- The intensity of sexual desire doesn’t predict relationship success, although people often think it does.
- Enduring relationships often involve a combination of moderate passion and occasional outbursts of intense desire.
- Having distance from one another at times can also sustain long-term love.
“Love is a fire. But whether it is going to warm your hearth or burn down your house, you can never tell.” —Joan Crawford
“We’ve been married for 45 years and I love and desire my wife now, more than ever. When I get home, I want to have sex with her. Unfortunately, in the last few years she has had too many ‘headaches’.” —Michael
A long tradition has compared sexual desire to fire. Is this metaphor adequate? And is it similar to the fire of love?
Like a raging fire, sexual desire is intense, swift and insatiable. Indeed, how can you be patient or calm when your body is on fire? We can compare this fiery sexual desire to love at first sight, where intense attraction hits us like lightening and we crave an immediate bond. In other cases, flirting ignites this desire, and gradually, the ice melts and an attraction forms.
Fire and sexual desire have both constructive and destructive aspects—in both cases, the difference between success and disaster depends on moderation. To extend the metaphor, we can see that a strong fire is capable of burning your house down, while a moderate fire is pleasant and warming. Similarly, intense sexual desire may feel like an addiction, while moderate desire typically enhances love.
The spontaneous nature of sexual desire does not mean that it has nothing to do with learning and social conventions. There are institutes that successfully teach people how to be more sexually attractive to their own partners. (Of course, there is no need for an institute that teaches partners to commit adultery.) Other institutes specialize in reducing sexual desire, thereby enabling people to be faithful to their partner. Take, for example, the actor Warren Beatty who was asked by his future wife, Annette Bening, to receive treatment from such an institution as a precondition for their marriage. It seems that the treatment was useful; they have now been together for about 30 years.
The connection between sexual desire and fire can be seen in pyrophiliacs (also known as sexual arsonists), who are victims of the rare phenomenon of deriving sexual arousal from fire and/or fire-starting activity. It is different from pyromania (an obsessive desire to set fire to things) as pyromaniacs do not receive sexual pleasure when they start fires.
Why Calm, Enduring Love Can Last
"True love is not a strong, fiery, impetuous passion. It is, on the contrary, an element calm and deep. It looks beyond mere externals and is attracted by qualities alone. It is wise and discriminating, and its devotion is real and abiding.” —Ellen G. White
“At the age of 27, I was torn between marrying a young man who I passionately loved, and a divorced 50-year-old who I loved, but not passionately. I chose the older person as I thought that he would be better able to bring out the best in me and help me fulfill my potential. I have no regrets whatsoever—time has only deepened my love for my husband.”—Ariel
A common assumption is that love involves a choice, that of flying high to rare heights and experiencing a steamy, brief affair, or being satisfied with a long and meaningful, yet passionless, friendship. Studies indeed indicate that desire fades with time, and sexual desire between familiar partners is lower than toward a person we have just met. Yet, sexual desire does not necessarily vanish with time, and not everyone will lose interest in their partners. In any case, the intensity of sexual desire itself cannot predict the future success of the relationship.
Life requires living with a moderate fire. Otherwise, that fire may scorch us (Ben-Ze'ev, 2019). We must distinguish between love and sexual desire, though it is indeed difficult to do so when intense desire is the essence of romantic love. Such desire is brief and decreases with time, while enduring love continues much longer, often for a lifetime.
Nevertheless, despite their differences, sexual desire and love overlap a great deal in the brain, activating specific, related areas. This may explain why there is not a sharp line dividing romantic love from sexual desire. There are different degrees of sexual desire and different degrees of romantic love. These are present in the continuum between mechanistic sex and profound love that include all various degrees of sexual desire.
Taking Space Can Help Maintain Relationships
"I would ride with you upon the wind and dance upon the mountains like a flame." —W.B. Yeats
"What we find in a soulmate is not something wild to tame but something wild to run with." —Robert Brault
“A good fire, like a relationship, needs spaces to breathe. Otherwise, it'll choke itself out.” —Mark Banschick
Genuine love does not try to maintain an intense fiery desire at its utmost level, since this is impossible, but rather tries to preserve it in a relatively high level, while allowing occasional passionate outbursts. Genuine lovers are both impatient and patient; they feel both the excitement that underlies sexual desire as well as the calmness associated with romantic profundity (Ben-Ze'ev, 2019).
Unlike the brief nature of sexual desire, profound love endures before and after sexual interactions. In order to achieve this romantic utopia, love requires breathing space associated with clean air. Fire, which provides light and heat, needs air and oxygen. Consuming clean romantic air requires having some necessary space, a contrast to insatiable sexual desire which creates complete fusion between partners.
In order for the romantic fire to burn, it needs a spark and materials to burn. Passion is the spark, and the burning material is clean air where the partners deepen both their relationship and their individual self-fulfillment. In the spirit of Yeats’ words, we do not need to tame our partner, but to dance with her on the mountain, as do the flames of fire.
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Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.