NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Relationships: The Paradox of Love and Sexual Desire in a Committed Relationship

I'm continuing a discussion in this article that I started in my prior article about relationships based on Dr. Stephen A. Mitchell's book, Can Love Last?.

Integrating Love and Sexual Desire in a Relationship

Togetherness in a Relationship vs. the Need for Autonomy
While it's true that sexual passion often wanes somewhat over time in a long term relationship, people who experience a split in their feelings between love and desire are often in conflict about their need for emotional closeness vs. individual autonomy in the same relationship.  

Psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm addressed this paradox in his book, The Art of Loving, which was published in 1956 as follows: Love longs for closeness and sexual desire thrives on distance.

Similarly, relationship and sex therapist, Esther Perel, Ph.D. wrote in her book, Mating in Captivity, published in 2017, "Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other." 

Esther Perel addresses this paradox in relationships as follows: Emotional intimacy builds trust and security in the relationship, but as intimacy grows, sexual desire often wanes for many couples.

According to Dr. Perel, who cites Stephen Mitchell's work as well as her vast experience with couples, the couple's need for togetherness coexists with their need for autonomy.  If there is too much distance, the couple sacrifices connection. But if there's too much togetherness, this gets in the way of each person having their own autonomy. 

There is also no way to achieve connection between individuals in a relationship if they are too close--to the point of fusion--because there is no one with whom to connect. Therefore, in order for there to be a connection, there needs to be some psychological distance within the closeness of the relationship. This allows each person to be autonomous at the same time they are close and connected in a relationship together.

Although love thrives on closeness, according to Dr. Perel, sexual desire thrives on mystery and novelty.  In addition, she posits that love is about "having" and desire is about "wanting" (see my article: To Rekindle Passion in Your Relationship, Fire Needs Air).

This means that each individual in the relationship needs to develop themselves as individuals rather than focusing on eliminating any distance to quell feelings of insecurity or fear of being alone (see my article: Growing as an Individual While You're in a Relationship).

Clinical Vignette:
The following vignette, which is based on a composite of many cases with all identifying information eliminated, illustrates the dilemma of negotiating closeness and psychological distance in a relationship:

Nan and Bill
When Nan and Bill, who were in their mid-30s, started couples therapy with an EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples) therapist, they had been together for two years (see my article: What is Emotionally Focused Therapy For Couples also known as EFT?).

Their presenting problem was that they were talking about moving in together, but they were in conflict about how much time to spend together, which was getting in the way of Nan moving in with Bill.

Nan explained to their couples therapist that when they started seeing each other, they were both excited to spend several days during the week together.  Everything was new and exciting for the first few months, Nan explained.  But by the time they were together for eight months, Bill was complaining that he didn't get to spend any time with his buddies or engage in his hobbies.  He wanted to cut back on some of the time they spent together, which hurt Nan's feelings (see my article: Compromising on Time Together vs Time Apart in Your Relationship).

In addition, Bill revealed in couples therapy that these issues affected their sex life. Specifically, he felt he and Nan spent so much time together that he didn't feel as sexually aroused with her, which he felt badly about, but he wanted to bring this up in their session.  

Although it was hurtful for Nan to hear Bill say this, she acknowledged that she realized how all their time together was impacting their sex life.  She said she wanted to improve their sex life, but she was fearful of spending less time together because it made her feel insecure about the relationship.

Nan told their couples therapist that she liked spending as much time as possible with Bill, and she couldn't understand why he felt the need to spend time with his friends because she didn't feel the need to spend time with her friends.

Bill acknowledged that he felt excited about their relationship during the first several months when they were getting to know each other.  But, he explained, he was feeling stifled by Nan because he wanted to spend time with his buddies and also work on his hobbies.  He emphasized that he loved Nan and he hoped they could build a life together, but he needed time to himself, which Nan didn't seem to need.

Although she felt embarrassed to say this in their couples therapy session, Nan admitted that when Bill mentioned he wanted to spend time with his friends, her first thought was that this would be less time spent with her.  She said she didn't want to be selfish, but she wanted Bill to understand how she felt.

Over time, Nan revealed that she was in a similar situation as the middle child in her family where she felt her older and younger sisters got most of her parents' attention.  She realized that her experience in her family was impacting how she felt in her relationship, so Nan entered into her own individual therapy to work on these earlier issues (see my article: When a Traumatic Past Affects You in the Present).

As Nan learned how to separate the past from the present and she no longer felt triggered by Bill spending time with friends or engaging in his hobbies, she felt more comfortable with Bill having more autonomy.  She also recognized that she was neglecting her friendships, so she spent more time with friends.  

Both of them agreed that when they had other experiences and interests away from each other, they each brought something new to the relationship, which rekindled their sex life.  Soon after that, they moved in together and they remained committed to their relationship as well as to developing as individuals.

Balancing closeness and autonomy in a committed relationship can be challenging.  However, as illustrated in the vignette above, couples can learn to negotiate this balance.

Achieving the right balance of being together and being autonomous requires a recognition of the paradox outlined in this article. It also involves practice to see what works best for your relationship.

Getting Help in Therapy
Balancing the need for emotional closeness with the need for autonomy for each individual can be especially challenging when the individuals in the relationship don't agree about the amount of closeness and autonomy needed.

Rather than struggling on your own, seek help from a licensed mental health professional who has an expertise in working with couples.

A skilled couples therapist can help you to negotiate the balance that's right for your relationship.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 or email me.