One of the more persistent questions is whether couples can actually stay excited and attracted. And I’m a firm believer that they can. Contrary to the prevailing belief that long term (LT) relationships must inevitably lose ardor, there are several aspects of relating that, once understood, can keep attraction pretty robust. But these critical variables must be operating: Risk-taking, Containment of Anxiety, Resolving Hurts and Anger, and Countering Tendencies to Streamline a ‘Perfect Parent’. They’re necessary conditions for sure. And I’ve come to suspect they’re sufficient as well.
LT relations almost invariably begin demanding security (as differentiated from ‘safety’). In order to keep being loved by the other, people believe they have to hide parts of themselves. They tame the lascivious longings (or only fantasize about them in masturbatory frenzies – which you can’t dare show your partner) because they believe this stuff is kinky or weird. And people keep secret the parts of them that can feel wild, ‘out of control’, and deeply desirous of gratification.
And so I hear these longings in therapy sessions, or among friends who’d never dare to talk to their partners of such fantasies. And sadly, the only way most people know to address these sensations is to: be stuck in solitary fantasy, seek an affair (in vivo), or an affair with the internet (apps or porn). In both cases, neither ‘partner’ will look at you as weird (in the case of the affair, the other person usually craves as much as you the excitement of something not so secure). Within a ‘secure’ relationship, even ‘being allowed’ to fantasize about someone else is generally verboten. People ‘shouldn’t’ feel these things and thus the feelings/thoughts should be suppressed, which causes individuals to return deeper and deeper into themselves as opposed to joining their partners in some of the alluring ideas and fantasies. And because an affair is not so ‘secure’, it’s the vehicle in which to behave ‘madly’ and ‘badly’. But to free up the primary couple, those parts of the self have to move back into the relationship in order to excite it again. One of the most frequent comments I hear when people have affairs is “Wow, he or she really gets me”; and that happens precisely because you’ve shared parts of yourself with this new person that you’ve long withheld from your partner. But can you begin to start taking those risks with your original mate?
Why not talk to your partner about some of your fantasies, or what things you’d like done, or nicely weird things you’d wish for? Why not admit to watching porn and sharing what you liked or would like to try? The list is exhaustive; but it simply serves to exemplify the idea of opening up your thinking and potential activities. Surprising a partner with new things about you can be pretty titillating. Think about it.
Countering Tendencies To Streamline a ‘Perfect Parent’
Consider the following examples:
Russell grew up sensing and knowing that his father thought mom wasn’t pretty/sexy/smart/challenging/intriguing enough. He’d notice how his father looked at women, how he extolled the virtues of those women he’d meet at work and his almost imperceptible but constant annoyance and crankiness when at home. And Russell plays out the legacy: If Karen, his wife, buys a new outfit or doesn’t know about news stories, Russell feels disappointed and then negatively compares her to the ‘confident women’ he knows, or comments on her timidity and lack of assertiveness. And experiencing Russell’s disdain, Karen feels eveb less effective and less willing to take risk. Be aware though that Russell hasn’t made her this way; he’s just exacerbating some of her own insecurities.
Amanda, a fashion stylist, falls for guys who are ingenuous and likable, though not as ambitious in their careers as she is. Her father was a volatile man and professionally unstable – not only having difficulty getting jobs, but unable to hold onto them – for reasons he’d always attribute to others. And so, beginning early in a relationship, Amanda focuses on why her boyfriend doesn’t aspire to grow professionally or seek new jobs with higher pay and more responsibility. And so she looks for jobs for him, ‘can’t help but nag him, and unwittingly (and constantly) makes it known that she’s frustrated.
Mark grew up being taken care of by his grandmother in Ohio; his mother left for Chicago to be with a man she’d met after Mark’s father left home. Mark insists that he was never saddened by the events – although mentions having been depressed as a child. At 25 he found his wife, Kerrin, who he adored and idealized, though he’d chastise her often for things that seemed to Kerrin small and insignificant. His moralizing and rigid views over the years finally pushed Kerrin away, instead spending a lot of time with an old male friend – for which Mark accused her of having an affair. After coming to understand that she’d been angry at Mark and needed to work through those feelings with him, Mark furiously refused, intent upon never letting himself love again (because he’d never acknowledged and worked through his own loss of mom and dad).
In each case, the early anxieties learned as kids manifest in somewhat inaccurate perceptions of their partners – projecting onto them (see the post on Shadowboxing) things that are usually only partially true. It’s a constant vigilance for perceived ‘danger’. Until we know and manage the anxieties, we’re stuck believing that the problem inheres in the other person, and so the only answer becomes to continue to seek the real Mr/Ms. Right. Take both cases of Mark and Amanda for greater clarity. With Mark, he was never conscious of how hurt and angry he’d been when his mother left, and so he came to ‘preserve’ mom (i.e., not be angry) with the consequence that the woman he’d be with would have to compensate and be ‘better’. Because there’s so much anxiety about losing a woman he loves yet again, he keeps trying to perfect Kerrin with his critical comments; there’s a Pygmalion/Galatea quality to it. Without realizing it, he’s trying to ‘keep her in her place’ – literally and figuratively. But because he came to be able to learn more about these dynamics and find ways to change them, he did end up staying with Kerrin in a more satisfying relationship.
Amanda can’t bear the disappointment of witnessing anything like Dad’s depression and frustration and the constant fights her parents had as a result, so she’ll make sure that her man is the antithesis of that. When she perceives the slightest sign of work discontent or lack of palpable aspiration, her anxiety moves into gear. Until she began to address that anxiety, she simply believed that the problem was always in the boyfriend, and thus had to go from one boyfriend to another until she’d find some professional wunderkind (not fully getting that he too would have flaws -just different ones). Since her anxiety would always get re-triggered with most new men, it was incumbent upon her to work on her own misperceptions and beliefs.
In both cases, their fears reigned, which took the place of seeking more actual ‘data’ about the partner. And so, when they came to understand this ‘stuck’ process, learning to develop skills to reduce the anxious thinking (and look at the actual ‘data’) – they were able to see the other far more clearly.
Containment of Anxiety
Anxiety doesn’t necessarily feel like we’re anxious. It can manifest as thoughts/feelings that are unrelated to what we’re doing in the moment. And it actually happens frequently during sex per se, but it can also manifest as the constant ‘noise’ of our lives that keep us from even feeling sexual or wanting sex; most people experience it as: “Oh, I’m just too exhausted/busy”.
When anxiety manifests during sex, it comes on as neutral thoughts of what we’re doing later, tasks to be done, wondering what the kids are up to, concern about work we haven’t started and so on. Or they can be worries about how our boss is treating us, or that we ate too much and our stomach feels huge, or how we didn’t present well in a meeting, or that we’re not achieving our numbers or any other perceived ‘failures’ – none of which can possibly lead to feeling particularly sexy. So, identifying what’s worrying us, learning to ‘shelve it’ and discerning what’s truly a concern vs a rumination can often lead us out of this deeply alone place to re-join our partners.
At times, the anxiety/discomfort can also evince as mild but constant negative affects about the partner: A constant low-level sense of annoyance, criticism with how he or she behaves or laughs or how successful s/he is, annoyance that he didn’t take out the proverbial garbage, feelings about why s/he tries to be sexual ‘when s/he knows I’m stressed about X or Y’, etc.. And the negativity is often a stand-in for specific issues that have never adequately been discussed in ongoing and problem-focused ways. This presages the following:
Resolving Hurt and Anger
Hurts and anger build because: we fear disrupting the status quo, ‘hurting the other’s feelings, inciting his/her anger by bringing up something s/he won’t like, being unclear about what’s truly wrong or why we’re even reacting negatively, and a host of other factors. Sometimes you just find yourself snapping at your partner but can’t readily identify why. The scores of people who come into my office wondering why they’re no longer attracted is legion. They’ll say “my partner is smart/successful/handsome/pretty/great on paper, etc., but I’m just not there”. The breadth of variables that account for this is wide, and will only be discussed briefly here. But one of the most common reasons we ‘don’t know’ is that we’ve learned to avoid truly knowing. That is, we grow up as the unwitting students of how our parents responded and reacted to each other and to us. And because it’s what’s familiar we don’t even notice it as unusual. In fact, it’s how we come to learn ‘what love is’ or what ‘normal’ is. And because we don’t even recognize what we’ve learned – almost like muscle memory – we don’t notice the injurious patterns we get into ourselves.
-Aaron begins staying at the office for longer periods of time when he doesn’t know how to deal with the drama at home, just as he watched his Dad do. And his partner, Jerry, is becoming more embittered. Jerry then sulks once Aaron is around, inciting in Aaron even more of a feeling of just wanting to run – and hence, creating a feedback loop.
-Barry spent a few years having affairs because his wife, who he described as kind and generous to others, rarely showed affection toward him. Ultimately he turned off – obscuring pain and upset. Since Barry had had no models for discussing problems, he had no idea how to access Aliya’s own hurt and anger. And if they tried to talk, Barry would become cranky and impatient and thus abort discussions about anything real, unknowingly creating or at least exacerbating Aliya’s own withdrawal.
-Sydney finds herself internally jeering Mel whenever he talks with people; she’s disgusted by what she describes as his ‘false self’, or inability to let go or loosen up in life. In fact, it isn’t until she talks in therapy about the fact that he’s bothered if she “makes noise” in sex that she’s finally able to start describing how very restricted and controlled she feels by him.
The list of the kinds of accrued hurt, pain, and annoyance is endless. And yet almost all of these dynamics could change radically if we developed the language and behavior to address problems in ways other than what we’ve unwittingly learned. It’s not surprising at all that we learn certain interactive styles; what’s surprising is that when they kill attraction and excitement we don’t look to see what we can do about it in more workable ways. It’s ‘easier’ to either maintain their secure “lives of quiet desperation” or run. Neither works.
The corollary is that as people access help – whether via counseling, coaching, reading and talking- and then learn to address these things together in reasonable ways, couples can actually become deeply sexual again. It’s still kind of amazing that it can come back – or, rather, move forward – as easily as it does.