As a couples therapist in New York, I've seen young and old, married or not and gay, bi and straight, with passports from all over the world. Plenty has changed in my 20 years of private practice, but not my patients opening lines.
They tend to go something like this: "We love each other very much, but we have no sex."
Next they'll move into describing relationships that are open and loving, yet sexually dull. Time and again they tell me that, though, they treasure the stability, security and predictability of a committed relationship, they miss the excitement, novelty and mystery that eroticism thrives on.
Sophia's gripe says it all. She wants the comfort of familiarity, but misses the edge of the unknown. "We get along really well; Jake is warm and reliable, and even though he's not the type to gush, I feel cozy with him. I know we're lucky. We have a nice place, enough money, three great kids. So what is it I miss? I want to feel some of the intensity of the beginning, the butterflies in the stomach, the feeling of anticipation. I know that the excitement was bound up with insecurity, with not knowing if he would call or not. I don't want that insecurity at this time in my life, But I would like to feel something..."
So, there you have it: the human species design flaw. Exactly the caring and coddling that nurture love snuff out the unselfconsciousness of desire. When we love, we worry about our partner and feel responsible. Desire is more wolfish. Selfish. Beast-like..
Funny thing, desire. You'd think you'd need to throw more intimacy at it to keep it in pink health. But you'd be wrong. Withered desire is all too often the unanticipated side effect of a growing intimacy, not one that's cooled. In fact, the very qualities that nurture intimacy can be sexually deflating. Sophia points to the familiarity between Jeff and her, the protectiveness she feels. She talks about the shared rituals that make their days more predictable, the security of knowing that Jeff checks in with her four times a day. But in their attempts to secure love, Jeff and Sophia have squeezed out the very erotic ingredients that spurred the relationship into being: surprise, novelty, spontaneity, curiosity, uncertainty.
Popular psychology tells us sexual problems come from relationship problems. Poor communication, lack of intimacy and accumulated resentments are some of the boxes checked off to explain this numbing of desire. If troubled relationship = no sex, then it flows that if we improve the relationship, hot sex should follow.
But my practice suggests otherwise. I've helped plenty of couples buff up their relationship and it did nothing for the sex. Because the rules of desire are not the same as the rules of good citizenship.
It isn't always the lack of closeness that stifles desire, but too much closeness. And while love seeks closeness, desire needs space to thrive. That's because love is about having, and desire is about wanting.
Here's the nut of it: Eroticism occurs in the space between self and other.
Now, most of us don't want that uncertainty in the very place where we seek consistency. We prefer to experience the thrill of the unknown elsewhere.
But there's no way around it. Learn to love the unknown right here with your honey. To want, you've got to have a synapse to cross. In short, fire needs air, and many couples don't leave enough air.
Esther Perel is the author of Mating In Captivity (Harper Collins),which has been published in 21 languages. For more about her, please visit www.estherperel.com