When commitment and sexual passion butt heads
by Tony Carroll, LCSW
See also Making the Breakthrough… …not the breakup!, by Denise O’Doherty, LCSW
The desire to combine erotic passion and committed love provides a troubling paradox for modern people. We want security, companionship, understanding, but we also want passion, sex, and excitement. Can we have our cake and eat it too? Yes…if we know what’s really happening.
Of all the concerns regarding relationships, the most common is integrating sexual passion and committed connection over an extended period of time.
Passion, or sex drive, is an animal instinct coming from the part of the brain that keeps us breathing and our hearts beating. It is free, open, reckless, spontaneous, selfish, and unfettered.
Love is related to feelings of care and concern for the other—the need for safety and security, for familiarity and dependability. To love requires the ability to at times set aside our own desires as we respond to the needs and desires of the one we love. Committed love arises partially from the infantile need for care and the parental drive to nurture, and partially from a more cognitive recognition of the advantage of commitment and security, in addition to a genuine interest in the well-being and happiness of the other.
Erotic love combines both sexual passion and committed love. The desire for erotic love is relatively new in human relationships, and its two components have to learn to play well together. Passion requires wanting, freedom, spontaneity, focus on the self, devotion to sensuous pleasure. Love requires commitment, focus on the other, and attention to needs. Passion is selfish; commitment is selfless. This paradox poses a challenge for the couple that wants them both.
Live Longer, Live Healthier
If you’re reading this, you probably sense there is more for you—and you’re right. The evidence shows that people in committed relationships tend to live longer, are happier and healthier, and recover from illness faster than single people; generally this is true without regard to the quality of the relationship. Evidence also shows that sexual passion diminishes as commitment grows. And then there’s the obvious:
- Happy relationships are more fun than unhappy ones.
- Sometimes love works, sometimes it doesn’t.
- When it works, it’s wonderful.
- When it ends, it hurts.
In the Beginning…
Relationship is a basic human need. Primitive humankind needed family and a village to survive. There were fields to be cultivated and deer to be killed. Large numbers of children were needed, hoping enough would survive to help provide food and shelter and live long enough to care for the parents.
With the rise of romanticism has come an ever-increasing complexity. We want the security of predictability, responsibil-ity, dependability, empathy, and familiarity, while at the same time needing adventure, freedom, variety, surprise, and spontaneity. Over time we have come to expect companionship, intellectual stimulation, equality and shared responsibility, understanding, emotional support, and erotic passion to accompany the sense of familiarity and dependability—and we’re not very skillful at making this happen.
The Roots in Childhood
Our experience of connection, as well as pleasure, is rooted in the very beginning of our lives, living on in the right brain where we experience pleasure and emotion. Here the infantile experiences reside without words or thought, but when triggered, spontaneously produce physical sensations that are then interpreted within the context of the moment. It is easier to make sense of this if we think of how we start life and how we learn about ourselves and others.
We start life pretty much blank, and become who we are through our experiences. We’re born completely dependent. We stay that way longer than any other living beings. We are born with no knowledge, an acute sensitivity to discomfort, and dependence on someone else for our survival. We must be able to learn very quickly.
The dependency on others drives our need to learn about them and eventually leads us to develop ideas about both ourselves and others. Styles of attachment or bonding develop from here.
Within a few days of birth, we come to see other people as sources of pain or pleasure. We come to experience other people as warm, dependable, and comforting; frazzled, bothered, and nervous; or as irritable, undependable, and distracted. Attachment theorists talk about the resulting adult attachment styles as secure, insecure, or ambivalent. In adult relationships, the intensity of emotional involvement accentuates the attachment style.
Secure attachment results when the child is given freedom, encouraged to explore and enjoy the world, and to know Mom will be there when s/he is ready to come back, or when Kid needs the parent. This lucky kid grows up to be excited by life and drawn to fully experience the pleasure and joy of self and others.
Insecure attachment results when the child experiences an overly cautious parent’s anxiety and worry. The result is the child becomes afraid and tends to cling. We learn to fear losing the other.
Ambivalent attachment results when the caretaker is unpredictable, sometimes warm and caring, other times irritable and annoyed. The lesson this child learns is that the world is unpredictable and others are not to be trusted. Distance is the best solution.
During the first three years of life, the right brain is dominant and experiences pain, pleasure, and emotions. The left brain remains undeveloped, leaving us with no words or concrete memories of this formative time; certainly we lack understanding of this time. Instead, we have reactions embedded deep in our brains that, when triggered, stimulate physical sensations. This loop of unconscious triggers and bodily sensations continues into adulthood. As adults, we usually interpret these sensations as coming from the people or events around us, while in reality we are remembering experiences from infancy.
During the earliest period of our lives, we are driven to seek and enjoy pleasure. Babies love the warmth of being held, the touch of others. Infants have sexual feelings and discover the pleasure of touching their genitals. In settings where sexuality is suppressed, we quickly learn not to touch ourselves “down there,” to hide pleasure, and to cover our bodies. The process of socialization is complex and sensitive, but in our society little kids have to learn to keep their clothes on and not to masturbate at the breakfast table. We experience shaming and learn to hide our sensuous and sexual feelings within the family. And here we are—adults desiring love and sexual satisfaction—with childhood messages that say “don’t enjoy pleasure, and certainly not with the family.” We learn the crazy mixed message: “Sex is dirty. Save it for the one you love.” What? Really? How’s that going to work out in a committed relationship?
What Do I Do to Turn Me Off?
We know that erotic desire and pleasure-seeking are innate, but they are shut down by both early conditioning and the loss of uniqueness associated with familiarity. Rather than “What can s/he do to turn me on?” or “What does s/he do that turns me off?” the question is “What do I do to turn me off?” Animals experience sex, but only human beings are capable of hours of erotic pleasure all alone, created solely inside our own heads. We have the capacity to create the same eroticism with our intimate partners when we get past turning ourselves off.
It is helpful to understand that we’ve stopped remembering and imagining the other as we first knew them to be. When asked when they feel most drawn to their partners, most say it is when they are away, when they are making up after a disagreement, when they see her on the baseball field, admire his skill at running a meeting, when they see the admiration of others crowded around her at a party.
We find our partners to be most appealing and exciting when watching them from a distance, seeing them interact with others—when we see them as separate and individual. The separation frees us to see them much the same as when we fell in love, while closeness brings a sense of familiarity and stability. When we see our partners from a distance, for that moment in time we see them again as the stranger with whom we fell in love. If an insecure attachment pattern was developed during infancy, this experience instead inspires jealousy, suspicion, and fear–—all guaranteed to smother erotic desire.
The common misconception is that waning erotic desire indicates a problem in the relationship; that by addressing the “communication” problem, sexual passion will return. Certainly, unresolved conflict, fear, jealously, resentment, insecurity, and stress all impede the quality of relationships, but experience says that even in the most well-functioning devoted and loving couples, there may be a loss of sexual satisfaction. Loving couples frequently say that they want better sex rather than more sex.
Culturally, we have been taught that love comes naturally, and once we find the right person it will magically be okay. If it gets a little dull, try a different room. Not true! So how do we manage this if we are to have the relationships we desire?
“A Crisis of the Imagination”
Clearly, “get it on and get off” isn’t enough anymore, because for the first time in human history we want both companionship and desire from the same person for a long time. We have to change and reclaim the ability to experience pleasure without inhibition. But this change has to happen deep in the brain. Cognitive understanding resides in the left brain and can change the way we think and behave. Sensuous pleasure and inhibitions are buried deep in the right brain. Neuroplasticity (the study of changes in the brain) teaches us that right-brain change must be brought about by the rewards of pleasure, repetition, and focused attention.
“We fall in love with a stranger, but once we make a commitment, we become family (where sexuality was suppressed)…. And there goes the sex,” says Gestalt sex therapist Stella Resnick. Falling in love is associated with the fear of losing the other, and the implied uncertainty. As we start to feel secure in a commitment, the uncertainty dissipates, and we think we are falling out of love.
Marriage and family therapist Esther Perel states the challenge of the paradox quite accurately: “Give me comfort, give me edge. Give me novelty, give me familiarity. Give me predictability, give me surprise. We think it’s a given, and toys (and an affair) are not going to save us…but the crisis of desire is often a crisis of the imagination.” Sex with a new partner is like drinking to get drunk; sex with an intimate partner is like savoring fine wine. The first requires little practice or experience; the second is a refined and cultivated experience developed over time through practice, experience, and focused intent.
Eroticism in Stable, Loving Relationships
We can develop eroticism in stable, loving relationships if we know how to do it, if we devote the time, and if we find some guidance. Much of this depends on our ability to tolerate pleasure while remaining present and connected, and developing the skills to remain focused on our pleasure while enjoying the pleasure of our partner. It requires a certain amount of reprogramming the right brain to allow the flow of pleasure. We also have to quiet the tension and distractions arising from the left brain.
Although all of this is far too complex to address in any depth here, you may want to look at some other resources. Ester Perel offers a brilliant, down-to-earth look at the paradox of commitment and eroticism in her book Mating in Captivity. Stella Resnick’s The Heart of Desire offers both discussion of the phenomenon and exercises for enhancing the physical experience of sexual pleasure. Some of the Tantric work and massage can be helpful, although it may fall a little short in integrating erotic desire with committed familiarity.
We know that revitalizing the pleasure-seeking and pleasure-sustaining functions of childhood requires experiences as well as understanding. The institutionalization of sexual inhibition, our distorted understanding of sexuality, and the denial of the sexuality of children has directed many mental-health professionals away from working with pleasure in general, and erotic pleasure in particular. Finding and exploring these rare opportunities is well worth your time.
There’s a whole lot more than just getting it on and getting off, and it’s out there waiting for you!
Houston psychotherapist Tony Carroll, LCSW, has worked extensively with Houston’s LGBT community since establishing a private practice in 1983. He is a past president of the Texas Society for Clinical Social Work and a member of a number of organizations, including the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists; and the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. • Carroll regularly conducts weekend workshops for single people and couples. A workshop for single gay men is scheduled March 28 and 29, 2015. He is looking for three or four established male couples to participate in a “test run” for a new workshop designed to address the issues raised in this article. For info, contact him at [email protected]. Carroll and his husband, Bruce W. Smith, DDS, were married in Toronto in 2003 and New York City in 2008. They will soon celebrate their 20th anniversary in a committed relationship.
Unhappy Outcomes of the Passion/Commitment Paradox
In committed relationships:
- the devoted couple with mediocre or no sex and little passion;
- the couple who brings others into the relationship for sexual gratification;
- the couple who keeps the relationship exciting through constant conflict and drama;
- deceptive or secretive liaisons with others; and/or
- a sense that something is always missing.
- seeking multiple, casual sex partners without commitment;
- remaining distracted with excessive activity and friends;
- practicing serial monogamy, one short relationship after another in the quest for the right one;
- resignation to being single, thus avoiding attachment, vulnerability, expectations, and disappointment;
- becoming intimately insular.