Desire is a pretty elusive construct. It's complicated. Despite its complexity (or perhaps because of it), people almost universally want it and experience it.
One thing I've learned in almost a decade of studying desire is that it ebbs and flows. It can disappear for long periods of time and then return, with force. Many people in long-term relationships know this all too well. Sexual desire is not something that remains steady. This ebb and flow can occur within the same long-term relationship or may vary based on age or stage in life.
Sexual desire is often defined as a motivational state with a subjective awareness to attain something that is currently unattained1, where a combination of forces brings us toward and away from sexual behavior.2
We know things like lack of sleep, stress, relationship dissatisfaction, and financial concerns or job uncertainty can negatively impact sexual desire. But what about less obvious causes?
Esther Perel, therapist and author of Mating in Captivity, takes us on a journey through these issues in her TED talk, "The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship," which is my all-time favorite in the series. In her talk, Perel speaks eloquently of keeping desire alive in long-term relationships. Largely based upon the ideas she presented and the lessons of my own research, following are three things that we can control which are surefire ways to deflate desire in your long-term relationships:
1. "We" Replacing "Me." Desire is like fire. And what does fire need to survive? Air. If you don't maintain your individuality within your relationship, the fire of desire won't have enough air and will extinguish. Intimacy needs closeness, but desire needs distance. Reconciling these two is difficult but can be done by ensuring there is a balance between the two. To that end, try to keep some parts of the "me" separate from the "we."
2. Neediness. There is no room for neediness in desire, and expressing neediness to your partner deflates desire. Perel calls neediness "an anti-aphrodisiac," and I think she's right. Of course, we all have needs. Many, such as security, safety, dependability, reliability, and closeness are all met (most of the time) by having a close romantic relationship. But the needs associated with desire are different, and include things like adventure, novelty, mystery, risk, and danger—the unknown and unexpected. By expressing your security-type needs to your partner through excessive neediness, the desire-type needs have a hard time reconciling. This is very much related to maintaining independence. If you're capable of getting your needs met as an independent person, you're more likely to have your needs met by others. If you're making it clear you need your partner for reassurance, they'll be less likely to want to provide and desire will suffer.
3. Routine. How can you want something you already have? We all know that familiarity breeds contempt—our patience is much shorter, and our frustration stronger, with those closest to us. The routine and familiarity of our partners makes it harder to feel desire for them. So how do we drive ourselves to want something we already have? By redefining novelty. Lingerie and toys may help, but they aren't going to fix the real problem at hand. Think about novelty in terms of new layers of yourself to reveal to your partner. What parts of yourself does your partner bring out in you? Think about different ways to share yourself with your partner to override some of this routine and allow room for desire.
An Equal-Opportunity Need
I think these three killers of desire are universal to all genders. They are part of human nature. Perel talks about how love = to have and desire = to want. How do we reconcile these when so many of us want desire in our love relationships? Keep some independence, manage your neediness, and introduce novelty in the expression of yourself with your partner. That is a great way to start.
1Regan, P.C., & Berscheid, E. (1999). Lust: What we know about human sexual desire. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
2Levine, S.B. (2002). Re-exploring the concept of sexual desire. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 28, 39-51.
3Perel, E. (2007). Mating in captivity: Unlocking erotic intelligence. New York, NY: HarperCollins.