For me, there is nothing sexy about romance. Romance is beautiful, exciting, and important – but it’s important because of my emotional needs.
Romance is wonderful. It makes me feel appreciated, it makes me feel close to my partner, and it makes me happy. But it sure as hell doesn’t make me horny.
If my experience so far is anything to go by, then feeling affectionate towards someone and wanting to jump their bones don’t always go hand in hand. They are both essential ingredients in a relationship, but they are not the same ingredient.
I had always thought there was something a little bit messed up with me because of that. I used to castigate myself regularly for my taste in guys when I was younger, because I was always attracted to arrogant and self-centred assholes. Those who gave me the strongest ‘butterflies’ and used their sexual sorcery to make me feel obsessed with them were those who maintained their distance, and ensured I was never quite sure of where I stood.
It was a very powerful form of infatuation, and learning to tell infatuation apart from love can be pretty damn difficult. Judging by the melodrama of Romeo and Juliet, I’m not even sure Shakespeare was any good at it.
I’ve now been with my partner for just over three years – and they have been a great three years. He makes me incredibly happy and manages to blend those seemingly irreconcilable traits of romance, sex, and fun.
But three years is exactly when the only other long-term relationship that I’ve been in started to fall apart, so a part of me was getting a little anxious that things might go south soon. Do things fizzle out after three years? Does sex dry up? Do we drift from love, to fondness, to indifference? As Albert warns us so clearly in The Birdcage, ‘Indifference is the most awful thing in the world…”
So I was delighted to discover a great video on TED the other day that spoke about how to keep the magic alive in a relationship. And in that video I discovered that the gulf between romance and sex isn’t a psychological problem that is unique to me and that requires me to spend hours in therapy trying to figure out when in my childhood it kicked in – that gulf is the human condition.
In the TED talk, sex therapist Esther Perel says:
“Can we want what we already have? At the heart of sustaining desire in a committed relationship is the reconciliation of two fundamental human needs: on the one hand, our need for security, predictability, safety, reliability – the anchoring, grounding experiences that we call ‘home’. But we also have an equally strong need for adventure, novelty, mystery, risk, danger, for the unknown, the unexpected.”
Human beings, then, are torn between wanting intimacy and wanting distance. We want to feel valued and loved, but find the unknown, the un-intimate sexy. Sometimes, what we need to feel aroused is to feel distant from our partner. It’s probably half the reason people cheat: Not because they don’t love their partners (although they may not); but because they need more than love. They need lust.
It’s comforting to know I’m not alone in this dysfunctional mess – we have evolution to thank for it, I’m sure. We are drawn to the strong and independent for their alpha genes but to the kind and caring so that we’re not left alone to raise kids on the savannah without any protection. But what do we do with this knowledge of our inherent contradiction? Is it possible to be happy and fulfilled in a long term relationship?
Here are a couple of my thoughts on what could make it work:
- Distance. I’m not saying we should all become aloof Anna Wintours to one another, or that living in different cities (though my current condition) is the way to go. I’m a big fan of spending a lot of quality time together. But I think spending all of your time together kills the mystery in a relationship, and erodes point two on this clever little bullet point list too. Perhaps a good rule of thumb is to spend at least one night a week doing your own thing with different people.
- Independence. There’s a word for sex with ourselves, and it rhymes with yanking. It’s hard to keep a healthy respect for a partner who doesn’t have his own point of view or bring his own ideas to the table. Be your own man, pursue a career or hobby that you enjoy, show initiative, be comfortable in your own skin and know your worth – there’s nothing more attractive than confidence. And it stays sexy long after the wrinkles start showing.
- Make time for romance. Romance isn’t a check-list of things to buy on Valentine’s Day. Do thoughtful, personal and sweet things for your partner – often. Let him know you’re thinking about him and love him. Leave notes around the house, send him funny articles, make him dinner when he’s had a rough day.
- Make time for each other. Hanging out on the couch watching TV together every night doesn’t count as quality time. Focus on your partner, take an interest in his life and pay attention to what he’s thinking, feeling and saying – verbally and non-verbally. And make sure you let him in to your inner world. Communicate, share the important stuff.
- Make sex fun. Let’s be honest, the odds of boredom are probably quite high when it’s been a few years. Don’t take sex too seriously, or it’ll just become awful. Lighten up, try new things, have fun. The main advantage of sex with someone you love rather than a stranger is that you know what drives him crazy, and you can be frank and playful and adventurous. Be slow and gentle and intimate sometimes, be rough and wild and animal other times.
This last part can send couples on some interesting tangents. I’m not sure I could do role-play without finding it a bit contrived and ridiculous, but I suppose there are degrees of role-play that don’t involve nurse costumes and pretending not to know each other when you meet at a bar.
And there are always open relationships to explore. I’d imagine gay couples are much more likely to experiment with that than straight couples are. Are they the way to go? It seems great on the tin: hot sex with a stranger without losing the intimacy of a partner. But I’ve never tried one because they seem risky to me. Firstly, because that rush of adrenaline and excitement from sex with a new guy could mess with your heart even when it’s purely physical. And secondly because it seems to me that outsourcing the lust in a relationship could accelerate the transformation of long-term partners into platonic best friends.
I think it is possible to be happy in a long-term, committed relationship. There will be dry spells and freak-outs, but if the connection is strong it’s worth holding onto. And it’s certainly going to help me to know that I can drop the anxiety and embrace the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of love and sexuality.
We all want someone who makes us breakfast in bed and takes us on romantic weekends away, and we all want someone who’ll shag us in the public toilets of a seedy diner. It’s okay to want both. And it’s important to offer both to our partners. The trick is in an artful blending of intimacy and independence, of trust and unknown adventure.