Intimacy & Desire, Awaken the Passion in Your Relationship by Dr. David Schnarch
Intimacy & Desire: Awaken the Passion in Your Relationship (2009) explains why all people in committed, long-term relationships run into sexual problems. Driven by case studies of real couples in sex therapy, the book demonstrates how people in relationships can transform their perspective – and confront themselves and each other – to reawaken sexual passion.
Put the spark back in your relationship and rekindle your desire.
Do you feel like the sparks in your relationship are fizzling out? Do you sometimes struggle to get aroused by your beloved? Or do you simply feel bored having sex in the same old ways? If you’re in a committed relationship and answered yes to any of these questions, then you’re not alone.
In these blinks, you’ll discover that all long-term couples struggle with desire and intimacy at some point. And you’ll learn why desire problems crop up and that their presence is, in fact, a sign of a healthy relationship. Finally, you’ll get tips on how to address these problems, reconnect with your partner, and reawaken sexual intimacy.
In these blinks, you’ll also learn
- how sexual desire works in relationships;
- why healthy sexual relationships struggle with sex; and
- new perspectives for approaching intimacy problems.
In every relationship, there is always a low desire partner and a high desire partner.
When you think of a healthy romantic relationship, what comes to mind? You probably picture a couple in love – a pair of people who are psychologically and physically compatible. And, if asked, you’d probably say they have a functional sex life. After all, a healthy relationship implies a healthy level of desire, right? If partners don’t desire one another, the relationship is as good as over.
Or so the myth about relationships goes. But that premise is based on a faulty assumption: that sustained desire is an index of a healthy relationship. In reality, sexual desire problems exist in all committed relationships.
The key message in this blink is: In every relationship, there is always a low desire partner and a high desire partner.
In every long-term relationship, there is a high desire partner (the HDP) and a low desire partner (the LDP). This is just another way of saying that one partner will always want sex more than the other. It doesn’t mean that the HDP is biologically predisposed to desirousness and the LDP is not. In fact, the positions say nothing about the individual partner – they only exist in relation to each other.
For example, if your partner desires sex daily and you only want it once a week, then you’re the LDP. But if your partner wants sex every other week and you desire it weekly, then you are the HDP. It’s always relative.
The positions can even shift throughout the course of your relationship, with partners potentially exchanging roles over time. Even if you were the HDP in the first few years of the relationship, you might become the LDP later on.
Understanding that there is always an LDP and an HDP can help you let go of worries that something is wrong with you. If you’ve ever been accused of not wanting enough sex, or of wanting too much sex, this framework should inspire you to put those reproaches to rest for good. Whatever the situation, you were filling the role of either LDP or HDP – relative to your partner.
Since the HDP-LDP dynamic exists in all relationships, you can also be sure that desire problems are not only inevitable but natural. All long-term relationships encounter desire problems at some point. It’s healthy. It’s normal. And it doesn’t mean your relationship is failing.
The lower desire partner always controls sex, whether he or she likes it or not.
Meet Connie and Brett – a couple that did think their relationship was failing. Brett (the high desire partner) felt that Connie (the low desire partner) was unfairly “withholding” sex from him out of spite. Meanwhile, Connie felt utterly powerless. After all, she couldn’t just will herself to feel desire. Brett made this worse by blaming Connie for her low desire, making her feel not only powerless but guilty. Rather than seeing their desire problem as a natural result of the relationship ecosystem, they both pinned the blame on Connie.
You already know that there’s always a low desire partner (the LDP) and a high desire partner (the HDP). Now it’s time to introduce another constant – the real issue at the root of Brett and Connie’s problems.
Here’s the key message: The lower desire partner always controls sex, whether he or she likes it or not.
According to the author, when it comes to sex, the LDP always wields the power. This is because the HDP is usually the one to make romantic overtures, while the LDP gets to decide whether sex happens or not.
This power dynamic applies to just about every conflict in your relationship. If there’s a project that requires the participation of both partners, then the LDP always controls the success or failure of that project. For instance, if you constantly have to ask your partner to help with cleaning up around the house, then you’re the HDP for tidiness. But being the HDP doesn’t get you very far. Ultimately, whether or not your partner cleans is up to her.
But don’t assume that the partner with lower desire enjoys wielding this power. In fact, to most LDPs, this power feels like a burden. After all, as much as the HDP may feel controlled by the LDP’s lack of desire, it’s always the LDP who feels pressured to perform.
This brings us back to Connie and Brett.
As soon as they understood that Brett was the HDP and Connie was the LDP, their relationship took a turn for the better. Suddenly, it was obvious that Connie wasn’t a spiteful, sex-withholding ice princess and that Brett wasn’t a brutish, oversexed fiend. One was the LDP and the other was the HDP – and they were in those positions whether they liked it or not because all relationships have an LDP and an HDP, and the LDP always has more control over sex. For the first time, they began tackling their sexual problems together, without making it personal.
While these traits of human relationships might seem perplexing at first, there is actually a lot of evolutionary logic behind them.
Sexual desire issues are nature’s way of getting us to develop ourselves.
If you encounter desire problems in your relationship, you might nostalgically look back on the early days of fiery passion, when you couldn’t keep your hands off one another. You’re probably wondering, Where did we go wrong? But here’s the thing: there’s a reason the initial phase of infatuation comes to an end and can’t be recaptured. The answer lies in evolutionary science.
According to anthropologist Helen Fisher, that initial love-drunk feeling is what helped our ancient ancestors focus on one particular partner. And it plays the same role today. But our brains are not built to remain in this supercharged state forever. After you’ve selected your partner and the relationship continues, your brain chemistry changes.
The key message in this blink is: Sexual desire issues are nature’s way of getting us to develop ourselves.
Ironic as it may seem, the neurochemicals associated with long-term attachment may actually inhibit sexual desire. But for what odd purpose would human desire evolve in this way, you might ask? Doesn’t this all suggest that monogamy is unnatural? The author’s answer to these questions is a radical theory: that sexual desire problems evolved to help us develop ourselves.
Anthropologists believe that “the human self” began to develop around the time that humans and chimpanzees parted evolutionary ways. Over the course of 1.6 million years, our ancestors engaged in increasingly complex interactions with other humans, making us ever more self-aware and resulting in the evolution of what we think of as “the self.” Conflict came to play an essential role in the development of human psychology. Being a social species, we had to learn to tolerate interpersonal tension in order to maintain relationship bonds with others, which was necessary for survival.
And just as the human self evolved over millions of years, your personal sense of self evolves throughout your lifetime. When you’re in a long-term relationship, you and your partner impact each other’s sense of self every day, through every interaction. Eventually, the arguments you have and the issues you resolve together start to shape each of you – a phenomenon the author calls co-evolution.
From this perspective, sex is neither for reproduction nor for attachment, but a tool for self-growth. In the same way that “the human self” evolved from conflict, desire problems challenge both you and your partner to confront issues and build resilience, thus increasing your relationship’s chance of survival. And it forces each of you to look within.
Most people in relationships track their partner’s mind for self-validation.
Let’s say you get home after a lousy day at work. You decide to sulk in front of the TV as you wait for your partner to come home and cheer you up. But when he gets in, you don’t get so much as a kiss hello before he announces he’s had an exhausting day and rushes off to sleep. Disappointed, you go to bed that night feeling as upset as ever. You wonder, Doesn’t he care? Why didn’t he try to cheer me up?
Most of us, after all, enter relationships expecting to feel valued and understood by our partner. But what happens when he or she isn’t able to fulfill your expectations 24/7?
Here’s the key message: Most people in relationships track their partner’s mind for self-validation.
We saw how the primitive human self developed based on interaction with others. Our selfhood thus evolved to be reliant on feedback – what’s known as a reflected sense of self. It’s the norm for people in romantic relationships to maintain a reflected sense of self. That’s why, for example, you are naturally inclined to have sex with someone who flatters you and makes you feel attractive and confident.
But most of the time, you don’t even need explicit praise to conclude how someone feels about you. And that’s because you also have an innate ability to read your partner’s mind. It’s not magic – it’s another evolutionary mental process called mind-mapping.
Mind-mapping is an automatic mental process and we do it in all our social interactions. If you ever said something you knew would make your partner happy or angry, that was your mind-mapping ability at play.
When it comes to sexual desire problems, mind-mapping takes center stage. You constantly track your partner’s mind as you try to figure out how desirable you are. This is especially true when you have a very strong reflected sense of self – that is, when your partner’s feedback plays a central role in your self-image and you need constant reassurance. This inevitably puts pressure on your partner to constantly cater to your emotional needs, which ultimately acts as a barrier to intimacy.
Like the LDP-HDP dynamic, maintaining a reflected sense of self and mind-mapping are inevitable and natural in relationships. But as the laws of nature and relationships go, they also lead to emotional dependence – which happens to be a sure path toward conflict.
Depending on your partner for self-validation destroys sexual intimacy.
Sally had been faking orgasms since she first got together with Robert. At first, this was Sally’s way of supporting both her and Robert’s reflected sense of self, since he seemed satisfied with himself – and with her – when she moaned.
This played out over years – until Sally reached a breaking point. She was ready to give up her reflected sense of self by coming clean about her lies. But what would happen to Robert’s self-image as a result?
Here’s the key message: Depending on your partner for self-validation destroys sexual intimacy.
As we’ve seen, people who are unable to maintain their own sense of self end up burdening their partner with their insecurities, whether they are aware of it or not. But here’s the caveat: it’s also human nature to refuse to submit to tyranny. And when you demand constant validation from your partner, you trigger this refusal.
The more driven you are by your reflected sense of self – like Robert – the more oppressed your partner will feel – like Sally. It’s the reason many people in relationships go into conflict over desire problems.
Since self-image and sexual desire are interlinked, your feelings of inadequacy also impact your own ability to be aroused. It’s why learning to soothe your own frustrations is such a crucial function of sexual relationships. That requires developing a solid sense of self – knowing who you are without needing your partner’s approval. It demands earning your own self-respect by doing what’s right, rather than whatever pleases your partner.
Going back to Sally, although she was just as ashamed about failing to have orgasms as she was about lying, she knew that fessing up was important for defining herself. But her disclosure didn’t improve things immediately. Robert’s erection problems got worse; he became unkind for weeks. During this time, Sally had to ignore Robert’s provocations for long enough to prove that she was invested in this change. She had to hold on to her solid sense of self.
Over a month went by before Robert finally felt ready to act on Sally’s disclosure and try to improve their relationship. After that, a more honest connection with Robert helped Sally have orgasms for the first time in her life. The same conditions returned Robert’s erections to their former reliable nature. Just as relationships drive self-growth, self-confrontation drives growth in all relationships. Just don’t expect miracles overnight.
Sexual experimentation slows down as partners settle into a relationship.
Let’s say you’re lying in bed and your partner starts rubbing your back. You recognize the cue for sex immediately – it’s been the same since the very beginning. So you get into gear and go through the motions. You’ve done this enough times to know how it works, right?
Except, lately, something is missing. The routine that once sent sparks flying suddenly feels a little . . . boring. Is it finally time to make a change between the bedsheets?
While the logical answer is probably yes, don’t expect your partner – or yourself – to be eager to change. Actually, most couples are reluctant to alter their sexual routine, even when doing so promises to spice things up.
The key message in this blink is: Sexual experimentation slows down as partners settle into a relationship.
Most of us put up with sexual boredom for a simple and natural reason: it keeps our anxiety levels low. Unfamiliar sexual behavior, on the other hand, tends to make people nervous. Even if you’re eager to try out something new, there’s no guarantee that you’ll feel comfortable with it from the get-go. This is because sexual experimentation is inevitably a journey into unfamiliar territory – and unfamiliar territory can induce uncomfortable feelings.
A couple that has been together for a long time and is accustomed to certain habits will be particularly nervous to try something new. To make sense of why long-term couples are the least likely to change sexual behavior, it helps to understand that sexual norms are usually established in the early stages of a relationship.
The inaugural stage of a long-term relationship is characterized by low anxiety and little conflict, or what the author terms the comfort/safety cycle. This is when partners channel their emotions into sexual behavior that, over time, becomes established as routine. Understandably, most couples stick to this routine because it makes them feel secure.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having sex in familiar ways. But beware: staying in the comfort zone can create a situation where the smallest change may induce anxiety – even when that change is necessary to improve the relationship.
Remember that comfort and security only come after you’ve incorporated new sexual interactions into your relationship. Getting to this secure and comfortable “after” will take time and effort – and, more often than not, you’ll have to go through a period of insecurity and discomfort first.
Sexual growth tends to happen at the point when couples feel like they’re hitting a wall.
We’ve seen how couples are reluctant to change up their sexual routines, and how this can be damaging. This was the case for Ellen and Regina: Ellen frequently wanted to have sex, while Regina was reluctant to do it in their usual way because it never really aroused her. Yet every time Ellen tried to introduce something new, Regina would become anxious and freeze. Eventually, Ellen became so discouraged by Regina’s reactions that she gave up trying altogether.
In this scenario, Ellen’s accommodation of Regina’s anxieties led to an impasse in their sex life. Since neither Ellen nor Regina was willing to meet the other halfway, they reached what the author terms gridlock.
Here’s the key message: Sexual growth tends to happen at the point when couples feel like they’re hitting a wall.
Gridlock is a tipping point that happens in all relationships. Usually, it sets in when both partners refuse to take responsibility for the issue at hand. In a gridlocked relationship, both partners feel as though there is no way to move forward. It’s the emotional equivalent of a New York City traffic jam, and just about as unpleasant.
Gridlock results from one of the most common misconceptions that couples hold – that they should put up with each other’s anxieties in order to keep the peace. In the short-term, the practice of grinning and bearing it might indeed stabilize the situation. But persistent placation does nothing to resolve relationship problems in the long-run. Most of the time, it just ends up making matters worse – especially when it comes to sex. Just think of what happened to Ellen and Regina.
While it’s inevitable, gridlock can serve as the catalyst for positive change if treated correctly. After months of no sex, Ellen finally had to face the truth: she and Regina were getting nowhere. Reaching gridlock forced her to finally address the problems they had been sweeping under the carpet for years, and led her to knock on the author’s door for therapy.
But the real question is, how do you get out of gridlock? We already looked at the importance of developing a solid sense of self and learning to soothe your own anxieties. We also looked at how important it is to be able to endure difficult periods when you’re emotionally invested in coming up with novel solutions to your intimacy problems. But it’s not all about you – in the end, it’s also about collaboration.
Establishing a stronger collaborative alliance with your partner leads to better sex.
We’ve talked a lot about the importance of self-confrontation in romance. But how can you go on a mutual journey of self-growth with your partner? How can you work together to reawaken intimacy? And how can you translate this into sex?
The answer lies in building a strong collaborative alliance with your partner – an unwritten agreement to consistently work together toward the common benefit of the relationship. And it proves to be more effective than advice on sexual positions.
The key message here is: Establishing a stronger collaborative alliance with your partner leads to better sex.
We’ve seen how, over time, relationships change drastically. People drop their alliances for various reasons: some step back as soon as things get uncomfortable; others struggle to maintain or cast off a particular reflected self-image. We’ve also covered what the author collectively terms the Four Points of Balance: developing a strong sense of self, soothing your own anxieties, confronting your partner’s anxieties, and tolerating discomfort for growth – all of which can help you build a stronger partnership.
But we’re talking about sex, and the question remains: How can you build an alliance using your body?
Building a physical alliance involves creating and repeating interactions that embody partnership. To start, the author recommends a mindfulness exercise called hugging till relaxed. Stand on your own two feet, slow your breathing, and focus on your bodily sensations while hugging your partner for ten minutes. This exercise demonstrates – in tangible form – the balance in your relationship. With weekly repetition, issues in your relationship surface in your hugging, giving you a chance to confront them cooperatively, while physically relaxing into each other.
The author’s patients Larry and Juanita tried this method. Their problem was that Juanita felt nervous at any mention of sex. Her first time hugging till relaxed she was also nervous but – having invested in strengthening alliances – she persisted. After doing it five times in a week, Juanita gradually went from “less tense” to feeling “good.” Three weeks later, Juanita finally relaxed and the couple made passionate love for the first time in 19 years.
As in Juanita’s case, building alliances doesn’t always feel good at first. Remember that collaboration involves working together even when this is anxiety-inducing. What’s crucial is that you focus on how you can each contribute to rekindling intimacy in your relationship. Kindness and patience go a long way.
The key message in these blinks:
Every long-term relationship fundamentally struggles with desire problems. Recognizing that disparity in desire is a hallmark of all committed relationships can help you see your problems in a new light. Instead of viewing desire issues with your partner as obstacles, consider them a natural opportunity for growth. But keep in mind that sexual growth often stems from difficult emotional experience. A lot of the time, it’s the couples who are unwilling to challenge themselves that have trouble rekindling sexual passion. In the end, intimacy in your relationship requires you and your partner to step out of the comfort zone and confront yourselves. With patience and collaboration – while each standing on your own two feet – you can harness the best from yourself and your sexual relationship.
Heads on pillows.
Try this mindfulness exercise: Get in bed and lie on your side next to your partner, face-to-face, with your heads on your own pillows. Keep a bit of distance; you don’t want your partner’s features to be blurry. As you lie there, gaze into your partner’s eyes for ten minutes. Heads on pillows could challenge your tolerance levels for intimacy and vulnerability even more than hugging till relaxed. It will probably feel weird and awkward at first, which is to be expected – but repeat it many times a week, and the results can prove dramatic.
About the Author
Dr. David Schnarch is a licensed clinical psychologist, Board Certified in Couple and Family Psychology (ABBP), and recipient of the 2013 Award for Distinguished Contributions to Independent Practice from the American Psychological Association.
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