The Paradox of Marriage: Conflict of Love and Desire

Contributed by Sammy Uyama

Esther Perel is a world-renowned couples therapist and author. In her book, Mating in Captivity, she introduces a dichotomy within relationships that has continued to fill my thoughts since reading it:

There is a natural conflict between the values we seek in a long-term relationship — stability, trust, intimacy — and the things which excite us erotically — risk, unattainability, the mysterious, and unknown.

Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected. Love is about having; desire is about wanting. An expression of longing, desire requires ongoing elusiveness. It is less concerned with where it has already been than passionate about where it can still go.

When I first read this I thought, “Damn, that’s an important thing to figure out.” These two very important sides of a relationship directly conflict with each other. On one side we have a need for the intimate. A knowing, a trusting, a certainty in the other. On the other side, we have a desire for the romantic. A sense of passion, unknowing, mystery, uncertainty. 

As time goes on, couples generally slide towards the intimacy side of the spectrum and away from the desire side. People become settled into their relationship. How often do you feel like you know everything there is to know about your spouse? What he thinks about this topic, how she’ll react to that idea. 

This directly affects our experience of sex. A couple can be ten years into their marriage and having better, more intimate sex than ever. But it might not necessarily contain the same erotic sizzle they experienced in the early days. We don’t consider the possibility of cultivating the erotic pull of romance while also developing deeper intimacy. 

Our lifestyle doesn’t help. Modern life is busy. We’re in a rush from one thing to the next and want to optimize our time. Our marriage becomes a tag team to get it all done and conversations revolve around the logistical. Pick up the kids, meet the deadline, do the dishes, run the errand. Exhausting. 

We know the importance of maintaining our marriage, so we schedule date nights and even time for sex. These need to turn out really good though because otherwise that time could be better spent somewhere else. 

Desire needs time to roam. No objective, no pressure. It doesn’t worry about “making it worth it.” Desire is for the pleasure of the process itself. There is no “in order to.” It’s willing to risk the time and the possibility that things don’t pan out. Our organized, efficient lifestyle blunts erotic desire. 

Kids only make it harder. The relationship with our children can easily become an all-consuming affair. Our already limited resources have to be spread even thinner, making even less available for the couple. Less time, sleep, money, freedom, intimacy, brain space. This is especially challenging for the caregiver in the family. When we’re caring for others we can’t focus on ourselves. When we can’t focus on ourselves we can’t access our sexuality. 

On top of that, parenting advice often emphasizes the importance of routine and predictability for children. Parents have to be steady and dependable. Not a way you’d often describe a lover. 

It’s possible to have both in marriage.

It takes intention because inertia compels us towards the path of least resistance. 

It takes fluency in shifting between the different roles needed of us. The caregiver, activity planner, confidant, breadwinner, lover. A relationship is not meant to be all things at all times. We can ebb and flow with our spouse in response to our needs and wants. Togetherness breeds trust and fondness. We also need enough distance to allow pursuit and mystery. They have different motives and fulfill different needs. 

Matthew Huish, a respected mentor of mine, puts it well:

“Unbridled eroticism leads to sex without attachment. In its most promiscuous and hedonistic extreme, it is unfulfilling and vacuous. Conversely, unbridled intimacy becomes a tame shade of beige. It’s clean, safe, and uncreative.”

Individually, the pursuit of intimacy and the pursuit of eroticism both lead to dissatisfaction. Together, intimacy and eroticism enhance the other to create an ever-evolving, dynamic relationship. Just the way God made it to be. 

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