Adrenaline Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
How to Keep Passion Alive in Relationship
Posted Feb 23, 2021
Warning signs that a lover is bored:
1) Passionless kisses
2) Frequent sighing
3) Moved, left no forwarding address
Part of the magic of partnership is the cuddly familiarity and companionable mundaneness it offers if you stick with it long enough, the satisfying calm that can settle over people whose lives are satisfactorily entwined, the rough stones worn smooth by time and routine. Or as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it in her book Committed, “Coffee, dog, breakfast, newspaper, garden, bills, chores, radio, lunch, groceries, dog, dinner, reading, dog, bed... and repeat.”
The fact that dancing till dawn and lovemaking till it hurts are replaced by chaste evenings with a movie and reserving candles for blackouts, is a salve for many people, especially those who find love’s pitch and roll unsettling, its mad passions stressful and disturbing to their equilibrium. (There's a reason we call it lovesick.)
There's also a reason the Third Law of Motion holds as much sway over our love affairs as it does over every other interaction in the natural world, with its insistence on “equal and opposite reactions.” Thus a scintillating romance with its gut-churning, mind-altering, heart-skipping, poetry-inspiring ardor sets up a powerful countervailing urge to safely moor ourselves at the harbor and steady the boat. And thus one of the great predicaments of love is how to keep the fires burning.
The rub is that the physics of desire is predicated on lack. You want what you don’t have, and once you get it, you’re no longer wanting, so the desire begins to fade. Getting what you want subverts the thrill of wanting it, and the law of diminishing returns tells us that the more you do something, the less satisfaction you gain from it. Eating your favorite meal a dozen times in a row will tend to diminish its charms, as will spending every day with the same person.
Part of what stokes us up about new love is the challenge of it, the chase, but once you’ve reached your goal and gotten the girl/guy, the challenge evaporates, the chase comes to an end, and with it some of your interest in (you'll pardon the double-entendre) the game.
When the amphetamines of longing are no longer rushing through your bloodstream, and are replaced by the sedatives of safety and security, or at least familiarity, you're ready to exchange roses by the dozen for slippers by the bed.
Furthermore, love and passion are hard to uphold in partnership because they work toward different goals. Love wants assurances, passion wants abandon. Love wants to be soothed, passion wants to be stimulated. Love wants to go steady, passion wants to be swept away. Love wants to cuddle up with a good movie, passion wants to kick up its heels.
These cross-purposes can spell trouble for romance because it’s hard to stay worked up over the same person you look to for safety and security, and the truth is that most people consider it a fair trade to swap heat for warmth and passion for companionship.
But it's not an either/or equation, though we’ve been told it is: You either have passion or serenity in a relationship, but not both. You either have sex and romance or companionable bonding, but not both. You either have freedom or commitment. You either have Wuthering Heights or The Remains of the Day.
But it’s not either/or. It’s both/and. There are two right answers to the question of sustaining aliveness in relationship, not one, and it requires the building of a certain skill: paradox. The ability—the willingness!—to hold the tension between opposing forces inside you, and inside your relationship, without splitting apart. Love and passion. Familiarity and novelty. Commitment and freedom. Quiet nights and wild nights.
Try this exercise, compliments of Barry Johnson, founder of a system called Polarity Management: Breathe in and hold the air in your lungs as long as possible. It feels good for a while, but then as the oxygen turns into carbon dioxide, you begin to crave air. Now exhale. It feels good for a while, but as you hold your breath out, it begins to feel suffocating.
It’s the same with the polarities in relationship. They’re tensions to manage, not problems to solve. If one side prevails over the other, the organism loses, the relationship loses, and soulmates turn into stalemates.
Even the “chase” is merely the initial challenge of relationship. So is growing it once you've got it. This is why it's important to have conversations about balancing love and passion, stability and novelty, movie nights, and make-out nights.
Relationships will always have to contend with agents of decay and distraction, habit and routine, and it's high art to sustain a beginner’s mind past the beginning stage of anything. But the conditions that foster passion and growth begin with the willingness to go in search of them, even if it's initially fueled by desperation.
Security, comfort, and predictability may be important parts of the succor of love, but without desire, passion, and novelty—which demand the occasional dare and seek what’s outside the safety net—it can become dulled. Ultimately, this can actually make love not safer but more dangerous, because we become increasingly unschooled in seeing things as they really are—in flux—and unable to muster the resilience necessary to ride out love’s inconsistencies.
Love without desire, says Stephen Mitchell in Can Love Last, can certainly be tender, intimate, and secure, but it lacks adventure and the sense of risk that fuels romantic passion. “Homes turn into prisons; enclosures become confinements; the lover who was ardently courted and longed for becomes one's 'old lady,' ‘old man,’ or ‘ball and chain.’”
The law of entropy (popularly known as Murphy’s Law) reminds us that systems tend to lose energy and chemical bonds to weaken over time. A hot cup of coffee will eventually cool down…unless reheated. A clock will eventually run down…unless rewound. Oatmeal will congeal without regular stirring…as will partnerships. And there lies the key: we need to continually expend energy in the form of attention, affection, appreciation, and adventure.
The reheating of passion happens in relationships the same way it happens in your own life when you’re bored—by trying something new. As I once heard someone say, “Adrenaline makes the heart grow fonder.” The question of how to keep the fires burning is the question of how to stay interested in life itself, and among the best prescriptions for that is novelty and continually sharing the insights you each bring back from your own voyages of self-discovery and inner work.
Passion is above all the hunger to connect, the desire for union, the capacity for relatedness. It’s your deep affinity for and abiding interest in not only a special someone but in life itself. And with the whole world as the apple of your eye, all of life becomes an aphrodisiac, all desire becomes tantric, a vehicle for transcendence. “The problem is not desire,” the Indian spiritual teacher Sri Nisargadatta once said. “It’s that your desires are too small.”
Enlarging them, being continually eager to discover something new under the sun, is a skill you practice inside and outside of relationship, and they’re mutually reinforcing. But it’s a skill you practice first and foremost for yourself, not for anybody else or even for the bond between you; just for your own sense of engagement with the world.
Desire doesn’t ultimately want to be quenched and go out, to settle for mere possession or mere contentment. It wants to be lit and re-lit. It wants yearning, not just satisfaction. It wants to occupy the space between our reach and our grasp.
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