolving and fairly fragile, yes!In my opinion, I have observed/experienced that being open to the big and inevitable emotional changes w/in the long relationship helps the sexual passion!

    • eliz   February 5, 2014 at 12:39 pm

      Thank you so much, Paula! I will certainly check out the book you recommend. Ms. Perel seems to be targeting middle-aged marrieds, but certainly we evolve over our whole lifetimes, and there is a lot still to be learned about love at other times of life.

write quick comment