Where did the magic go?

Have you ever had times of wondering if you and your partner have somehow “lost the magic”? If so, Valentine’s Day may not help. The hype surrounding Valentine’s Day highlights the kind of romance typical of the early days of a relationship — but not so much the longer term haul. You may be left wondering if everyone else is enjoying a level of sexy romance that you are not.  And as usually happens when we compare ourselves to the imagined experience of others, Valentine’s Day can leave us feeling deficient.

The work of psychotherapist and author, Esther Perel is a great antidote to such feelings. You may have heard of her book Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic or The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity.  She also hosts a popular podcast Where Should We Begin?, which is based inside her therapist’s office as she works with anonymous couples on all kinds of marital issues. Really interesting!  She also has a podcast called How’s Work?

A thought-provoking perspective

As a Belgian who speaks nine languages, Perel brings a perspective that I find to be distinctive from many North American approaches to marital problems.  She has a refreshing take on  the challenge of maintaining a satisfying erotic connection in a long-term relationship.  (If that’s enough to spark your interest, you can go straight to her Tedtalk: The secret to desire in a long-term relationship.) 

Perel poses the question that many married couples wonder about:  Why does good sex sometimes fade, even among couples who continue to love each other very much?  What is the difference between love and desire?  How can a couple continue to experience both? Perel covers a lot of territory in this short talk and she does it in a very entertaining way.  

Here’s a taste

Perel suggests that there is an inherent tension at the heart of any long-term relationship.  When it comes to love, we all long to experience belonging, dependability, trust and security.  However, says Perel, what fuels desire is different.  Desire is associated with the elements of adventure, mystery, wanting (as opposed to having) and freedom. These elements are often present in the early stages of a relationship. However as security and trust grow, the elements that contribute to desire may wane. Predictability and comfort may have the unexpected consequence of reducing desire. Says Perel, love is about having, while desire is about wanting.

In her research, Perel asked many couples when they felt drawn or attracted to their partners.  Interestingly, some said it was when they were apart and came back together.  Absence aroused their desire and appreciation for their partner. Others said that they felt drawn to their partners when they observed them from a bit of a distance, perhaps at a social gathering or doing something related to their work, those moments when they saw their partner shine. This caused them to see their partner in a new or novel way and as separate from themselves.  

Looking with new eyes

Perel goes on to explain, “It’s when I’m looking at my partner from a comfortable distance, where this person that is already so familiar, so known, is momentarily once again somewhat mysterious, somewhat elusive. And in this space between me and the other, lies the erotic élan, lies that movement toward the other.  Because sometimes, as Proust says, mystery is not about traveling to new places, but it’s about looking with new eyes.” 

Can it be that we are sometimes so close and familiar with our partner that we fail to see them with fresh eyes —  or as a separate person who may yet have some mysteries or aspects of themselves that we don’t know?  

As I thought about this I couldn’t help but think about the times that my husband starts a familiar line of conversation and I assume that I already know what he’s feeling or thinking and what he’s going to say. There’s not much room to hear or see novelty or freshness when I’m listening from that place!  Perhaps one of the benefits of socializing and travel for many couples is not only the novelty of location but also the novelty of how they and their partners might show up in a new environment with new people – they might “see” each other with fresh eyes.

Perel is very hopeful that we can keep the erotic spark alive and some important elements are:  imagination, playfulness, novelty, curiosity and mystery.  If you’d like to hear more of Perel’s reflections on what contributes to eroticism and the characteristics she has observed of erotic couples who successfully navigate this dynamic tension, give a listen.  She packs so much into a short talk!

You might also enjoy  The Esther Perel Love LexiconThese are her words of wisdom (combined with illustrations) taken from an podcast with Kristen Tipett. The full interview is also available at this link.

Invitation to action

If Perel’s work speaks to you, you might be interested in her online program Rekindling Desire. Could be an exciting pandemic project!

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