Not too long ago, couples didn’t look to each other to have many needs met other than raising children and seeking financial stability. Now, couples want their partners to be their predictable, secure best friend, and at the same time, their mysterious, sexy Hollywood lover. And, to add to this challenge, we live in the most quickly changing cultural environment ever, resulting in partners rapidly changing careers, friends, interests, health habits, and locations. It’s no wonder that today’s relationships are hard pressed to keep the passionate bliss.
Passion is easier at the start of a relationship. We are flooded with the neurotransmitter/hormone, oxytocin (the cuddle drug), and the reward neurotransmitter, dopamine. At the opposite end, the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating obsessive thinking, serotonin, takes a bit of a vacation. We are in a state of limerence, always seeking to know that our loved one feels similarly about us, and when we are struck with doubt, there is little else we can do but fret. We do not yet feel as if we know that our loved one is “ours”, that he/she/they are committed. Then, as the relationship develops into a long-term commitment, the initial biochemical fuel wanes. Sex therapist, Esther Perel considering the challenge of maintaining sexual bliss asks, “Can we desire what we already have?” Although it isn’t easy, the simple answer is yes.
The most commonly described source of problems in long-term relationships is sex. And yet, conversely, when relationships are reportedly good, few couples attribute their success to good sex. What is likely happening is that bad or unfulfilling sex is a glaring sign of relationship issues rather than a cause, whereas good sex is similarly a result of healthy attunement. Relationship expert, Sue Johnson, maintains that healthy, securely attached intimacy is the key to maintaining passion in relationships. She outlines how we are hardwired to be extremely social, and that when our intimate relationship is not meeting our attachment needs, sex is doomed.
Attachment theory categorizes attachment styles into three categories: Anxious, avoidant, and secure. Anxiously attached partners tend to worry regularly about their loved one’s commitment and interest in them. This style of attaching generally leads to comforting sex with the focus being on one’s partner versus one’s own pleasure. While being selfless can be part of good sex, Perel notes that regularly being selfless leads to dull, unfulfilling sex.
Avoidant attachment is characterized by a partner regularly mitigating potential hurt by rarely getting close. This pattern translates sexually into something similar to porn sex. Again, this pattern is not always translated into bad sex. Unlike anxiously attached sex, which can be very positive due to possible comfort and intimacy, avoidant sex can be very positive due to heightened selfish pleasure. However, there is a tendency to focus too much on novelty, stimulation, positions, and it is typified by a lack of connection. When there is a disconnection, avoidant sex can feel cold and leave a partner feeling used.
Secure attachment is characterized by a healthy interdependence, an ability to care deeply about one’s partner while also being able to feel confident of one’s own self-worth within the relationship. Securely attached couples are able to have the best of both worlds, connecting intimately during sex and also able to take risks, be playful, and ask for their own needs to be met. We need to feel respected, connected and understood in a long-term relationship for the pathways of desire to remain open. Similarly, we need to have those same feelings of respect and love for ourselves.