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Security Vs. Passion l June 2014

“We love each other. We have a good relationship. But there’s not much happening in the bedroom.”

Sound familiar? You’re not alone; low sexual desire within long-term marriage is rampant. Many marriage counselors believe it stems from the age-old conundrum of two competing human needs: security versus passion. What encourages the former tends to discourage the latter. We go into marriage seeking the secure attachment that’s built on reliability, stability, predictability, and safety in a partner. But those qualities are the opposite of what fuels erotic desire: mystery, novelty, unpredictability, even risk.1

Put another way, maintaining erotic desire requires balancing togetherness and separateness. Too much togetherness (and not enough autonomy) can smother a partner’s erotic appeal, precluding the sense of mystery or novelty that was once present. If you know everything about me, if I agree with all that you say or think, if my every move is predictable and there are never any surprises, can I really expect that you’ll find in me the allure of mystery?

Here are some pathways that might fuel erotic desire in your relationship:

  • Pursue novelty and adventure as a couple. Visit new places; deviate sometimes from your familiar highways and byways to bring the unknown and unpredictable into your shared life.
  • Cultivate some separate friends and hobbies so there’s occasional mystery — not secrecy — to your day and your routine. Your partner’s curiosity about how you’ve spent your time can be a sign that you’re preserving healthy autonomy within your relationship.
  • Give yourselves permission to openly acknowledge your attractions to others — to characters in film or television, to men and women across the room at a party — while assuring your partner that admiring isn’t the same as straying. Don’t silence your partner’s erotic musings just to protect yourself from feelings of jealousy or inadequacy. Find a healthy way to deal with those feelings without shutting down the freedom to say, “That guy’s hot!”
  • Read erotic books aloud (try it while soaking in a tub together) or blush while watching adult movies side-by-side.
  • Find imaginative ways to share sexual daydreams and fantasies, things you’ve kept private up to now. The disclosure might come as a provocative and stimulating surprise: you’re a bit less familiar than before.

Enhancing erotic desire takes intention and planning; it won’t happen automatically or spontaneously. Seize the day.

1Perel, Esther. Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. (New York: Harper Perennial) 2007.


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Two Brains l April/May 2014

We have two brains — one that can get us into trouble, and one that can get us out.

There’s the emotional brain (called the amygdala), tucked deep and low within the mass of complex circuitry inside our heads. Sometimes referred to as the lizard brain because it’s what we have in common with creatures going back millions of years, the emotional brain reacts quickly and instinctively, alert to every threat; animal survival depended on it. In humans (both prehistoric and contemporary), it triggers a quick fight or flight response: we put up our dukes and come out swinging, or we run for cover and race quickly away (or shut down and go silent).

And then there’s the logical brain (the prefrontal cortex), sitting just behind the forehead, a relative newcomer in the brain’s evolution, coming onto the scene millions of years after the emotional brain had established its powerful seniority. It’s the logical brain that allows us to reason and plan and organize our thoughts — and to gain control over the emotional brain.

But controlling the emotional brain isn’t easy. With eons of practice since alerting cavemen and cavewomen to every danger, the emotional brain sounds an alarm for even the slightest provocation, the smallest threat. A partner’s angry tone or sharply raised eyebrow and the emotional brain signals “danger”: the heart races, the breath quickens, blood rushes to places it wasn’t rushing to before. Emotion floods through us and if it overwhelms the logical brain, we yell, we swear, we hit below the belt, or we exit with a slam of the door. The emotional brain is now driving the car.

At times like that, what’s needed is bringing the logical brain back behind the wheel and the emotional brain into the back seat. Some people do this through slow deep breathing, which regains control of the heart and lungs and slows the flow of adrenaline coursing through the body. That alone helps the logical brain nudge the emotional brain into the back seat. But sometimes what’s needed is a time-out — twenty or thirty minutes or more — while the body calms itself and emotions cool down. Only then should conversation resume. Only then are we capable of speaking sensibly, of listening effectively and responding in a mature way.

So give yourself permission to say to your partner: “I can’t continue, I need a time-out. Let’s continue after I calm down and can think with my logical brain.” (And if you’re the partner who requests a time-out, it’s your responsibility to request a time-in so that the conversation can resume. Time-out must never be a ploy to skip out.)

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The Growth Mindset l March 2014

“Just as there are no great achievements without setbacks, there are no great relationships without conflicts and problems along the way.”*

Judging by the words we use, we often view the rough patches in our relationship through a harsh and critical lens: “we’ve hit the skids” or “we’ve fallen on bad times.” How easy it is to scare ourselves into thinking that our partnership is doomed, or that we’re stuck living forever with so much unhappiness. Moments of such pessimism are probably familiar to most of us.

Believing that something is permanently wrong when we and a partner struggle to get along, or wrestle with differences, or trip over each other’s words, leads us to view relationship problems as the result of either a core flaw in our partner or in ourselves. It’s a point of view that Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck sees as an expression of the fixed mindset — the perspective that human attributes are set in stone, unlikely to change, and must simply be accepted (or at best tolerated). The fixed mindset makes it easy for us, in our deep discouragement, to blame one another (“If only she weren’t so…” or “The problem is his…”). And with blame comes anger and disgust (or shame, when the blame is self-directed), plus the feeling of helplessness that nothing can be done.

In contrast to the fixed mindset, Dweck offers the growth mindset — the view that people are always evolving, that the brain and its habits can be modified so long as we’re willing to make the effort. (Neuroscience research affirms with certainty that the brain is malleable and its habits alterable.) The growth mindset allows us still to acknowledge imperfections in our partner (or in ourselves) but without the hopelessness that nothing can be done, without the sense that we’re forever victims of unchanging and unfortunate traits.

So think of those tough relationship events as invitations to stretch beyond your comfort zone, to develop (perhaps with the help of a counselor) new habits and new skills that can push your partnership to wonderful new heights. It’s absolutely possible: the growth mindset reminds us of that.

*Dweck, Carol. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. (New York: Ballantine Books, Inc.)

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