Modern Love: Can We Have it All?

The concept of a monogamous long-term relationship wherein lies both commitment and passion, stability and excitement, responsibility and freedom, is a relatively new concept and ideal in these modern times.  Historically, marriage was based on more practical purposes, an economic and financial arrangement or used to create an alliance between two families, rather than for romantic love, passion, friendship and desire.  In modern Western society, primarily the United States, many individuals are hoping to find everything in a long-term relationship or marriage, including financial stability and partnership, romantic love, sexual passion, physical attraction and chemistry, intellectual stimulation, emotional and spiritual connection.  The bill is too tall - how can we ever expect one person to fulfill all these needs and values? This is a shift happening on top of the growing trend and emphasis in the United States (and other Western countries) on the individual rather than the collective.  With less social support, help, interaction from the community, individuals, couples and families are increasingly reliant on one another or themselves to meet all the needs and do all the tasks, rather than it being spread out.  Thus, when adults partner and get married within this cultural context, individuals may be looking for most if not all their needs to be met within the partnership or marriage, especially if they do not have strong networks of social support with family, friends or coworkers.  Throw the COVID pandemic on top of that that occurred for the prior two plus years and we have quite the pressure cooker of need and expectations placed on the partner and the relationship.  Probably more than ever before.  And more information is out there promoting happiness, healthy relationships, and Instagram posts of people who look like they are really freaking happy in their relationship and family all the freaking time!  This is A LOT, guys. Esther Perel, a Belgian-American psychotherapist, talks about the central paradox of love in Mating in Captivity and describes it beautifully in this excerpt from the book: “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. With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused — when two become one — connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex” (2006). In the beginning of a dating relationship, everything is new and we are each two separate beings and entities, with so much to know about the other.  There is a long exciting bridge to cross.  Once people get to the other side and reach their partner, there is no longer much distance to cross.  Sexual desire typically decreases with length of time in the relationship.  We know each other more and have more closeness and emotional intimacy, yet, it is not novel, shiny and new and our brains get used to it.  There is not as much risk and uncertainty – which is good for emotional safety and bad for sexual desire at the same time.  Trust, closeness and emotional intimacy are often fueled by closeness, two becoming one, while sexual desire and fantasy is fueled by distance, separateness, individuality, freedom and autonomy.  Oftentimes, especially in the United States, we think of marriage as all of nothing.  Either our marriage gives us all of these contradictory things - which is impossible - or we assume it is not good, we don’t want it, we are disappointed, something is wrong. There is a natural ebb end flow in relationships, fluctuations in the areas of closeness and desire, boredom and excitement, fulfillment and dissatisfaction, connection and distance.  Relationships are fluid and so are their states.  They do not stay at the same place or level all the time and that’s okay.  Seeing the bigger picture and knowing fluctuations are normal is usually key for couples that happily stay together long-term.  They also understand the value of filling up themselves individually and take responsibility for their part of the equation. Meeting our own needs and not counting on just one person to meet them is so important.  It is also incredibly important to be able to openly and vulnerably ask for our needs to be met at times and lean on our partner, as well as being responsive and there for our partner when they need to lean on us.  As I write this, I realize there are so many opposites and contradictions in here – thus the paradox.  We don’t simply arrive at this place of balance, rather it is about being able to notice, tune in and have this conversation about togetherness and separateness in the relationship and within ourselves, as we strive to feel alive on our own and also receive energy and comfort in the relationship much of the time. While all of our modern longings are valid, having realistic expectations is crucial to relational success.  This mean working on having our own social support, a “village” of people, interests, outlets, and sources of meaning that both give to us and fill us up and where we give.  These interests and sources of meaning allow for something interesting and energizing that we can share with our partner- for them to admire, be curious, and as a side effect increase their attraction and interest in us.  The self is a beautiful thing! Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is the model of therapy I am trained in and use with my clients. It is based in attachment theory and science.  In this model, we talk about what secure and insecure attachment looks like in a relationship and how creating a secure attachment - not feeling alone in the world but connected to another - is the key to reducing distress and creating emotional safety.  Communication and emotional intimacy are foundational in a healthy relationship. In fact, more emotional intimacy and closeness is correlated with improved relationship and sexual satisfaction for couples who participated in 21 sessions of EFT (Wiebe, Elliott, Johnson, Melissa Moser, Dalgleish, Lafontaine & Tasca, 2019).   Throughout my work I have noticed that a piece of the conversation that is often missing is the topic of separateness and togetherness and the value of exploring that balance. If we look at a mother-child relationship through an attachment lens, an image of a secure attachment may look like a young child that arrives to a playground with his mother and knows she is there and will be there when he or she gets back, so they go out and play and explore, looking back occasionally, but knowing their mother will be there when they return.  The belief here is “Mom is okay and she is not leaving, so I can go out and explore, play, take risks, embrace curiosity and freedom.”  An insecurely attached child in this same scenario may not want to leave the mother, or would leave and constantly be looking back to make sure his mom did not leave or may want to bring the mom with them on all their adventures. In an insecure adult attachment relationship, one may feel threatened by their partner’s desire to do things without them or find joy, interests, outside of the marriage, and so they may hold them too tight, try to control out of fear of loss.  If we apply secure attachment in a couple relationship, it may sound and look like “Go on, explore and play and be yourself, and I will be here when you come back.  Sometimes you will come back sooner than other times. And sometimes I will go explore, adventure and play, and when I come back, I know you will be there for connection and comfort.  I can come back to you and I can come back to myself.  And sometimes we will explore, play and adventure together.”  All of these examples are being given in the context of a couple relationship where there is trust and safety, respect for the relationship and its boundaries.  This quote by Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, echoes this concept well in her book Love Sense, “Love is a constant process of tuning in, connecting, missing and misreading cues, disconnecting, repairing, and finding deeper connection. It is a dance of meeting and parting and finding each other again.  Minute to minute and day to day” (2013). To get support working through these conversations and topics individually or as a couple, reach out to Love Story Therapy today.  We are here to help you feel supported as you navigate this brave new world of love relationships.  

Key Takeaways

  • Give your partner a bridge to cross.
    • Do some things on your own, just for yourself. Cultivate your sense of aliveness, joy, passions, career or interests.  Have a love affair with
    • Crossing over and finding you in this place is exciting, new; there are new things for your partner to learn and discover about you.
  • Fill up your own bucket, so that you have something to give to your partner, yourself, and others.
  • Allow your partner space, freedom, room to grow and explore, evolve. Embrace their “other-ness.”
    • This may make your partner happier and more attractive to you – they are interesting. The old saying “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” is true in moderation.
  • Explore and play with fantasies and power roles in your sexual relationship – it can be its own space where you can be creative and do not have to follow the rules of society.
  • Cultivate a “village”
    • Develop or maintain a good social support system of people you have fun with, trust, share intellectual, lighthearted or emotional conversations with and experiences. Receive and give in this community, in these relationships.
  • Turn and share with your partner and reach for them when you need them or want them, and also try to be there and responsive to their reaches towards you. Knowing you are both human and will miss at times.
  • Last but not least…Maintain agreed upon relationship boundaries and be open and honest with your partner in order to maintain the foundation of trust.
    • If there is lying, dishonesty, boundary violations or crossings, the relationship becomes insecure and then freedom and distance are not so easily granted.
    Written by: Athen Fisher, LMFT, ICEEFT Certified Therapist