I don't know if I still fancy my partner
This is one of the most common feelings in a long-term relationship or marriage - and one of the most difficult to discuss with your partner. It can lead to a lot of unhappiness - not just reluctance to engage in the sexual side of the relationship, but also a doubt about the long-term viability of you both as a couple. It can be even more confusing if you know you still feel 'lovingness' for each other. Are we just good friends and co-parents?
So how do you see desire? Is it a one-way street, where once it's gone, it’s gone? Or is it more like a switch, where at times it can be off, but other times - given certain conditions - it might be switched back on?
I think the latter view is closer to our individual experience of desire. Most individuals notice day-to-day that their sexual interest varies considerably, usually depending on how busy they are, levels of stress, and perhaps the opportunity for romantic or erotic situations and stimulus.
In a long-term relationship desire varies in the same way. This is why many couples report that their sex lives improve when they are on holiday, when they experience less stress, and the change of scene help them imagine erotic possibilities.
Using this model, then, loss of desire is normal, and relationships where this has happened aren't failing. Desire comes and goes as part of the normal ebb and flow of most long-term relationships.
Even if desire seems to have gone for a long time, this model suggest it could be brought back, if we understand the contexts which make it work, and the contexts which kill it.
The fundamental problem in long-term relationships is that they serve - in modern Western society - two quite contrary purposes.
• Firstly, they offer a secure base, a sense of home, our safety and security which, previously in our lives, was provided (if we were lucky) by our family of origin, along with an economic union and co-parenting.
• Secondly, a long term relationship is meant to provide excitement, growth, the unexpected, eroticism, romance and sex (and be the sole source of the last three in conventional monogamous relationships).
Without intending to undermine our much-cherished ideal that says ‘sex is best in the context of a loving relationship’, i have to say I would re-phrase this sentence. ‘’Good sex is quite problematic in the context of a loving relationship.’
Why mention good sex? Because, the main reason couples stop having sex is simple: it becomes a chore, not something they both look forward to, just another thing on the list of 'to-dos’. If both partners looked forward to sex, it would almost certainly be happening! And desire would flourish!
Good sex (i.e, exciting, erotic, ‘naughty,’ fun, playful sex) is quite difficult to achieve in a long-term relationship for three reasons:
- It requires a split vision of the other person: not just as friend, economic partner, co-parent and someone familiar, safe and dependable; but as exciting, unexpected, and erotic. Can you find someone desirable you seem to know inside-out and back-to-front?
- It requires us to allow the other person’s autonomous sexuality space to breathe. Partners sometimes try to domesticate sex (make it merely an expression of their fond feelings for each other) or even desexualise each other - in the unconscious hope this will keep the relationship safe and secure. Eroticism is a rather dangerous, random sensibility and that’s why our language changes: we stop ‘having sex’ and we start ‘making love'. ‘I love you’ starts to crowd out ‘I want you'.
- We feel odd expressing our erotic thoughts to the person we invest all our security in. This is an almost oedipal contradiction. One couple I’ve worked with recently said that while they liked the idea of sex, having sex with each other felt a little ‘unseemly'.
These three generic issues affect most if not all couples: and they are the contexts we were discussing earlier, in which desire can ebb - but also, if understood, flow back.
This can require some really honest - and potentially difficult - conversations with your partner. Sometimes it seems hard to know where to begin, or perhaps you sense your partner will be resistant to the conversation. And anyway, perhaps we should let sleeping dogs lie?
No wonder that many couples live in a rarely-discussed, resentful semi-celibacy, in which eroticism either gets suppressed, or gets split off from the relationship, in affairs, private fantasy and masturbation, or finally in separation.
If these don’t feel like fulfilling long-term strategies, then maybe its time to talk?
It may be that, if the mountain seems too hard to climb, or these issues too complex to tackle directly, that relationship counselling can help.
A good relationship counsellor is not only non-judgemental, but is keenly aware of the generic issues that affect all couples, will encourage you to see that these issues are not as a sign of failure, and can help you evolve ways of reconnecting:
- They are not interested in what you do in the bedroom, but more in the ways in which you both think about sex - and each other.
- They will be interested in how playful the rest of the relationship feels.
- They won’t say, ‘get closer and sex will get better’ - in fact, too much closeness and familiarity can sometimes be the problem!
- They will help you open up a conversation with each other where doubt and uncertainties can be aired safely and acknowledged.
- They will give you a feeling of gentle optimism - after all, many couples have been down this path before, and desire can come back!
Some couples report this process as being liberating - even, finally, fun! Good luck!
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