In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Darling, Should We Compromise on Our Emotional Intimacy or on Our Sexual Desire?

I love sex, but I need emotional intimacy even more

"In old times, sacrifices were made at the altar, a practice that still continues." Helen Rowland

Romantic love involves two basic characteristics: emotional intimacy and sexual desire. Like most relationships, long-term romantic relationships typically entail compromises that may result in a gap between what one desires and what one finally obtains. In long-term romantic relationships, couples typically have to face the fact that their emotional intimacy has decreased or their sexual desire has waned.

The essence of compromise is the need to accept something that has a certain negative value. There are various reasons for accepting something that has a negative value, but the major reason is in cases in which something positive is gained in return. The act of compromise means one surrenders something of value in order to acquire something else of greater value. Accepting a compromise does not mean nullifying the negative aspects of the compromise; rather, it means recognizing that there are other advantages to be gained from the situation.

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Romantic love can be officially pronounced dead when no sexual desire or no emotional intimacy exists. In most cases of long-term romantic relationships, sexual desire tends to reduce considerably with time, while emotional intimacy may be enhanced over time. It is more difficult to maintain highly intense sexual desire, as such a desire is fuelled by change and novelty. There is indeed a considerable amount of evidence indicating that sexual response to a familiar partner is usually less intense than to a novel partner. Consequently, the frequency of sexual activity with one's partner typically declines steadily as the relationship lengthens, reaching roughly half the frequency after one year of marriage compared to the first month of marriage, and declining more gradually thereafter.

Emotional intimacy, however, may benefit from emotional closeness that involves a great deal of familiarity and shared history. Greater closeness typically implies greater significance and greater emotional intensity. When someone is relatively detached from us, we are unlikely to have any strong emotional attitude toward her. Indeed, familiarity often correlates directly with romantic love. Mere exposure, in the absence of anything else, makes people more favorably inclined to each other. However, mere exposure only sets the scene for falling in love. People become lovers not just because they happen to see each other every day. Rather, frequent meetings enable them to further deepen their concern for and attachment to each other. Nevertheless, knowing someone is a necessary, even if not a sufficient, condition for developing profound love. Moreover, too much knowledge may sometimes hinder the development of loving relationship. Love, like other emotions, is associated with a significant degree of imagination, which enables us to idealize the beloved. Too much thorough and detailed knowledge may block this ability.

In light of the above considerations, it is usually the case in long-term romantic relationships that sexual desire is compromised in long-term relationships. There are, however, cases in which the opposite occurs.

Consider the real case of Rebecca, a married woman in her early fifties, who in her thirty years of marriage has never had an affair. She claims that she still loves her husband greatly and that their sexual relationship is very good. Actually, their sexual life is one of their strongest ties. The problem is that she has felt emotionally submissive from the beginning of their relationship and it has now become much harder for her to bear this. In their case, time has impaired) their emotional intimacy, not their sexual desire. Despite her love and immense sexual desire for her husband, Rebecca is finding it less and less easy to compromise their emotional intimacy, which is expressed in her wish to be treated as an equal partner.

Despite the obvious difference between Rebecca's situation and what more usually occurs in long-term relationships, there is an important similarity between them-in both cases, emotional intimacy proves more important than sexual desire. Emotional intimacy, which at the infatuation stage may seem to have lesser importance, becomes more significant as time goes by, almost regardless of the intensity of sexual desire.

This does not mean, of course, that sexual desire is of no importance in romantic love. It certainly is, as it is a meaningful expression of profound romantic love, but it it acquires greater value when it is associated with deep emotional intimacy.

It should be noted that the need to choose between the two options does not always arise. In many cases of genuine profound love, there is no need to compromise on either of these aspects of romantic love. Such relationships seem to be in the minority, but there is no evidence of how large that minority is.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following perspective that a married person might express: "Darling, do not worry about our declining sexual desire; it is our emotional intimacy that we should care about more. I would not leave you because of your reduced sexual desire, since I can live with less frequent sex, and in the worst case a lover can successfully replace you. But I would seriously consider leaving you if our emotional intimacy diminished or was lost. Please, darling, let us remember that great sex does not substitute for a lack of profound emotional intimacy. I love sex, but I need emotional intimacy even more."

 

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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