The paradox of marriage
Long-term relationships are built on a paradox - not one we often talk about or warn our teenagers about, but we should.
The paradox put simply, is that one relationship is meant to deliver two, quite opposite needs. Firstly there is a need for security, stability, familiarity and a feeling of home; then, secondly, a need for excitement, passion, romance and eroticism.
These needs pull us in diametrically opposite directions: one tends to peace, safety and a long breath out; the other to surprise, curiosity and a sharp breath in.
Is it possible that one relationship can satisfy two such different desires? Well, experience tells us that, at best, it is difficult. If you have friends you can ask - and most of us don’t really like talking about it except in a jokey way - you’d probably find that almost everyone you know who is in a long-term relationship finds themselves in the same boat. And usually, it is the passion side of things that gets sacrificed for the security.
Does passion become less important over the years? Well, perhaps - though I think for most of us, we decide to accept the compromise because our need for ‘home’ is so strong. We develop various ways of talking about eroticism that put it in the past (how things were different ‘when we first met’ or ‘in my wild youth’) and we live with that side of ourselves partly switched off. And we go on having sex if we are lucky - though not with a great deal of excitement or anticipation. In fact, at times, we have ‘tick-box’ sex (we really should have sex, it’s been three months!’). Or, we contrive to keep the sex issue at bay by having different bedtimes, or by constant low-level bickering.
Is it just boredom that takes its toll?
It is certainly true that domestic life seems to squeeze out eroticism quite successfully: it is difficult to feel desire for your partner on the supermarket and school run. How can you desire the person that is your best friend, business partner (if you own property or share finances), co-parent and joint world-builder of the huge architecture of things we do, friends we share, and a life we lead? How can that person be hot? Can you desire that which you already have?
There are other issues at play here, too, besides familiarity. Firstly, perhaps we deliberately (though unconsciously) de-sexualise our long-term relationships. The reason for this may be that eroticism is by its nature promiscuous - it finds excitement in all sorts of things that don’t sit easily with our monogamous relationship and promises of fidelity. (For example, the majority of people have sexual fantasies, but few people fantasise about their partners).
And in looking to invest our security in our partner, we are recreating a really primal form of a relationship first found (or yearned for) in our family of origin. To some extent, then, our partner is a parental figure for us. We talk about ‘our rock’. It is difficult - if not somewhat Oedipal - to fancy a ‘rock’!
One might wonder why we bother with long-term relationships if they are so bad at preserving erotic feelings? Perhaps this reveals the truth that we want long-term relationships to feel a sense of ourselves. Before birth we were connected to our mother; in our early years we are completely dependant on our caregivers; and even as we grow and enter adult life, our lives are inevitably part of networks. Arguably our individual identity emerges after our social being. Throughout life we depend on others to maintain a sense of self - others are mirrors for us.
So we all seem to want long-term relationships. Yet we don’t really discuss what this means for our equally significant erotic-self. And so people drift into - more or less contentedly, or resentfully - a partial celibacy, or somewhat joyless sexual connection.
If you have ever wondered why affairs are so common (some estimates put the figure as high as 80% for long-term relationships) it must be because, at times, we rediscover this lost sense of self. it is not so much about sex but more to do with a playful, romantic sense of ourselves that everyday life has somehow squeezed out, fuelled with feelings of youth and exuberance.
If your relationship has reached the point where the passion has gone missing, or that playful sense of yourself feels a long time ago, perhaps now is the time to take stock.
Try talking to your partner and ask them if they feel the same way (chances are, they do). And if it feels like solutions are hard to find, or a way forward difficult to believe in, then consider meeting with a specialist relationship counsellor. 80% of couples that do meet with a relationship therapist report it significantly improves their relationship. Desire can come back, despite the paradox of marriage!