Our culture teaches us to be turned on by mystery. Desire and longing are so intimately linked that it’s often when a relationship becomes solid and real that the desire withers. This can happen on the first date if you sense immediately that the person is available and wants you, or it can happen several months into the relationship. The shift often happens when the burning, desire-inducing question of “Do you really love me?” is answered. Heather Havrilesky nails it in this article:
I’m an advice columnist, so sometimes people ask me about how they can “keep the romance alive” in their marriages. This stumps me a little because, by “romance,” I know they mean the traditional version, the one that depends on living inside a giant, suspenseful question mark. This version of romance is all about that thrilling moment when you think that someone may have just materialized who will make every single thing in the world feel delicious and amazing and right forever and ever. It springs forth from big questions, like “Can I really have what I’ve been looking for? Will I really feel loved and desired and truly adored at last? Can I finally be seen as the answer to someone else’s dream, the heroine with the glimmering eyes and sultry smile?” And this version of romance peaks at the exact moment when you think, Holy Christ, I really am going to melt right into this other person (who is a relative stranger)! It really IS physically intoxicating and perfect! And it seems like we feel the exact same way about each other! Traditional romance is heady and exciting precisely because — and not in spite of the fact that — there are still lingering questions at the edges of the frame: “Will I be enough for this person? Will she stop wanting me someday? Is he as amazing as he seems/feels/tastes?”
For many people, their relationship anxiety literally begins the moment the question of “Does he/she really love me?” is answered. For some, this is at the moment of engagement; for others, as I said above, it’s on the first date. For still others it’s many years into a marriage, often during the tumultuous time of a transition. It’s at that moment that “Does he/she really love me?” flips to “Do I really love him/her?” and the anxious spiral that I’ve defined as relationship anxiety begins.
This is also often the moment that sexual desire slinks away. Because we’re conditioned to use sexuality to answer the question, “Do you really love me?” and feel the stamp of approval when the desired other desires us, we have no idea how to cultivate healthy desire once that question is answered. What a devastating pickle our culture creates! This distorted and dysfunctional view of sexuality is completely backward and upside down, and can lead to so much pain and suffering for both partners.
Can we re-condition our minds and bodies to be turned on by presence instead of absence, by kindness instead of distance, by security instead of mystery? I believe we can. It means breaking down our filters that convince us that we can only be turned on by a certain type of partner and learning to see – truly see – the beauty and gift in the partner we have. It means taking small, daily actions toward breaking down the walls that keep us separate as we redefine our culturally imposed and faulty definitions of romance and desire.
Healthy sexual desire is born of connection, not mystery, on opening our hearts to each other, not on prescribed physical technique. Because everything in our culture teaches otherwise, and we’re so deeply wired from an early age to link longing with desire, we have to consciously and proactively take steps toward rewiring our conditioning. As always, the first step is bringing awareness to our unhealthy wiring, for we can’t change what we’re not aware of. We also need to douse our minds with the truth, which is that desire can and must arise from connection to ourselves and to each other. As the brilliant relationship psychologist Sue Johnson writes in Hold Me Tight:
“Secure bonding and fully satisfying sexuality go hand in hand; they cue off and enhance each other. Emotional connection creates great sex, and great sex creates deeper emotional connection. When partners are emotionally accessible, responsive, and engaged, sex becomes intimate play, a safe adventure. Secure partners feel free and confident to surrender to sensation in each other’s arms, explore and fulfill their sexual needs, and share their deepest joys, longings, and vulnerabilities. Then, lovemaking is truly making love.” (p. 186)
What’s essential to point out here in the context of relationship anxiety and the link between love and fear is that you can a have an accessible relationship with your partner – meaning that there is trust, safety and secure bonding between the two of you – but if fear is at the forefront of your heart you’re not going to feel open sexually. Great sex is, in fact, dependent on an open heart, for we know that fear contracts while love expands. In other words, we cannot connect sexually or even feel desire if we’re trapped behind a fear wall. As Sue Johnson writes, “We simply are not wired to be wary or afraid and turned on at the same time.”
What are we so afraid of? In one sense, that’s the million-dollar question, but in another way it doesn’t actually matter. One part of our mind longs to dissect the fear down to its roots, and while this is an exercise I recommend in my Break Free course, it’s not one that I focus on in my other courses. We can understand the “why” and still remain stuck behind the cold, hard, impenetrable walls of fear. Ultimately, it’s action that dissolves fear, and that’s the focus of Open Your Heart: learning doable, effective actions that will soften the walls.
One small action I always recommend to people who are trapped behind their fear-walls and feel little to no sexual desire for their partners is to lie down together without clothes on and without expectation of having sex. I advise them to feel their hearts, feel the points of connection between their naked bodies. Notice any flicker of desire, no matter how small. We have a very narrow definition of sexuality in our culture and don’t realize that lying down naked together qualifies as sexual contact even if there’s no sexual touching. This is how we begin to bridge the chasm that can start to grow between two people who love each other but have lost their sexual spark.
There are many other actions as well. This is what I teach in Open Your Heart: A 30-day program to feel more love and attraction for your partner. While the course isn’t specifically focused on sexuality (that course will be released next year), when we take the small yet dedicated daily actions toward opening our hearts, the stagnant underground aqueduct of our sexuality begins to thaw out and bubble like a spring rising up through the layers of fear. The course will begin on March 12th and is open now for registration. I look forward to guiding you toward a more open heart in all ways.