What maintains desire in long-term relationships?

I recently watched this awesome Ted Talk. It features Esther Perel, a “therapist, author, speaker, thought leader” according to her website. She refers to a particular aspect of our contradictory nature. Within us all is a tension that exists between the need for safety, security, comfort, predictability (home) and with the desire for mystery, intrigue, novelty and unpredictability (travel).

I find this notion useful in terms of my own inner conflicts in a foreign city away from home but she refers to it specifically in terms of how we have come to expect our long-term relationships to somehow meet our needs on both ends of the spectrum.

She goes on to mention a few of the typical ways in which desire in long-term relationships is achieved and a few of the things that are the “murderers of desire”. She concludes that a crisis of desire is in fact about a crisis of the imagination because it is through seeing the other as a mystery that desire is sparked, and this can be achieved through changing one’s perspective or going on a journey of the imagination (which we can choose to embark on).

  • So, she says things like “desire needs space” and yet commitment in long-term relationships is about closeness and availability. This is why many people feel most drawn to their partner after a long separation or when there is some space created between them.
  • She also says that we are most attractive to our partners when we are in our element, when we are doing what we do best, feeling full of confidence. For this to work, the partner has to be able to watch us from a distance. The space between us needs to be the perfect distance for the other to see us and yet not be able to interact with us, a kind of voyeuristic desire.
  • Unfortunately, neediness and consequent care-taking activities are also the death of desire.
  • Another big turn on for people is the notion of novelty. When they see their partners afresh or see a new element of their character.
  • I like that she looks at the difference between sex and erotic life. She speaks about sex being a place rather than something you do. She asks, “where do you go when you are turned on?”
  • She extends this with her notion that being turned on is not the responsibility of the other but is ours to own. She asks people to complete the sentences “I turn myself on when…” and “I turn myself off when…” because she wants people to recognise that the other can pull out all the stops romantically or sexually but if we’re not feeling turned on, if we are not alive to our erotic nature then it will be to no avail.
  • She speaks about how erotic fantasies, and the things that usually turn us on are often the very things that we try and oppose in society, things that are considered immoral even. And it is in our most loving relationships that we would want to practice the most loving, kind and respectful acts. But in actual fact, that kills desire and there should always be space for the perverse because transgressions (and the forbidden) are erotic.
  • She talks about how in the security of a close relationships there needs to be closeness as well as opportunities for exploration and separation, where the imagination can be ignited outside of the relationship.
  • Erotic couples, she says, give each other space and respect each other’s erotic privacy. They understand that foreplay involves everything you do or don’t do with one another between orgasms rather than a mandatory 5 minutes of manual stimulation just before having sex.
  • Erotic couples know that creating an erotic space is about leaving responsibility behind and finding a space in which you can be “a bad citizen”.
  • Interestingly, it is also about letting go of the myth of spontaneity and acknowledging that erotic energy waxes and wanes like the moon.
  • Most importantly she says that anyone in a long-term relationship needs to cultivate this erotic space, and that this is is a willed act, a conscious act, a premeditated act.

So, what do you think? Did you enjoy this video? Did it help you think about desire in new ways? What do you think keeps desire alive in long-term relationships?


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