Enhancing Intimacy and Desire in Romantic Relationships
“Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other.” (Esther Perel)
Often when people think of intimacy, they immediately think of physical attraction or sex. While physical intimacy is important, the term intimacy comprises much more. According to psychologist Robert Sternberg, intimacy refers to feelings of “closeness, connectedness and bondedness in loving relationships.” Intimacy is a process in which one feels intimately known by, seen, and connected to their partner. It occurs when we are able to share our private thoughts and feelings with another person and come to feel appreciated by, cared for, and understood. Physical intimacy is just one form of intimacy, and does not only refer to sex. Physical intimacy can also include other forms of physical affection such as hugging, kissing, or cuddling. Outside of physical intimacy, there is also emotional, intellectual, and spiritual intimacy.
In the early stages of a romantic relationship there is often intense attraction, desire, and the excitement that comes along with getting to know another person. However, as described by psychotherapist Esther Perel, the central paradox of relationships is that over time as we develop more familiarity, closeness, and safety with our loved one, our sexual desire for that person can diminish. This is because desire often requires some level of psychological distance from the other person, which can be hard to achieve when our lives can overlap so completely with our partner. In other words, it can be hard to feel erotic feelings towards the same person who we just saw unclog the toilet and worked on our taxes with that day. That is, although home life can create a sense of familiarity and intimacy with our partner, it is also the antithesis of sexual attraction, which is fueled by the novel and unexpected. Therefore, we are challenged to learn how to navigate these paradoxical needs of intimacy and desire within our romantic relationships. Below are some suggestions for how you can increase both intimacy and desire with your loved one:
1) Step out of autopilot: Relationships can become stifled by the routine and monotony of daily life. Yes, it is comforting to know that you can rely on your partner to complete their share of household tasks, but this does not necessarily spark sexual feelings. Set an intention to do something novel with your partner. This can be as simple as setting up a spontaneous date night at a new restaurant, getting dressed up to go somewhere together, taking a class, or surprising your partner at work on their lunch break. This sense of novelty can help to fuel desire and breathe new life into the relationship.
2) Express gratitude: It can be all too easy to take the people closest to us for granted. Take some time to reflect on your relationship and those things about your partner that you appreciate. Not only can this practice boost your own positive feelings about your relationship, but in sharing your positive feelings about your relationship with your partner they can feel appreciated and seen by you.
3) Dive deeper: Over time, we may feel like we know everything there is to know about the person we are with and it can be easy to lose that urge to try to discover more. Emotional intimacy is cultivated through a process of mutual sharing of one’s most intimate thoughts and feelings. Take risks in sharing more of yourself with your partner and be curious in learning more about them. Start by asking open-ended questions and really listening to your partner’s responses.
4) Physical touch and eye-gazing: Physical intimacy means more than just sex and often times the pressure to have more sex or better sex can feel like another to-do. One practice for enhancing physical intimacy includes engaging in physical touch with out any end goal of sexual activity. This can include a hug, a quick kiss, a squeeze of the hand- any small gesture of physical affection can increase feelings of physical closeness. These small physical touches throughout the day can also make sex feel like less of a jump when it ultimately happens. Eye-gazing is another practice that can increase feelings of closeness. Although it can often feel awkward at first, spending just 5 minutes gazing into your partner’s eyes can be an intensely intimate experience.
5) Talk about your relationship: In the couples therapy work that I do, I often find that couples don’t talk about their relationship unless something is going wrong. Make time to engage in conversations with your partner about your relationship; what your appreciate, how you’ve grown, what you want for your future together. The mere process of talking about an “us” can help you feel more closely connected. If you are stumped about where to start I suggest Gottman’s Love Map and Open-Ended Card Decks.
By: Candace Burnham, PsyD
Perel, E. (2009). Mating in captivity: Unlocking erotic intelligence.
Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review.