Susan Regas, PhD
130 S. Euclid Ave., Suite 8
Pasadena, CA 91101
Office: (626) 440-1792
Love is eternal. Passion is fleeting. Understanding that is the first step in facing the human dilemma that as relationships dull so does sex.
People yearn for the erotic highs that come with falling in love. In the first heady wave of ardor we see only the positive in our partner. Just being around them makes our breath quicken. Their love for us is a mirror reflecting a sense of self worth. Scientific research shows that passion and romance is a universal perception embedded in the human brain (Fisher, 2004).
So why doesn't it last?
In a relatively short time, between eighteen months and three years, for both men and women, romance starts to fade and sexual desire crumbles like bricks of straw. Even in our sexually obsessed culture, many couples, gay and straight, across ethnicity and religions, are challenged by a dramatic decline in passion and sexual desire. This often leads to the shame/blame mind-set that overshadows the rest of the relationship.
The truth is romantic love doesn't die a natural and evitable death. We kill it (Mitchell, 2002).
People long for the passion they had when they first fell in love. But we can't go back to the way it was at the beginning because that was a relationship between two people who really didn't know each other. In a long-term relationship, we learn more about our partner - and often more about ourselves - than we want to know. The weight of all this unwelcome knowledge can dull our feelings.
But enduring passion is more than mere feeling. Passion is rooted in love and, like a plant or a tree, it must be continually pruned and nurtured to grow and flourish. Once you have shared with your life partner the diversity of human experience: birth and death, laughter and tragedy, you sustain passion by making a conscious commitment to loving. You have to WANT to keep loving.
Loving is an active and ongoing process. Love takes courage. Many people think that if they feel love, passion will come naturally. If they don't feel passion, they begin to wonder if they are really in love. Similarly, there are those who believe that when they commit to a relationship, it is the other person's responsibility to make them feel loved and desirable. People often assume that when they find the right person, love will blossom naturally and the passion will take care of itself.
It's not like that. Romance is like a sandcastle on the seashore that requires constant rebuilding. You are that sandcastle. You have to hold yourself up without expecting your partner to do it for you. You have to hold yourself up and hold your partner's hand at the same time. Unfortunately, the law of cause and effect doesn't always work. What you put out doesn't always come back. But, in a relationship worth hanging onto, you just have to keep trying.
Maintaining passion in a long-term relationship requires bringing more of your true self into the relationship. As partners become occupied with the daily minutia of life: children, in-laws, friends and bills, they become more central to each other's lives, even while the passion may wither and respect drains away. Paradoxically, it doesn't always feel safe to let your partner know your deepest feelings, the way you thought you could when you first met. Initial passion is a freshly lit fire with tongues of red flame licking over the coals. A strong relationship is when the flame fades, but the embers remain warm and the coals burn slowly.
In the heat of passion, we approach love and sex with abandon. What we reveal about ourselves, our partner accepts and encourages. As time passes, as the flame dies down, we grow less willing to risk disapproval; less willing to be 'known' for who we are. We start to wonder if our lover will stop desiring us if they knew our private thoughts and anxieties. What if they fell in love with who they thought I was, when I know myself to be someone quite different? When such doubts enter a relationship, one or both partners may become withdrawn and will set about presenting themselves in a way they imagine their partner is going to find acceptable.
If this shift occurs, one of two things happen: the romance is replaced by something agonizingly dull; or it becomes so bitterly disappointing, we sometimes seek a new lover to try and awaken our passion.
What we are doing is running away from risk. We are avoiding greater exposure of ourselves while closing our eyes to having deeper knowledge of our partner. Sex in long-term relationships is emotionally more precarious, and consequently, potentially more exciting. Yet, enduring romantic passion requires tolerance to a depth of feeling that should come with guarantees, but doesn't.
There are no guarantees. Life and love are unavoidably difficult and risky. There is no way to avoid the anxieties of a passionate relationship or the anxieties of a dead relationship. The cultivation of romance requires two people who are fascinated by the ways in which they create a way of life they can count on. It requires a tolerance of the fragility of their hopes. There is nothing easy about the choice to love.
People need a more realistic view of relationships in order to give them hope when they face hard times. Passionate sex is related to how you feel about yourself, your partner, and your relationship. As a result, enduring relationships occur when self-development is allowed to be fully played out. There is a continual dialectical tension between the drive for closeness and the drive for individual growth and self-fulfillment. People must be aware that that the process of balancing these two forces is built into all relationships (Schnarch, 2009).
Once you fall in love and begin a relationship, you will have to learn how to hold on to yourself within that relationship. Belonging to each other feels like a marvelous thing in the early stage. Later, when your partner acts like your body is merely an extension of themselves, it doesn't encourage passion.
All too often, people come to expect their partner to accept and support them emotionally. Unfortunately, this sort of caretaking doesn't arouse passion. Passion comes when you know yourself and feel good about yourself, when you take care of your own anxieties, when you are able to be nonreactive and face tough times while staying close to your partner (Schnarch, 2009). It is the struggle for self-respect that wins your partner's respect. Although different from the infatuation stage, self- respect in an enduring relationship creates the chemistry that will still ignite passion and sexual desire.
Fisher, H. E. (2004), Why We Love: The nature and chemistry of romantic love. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
Mitchell, S. A. (2002), Can Love Last? New York: Norton & Co.
Schnarch, D. M. (2009), Intimacy & Desire: Awaken the Passion in your Relationship. New York: Beufort Books.
© 2010 by Susan Regas, PhD