Life Without Sex – Part 1

Life without sex

When I look at the stats page for the site, the most commonly viewed posts are the ones on Happiness and Sex. This makes a lot of sense as there is a correlation between the two. In long term relationships a couples sex life is generally a barometer of the relationships overall health.

Sex is a form of intimacy and is a manifestation of closeness and connection in a relationship. If your relationship is in a good place, then you have the sense of closeness and connection that leads to sex. And if you have that closeness you are generally pretty happy. So although it may not be entirely causal, more sex equals increased relationship satisfaction (note, that was causal – as in “being the cause of”, and not casual. If you’re interested in learning about casual sex you came to the wrong place).

There are all sorts of taboos about sex, but as a component of a healthy relationship sex is a great thing. Sex in a relationship provides a number of advantages physically and emotionally, for both the individual and the couple. So why is it such a difficult topic for couples, and why can it become a source of so much conflict?

In my previous series of posts on sex I talked about how sex can be a source of conflict due to differing sex drives; and that this is both natural and unavoidable. I talked about ways to deal with these differences, and how open communication in the relationship is the best approach to finding a happy middle ground, ensuring these differences allow sex to continue to enhance a relationship instead of damaging it.

I don’t want to rehash a topic that I’ve addressed already, but I recently came across a concept that made me want to look at this once again. That topic is a “Sexless Marriage”.

Sexless Marriage

A Sexless Marriage is defined as a marriage (or any long term relationship) where the couple has sex 10 or less times per year. According to stats, 15-20% of couples find themselves in this state.

Differences in sex drive are normal, requiring compassion and understanding on the part of both members of the couple. A sexless marriage is an extreme though, and is generally a sign of more than just differing sex drives.

Because relationships have ups and downs which can impact feelings of closeness, it’s not uncommon for “sexual droughts” to happen occasionally in long term relationships. In fact it is fairly common occurrence in the first few years after children are born. When it lasts for extended periods of time however, it can become a serious issue and threaten the relationship.

Humans are sexual creatures, and there are many advantages to sex in a relationship. In a healthy relationship sex is a physical manifestation of the love the couple shares. It is a way of showing closeness and desire, and is a form of communication and sharing. It is a special activity that the couple shares with each other and no one else, and it is not just a physical act, but also an emotional and symbolic act.

The absence of sex (or sex being reduced to duty sex) is symbolic in a different way. When this happens it comes to symbolize a lack of desire, closeness, and a sense that the other persons needs don’t matter. But perhaps most significantly, it comes to symbolize a lack of love.

This is a pretty sensitive topic, so I will try to tread lightly here. To be clear, when I talk about sex here, I’m talking about sex as an extension of intimacy (with the idea that the absence of sex also means there is an absence of intimacy). When this happens it’s safe to say that a sexless relationship is bad news, and not good for anyone.

The frequency with which a couple has sex really isn’t that important (as long as it’s not an issue for the couple), and most couples find a balance that works for them. But sex still needs to be a regular part of the relationship. According to the definition of a sexless relationship, you need it at least once a month for “regular maintenance”. Less than that and I find it hard to believe it’s not an issue for the couple.

Once it becomes an issue the taboo nature of sex likely makes it a difficult one to resolve. It does need to be addressed though, as the cost of not addressing the issue is extremely high. Sexual issues are one of the leading causes of relationships breaking down, often leading to affairs or divorce. It’s something you kinda need your partner for. So if there is no sexual satisfaction within the relationship and no signs that will ever change, eventually people will start looking outside of it.

Breakdown of Intimacy

I’ve touched on some of the causes for the breakdown of sex before, but here’s a quick overview:

Life often gets in the way, and people find themselves too tired or too busy. People naturally have differing drives, where one person wants it and the other isn’t interested. If the gap is large, for the lower drive person this causes pressure. For the higher drive person being “shut down” hurts, and after a while they stop asking. Next thing you know a long time has passed.

Desire is related to hormones, and things like childbirth can make changes to a woman’s hormone levels to change in a way that desire fades (body image issues after kids play a role in this). This is apparently a common issue, and there are a number of books written for women that deal with this (one of the top ones is supposedly Great Sex for Moms, by Valerie Raskin).

This isn’t just an issue for women though (well, the childbirth part is). Dampened levels of desire can also affect men, with some of the main causes of lowered sex drives being depression, anxiety or even high levels of stress.

Another problem for intimacy is simply differences between men and women. For years I leaned towards the “nurture” side of the nature/nurture debate. I thought men and women were largely the same and it was socialization that made us different. But there are differences, and these are very evident when it comes to sex. It’s been said that:

Men need sex for intimacy, women need intimacy for sex.

That’s not entirely accurate. Some men seem to treat sex and intimacy interchangeably, but most understand that sex is only a form of intimacy. But there is an element of truth there as men definitely seem to place a greater emphasis on the importance of sex for intimacy then women do.

So what does this mean for the relationship?

Work on the Relationship

One thing to remember is that most sexual issues are issues with the relationships itself, and not issues about sex. You know the saying build it that they will come? Ideally the same can be said here.

I recently wrote a series of posts on rebuilding passion in a relationship. Your main goal should be strengthening your relationship, and as the relationship strengthens it should also rekindle the spark needed for sex. Sex is important, but a healthy relationship should be your goal (with sex as a nice bonus).

But what happens if you are working on the relationship and the intimacy needed for sex doesn’t return?

Tips for the Higher Drive Person

For the higher drive person ensure you understand what makes your partner feel valued and loved, and show them that. If you are doing your best to ensure the health of the relationship and your partner is still not showing any desire or interest in sex? At that point there’s not a lot you can do. You can’t “make” someone want you, and the low drive person pretty much holds all the keys.

Taking care of your own sexual needs may provide physical release, but sex is supposed to strengthen the sense of closeness and the bonds between a couple. So self-pleasuring isn’t going to do much for you here. I guess it could, but if you find you are sending yourself flowers at work or sending yourself suggestive texts then you are probably hitting bottom.

kissing-mirror

In all seriousness, being forced to take care of your own needs for an extended period of time will only damage your relationship. It will break down the bonds between you and your partner, and resentment will build along with a sense that your needs don’t matter in the relationship.

Due to this you need to get it out in the open and try to find a solution (waiting things out won’t work, and will only result in a lot of waiting). Be careful in how you approach this though. Your partner need to be able to understand that you do love them, and that you miss sex with them, and the closeness and benefits it provides.

Remember that your goal is a lifetime of love and happiness with your partner. Sex needs to be part of that and your needs have to matter in the relationship. But the relationship is the main goal.

At the same time, don’t lose sight of the fact that you and your needs matter too. You need to be happy in the relationship, and that can be difficult without physical intimacy. If your partner values you and the relationship, you will see effort on their part. If you don’t see effort you have a difficult decision to make. Can you stay in a relationship without intimacy? Some do, though I can’t see how that is good for anyone. But hopefully there are signs that your partner does want this to change.

So what about the lower drive person? That’s coming in Part 2…

Finding Passion – Part 2

passion

In the first part(s) of this series I talked about how relationships go through stages, and over time passion can be lost as the emotional connection between a couple breaks down. Some people respond to this loss of passion by looking for it outside the relationship, either through an affair or divorce (with the hopes of finding it in a subsequent relationship). Other people stay in the relationship but accept the loss of passion as an inevitable outcome for long term relationships.

I don’t believe this has to happen. The intense hormone driven passion during the infatuation stage of a relationship is gone, but a healthier long term passion can still be nurtured. The love in a marriage (or any long term relationship) should still be a beautiful, wonderful thing. Maybe I’m just naive, but I believe your feelings for your partner should still be able to take your breath away whether you’ve been together 2 years or 60.

In this final part I want to discuss how emotional connection can be rebuilt and passion can be found. Most of the ideas here have come from a variety of sources; books, articles, counselors and even talking with other couples. I believe strongly in long term relationships and marriage, and I believe no matter how hopeless things may seem it is never too late.

Laying Blame

When passion breaks down it can often feel like the death of a loved one, and in some ways it is. Your partner may still be there, but there is a sense of loss for the relationship that previously existed. When this happens it is common to look for something to blame. What happened? How did it break down? Was there something wrong with your partner? Was it because they simply didn’t show you enough love? Was there something fundamentally wrong with the relationship? Was there something wrong with you?

First it’s important to acknowledge that yes, in some ways the relationship IS at fault. But a question to ask yourself is, is the problem something inherent about the relationship? Or is it perhaps the way one or both parties have approached the relationship? If it is a flaw with the way the relationship has been approached then it can be improved. After all, you loved each other once. So why can’t you go back there?

But you won’t actually go “back there”. The patterns of the past are what got you to your current state. So your future must be different. Different isn’t bad though, and it can in fact be better.

You may believe the current state of the relationship is largely due to your partner, which may be true. In some ways however, that doesn’t matter. You do need to understand how you got to your current state in order to avoid making the same mistakes again. Beyond that though, you have to be able to let go of the past and move on. If you want to rebuild, blame simply puts up barriers.

In addition to not blaming your partner, it is important to acknowledge that there are two people in a relationship and you played a role in any issues.

When you are in denial about your part in the relationship then you are no better than a child flinging sand at another child in a sandbox. When you take responsibility for your part in the marriage, only then will you be able to connect with your partner in a mature, intimate way. – Carin Goldstein, LMFT

Believing in Change

For things to change, you need to believe things CAN change. There are two primary mind sets people can have in life, fixed and growth mind sets. I will write more on them in the future, but in order to truly believe in change you have to embrace a growth mindset. In a fixed mindset people often don’t believe change is possible. Problems are seen as a sign of a fundamental flaw, and there is a belief relationships should not require effort (because if it requires effort then it’s not true love). Hate to say it, but if your relationship is in a tough spot and you have a fixed mindset you WILL fail unless you can change that mindset first.

Even without a negative mindset, when you are in a bad spot the situation can poison any effort and make it hard to believe things can improve. In the sports world Phil Jackson recently made the following comment about this negative mindset:

Losing breeds more losing. It’s hard to work out of a funk when the team doesn’t have any sort of confidence. The self-perpetuating cycle just keeps on churning, pushing a squad into a deeper and deeper hole.

The comment was about a basketball team, but it applies to any interpersonal dynamic. Things won’t turn around on their own, and the longer you wait before taking action the deeper the issues get until eventually they seem hopeless. The truth is, everything can improve with effort.

Putting in Effort

Have you seen the movie the Matrix (part one of course, as I will deny the other parts exist)? In it, Keanu Reeves is able to learn anything by simply getting the information he needs uploaded into his head. He needs to learn to fight? No problem. Just upload a Kung Fu program into your brain and voila, instant black belt!!!

Neo

Guess what, life’s not like that. Even if you truly believe change is possible it doesn’t just happen on its own. You need to be willing to put in the effort.

Imagine you want to get into better shape. How do you do it? Do you sit at home thinking “I wish I was in better shape” while popping another Dorito in your mouth? I’ve tried, it doesn’t help. What about if you want to learn a new language? Does it suddenly come to you one day? If you have a post-secondary education, did a degree show up in the mail one day causing the knowledge to just appear in your head? No. All of these things require time, effort and dedication; and rebuilding your relationship is no different.

There are no magic wands, and no shortcuts. If you truly want to make changes in your relationship (or any aspect of life), you need to put in effort in order to facilitate those changes. This isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t have to be difficult. Think of it like riding a bike. If you haven’t ridden a bike in a long time, the first few attempts will be shaky and may feel a little unnatural. You may even fall down a few times and wonder if you’ll ever be able to do it again. But if you keep at it, it will come back and eventually it will feel natural again.

Effort is key here, and mindset is everything. There will be setbacks, but you can’t give up in frustration every time things aren’t going well. You need to commit yourself to re-igniting your relationship. It will take time, and require SUSTAINED effort.

Alright, you need to put in effort and you need to believe. But what do you actually have to do?

Take Care of You

One important, and often overlooked thing is taking care of yourself. It’s kind of like the reminders you get before a plane takes off – “In case of a drop in cabin pressure, put your own air mask on first”. This is the same. Basically, you can’t help your relationship if you can’t help yourself. Of course it’s also important not to take this too far, and you can’t ignore your relationship while focusing only on you. But in order to get your relationship to a healthy place you also need to be in a healthy place (or working towards one).

HealYourself

Find Each Other Again

The biggest thing with lost passion is that the couple has “lost each other”. Part of this may be due to different roles. All couples start as friends and lovers, but over time life starts to get in the way. We have jobs, mortgages, bills, and families; and time is quickly filled up with routine. If you don’t devote time to each other it is very easy for the emotional connection to break down, and the relationship to devolve into simply being roommates. When this happens you need to rediscover each other and find each other again.

How do you do this? First, you need to start prioritizing time for each other again. Life is full of routines and things that have to be done, so if you don’t “make time” for each other you will never have it. There will ALWAYS be other things that get in the way. If your relationship is important, then make it a priority in your life. If you haven’t made each other a priority then that’s probably a big part of how you got into this spot.

One of the best resources I have found for rebuilding is John Gottmans book “The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work”. One of the ideas Gottman has is that when connection has broken down, a couple can actively work on rebuilding their “love maps”. The book contains a number of questionnaires and exercises for couples to do, ideally together. The basic premise behind them is about learning who your partner is again. Engaging them, exploring your hopes and dreams together, and re-learning each other.

Gottmans books has 7 principles for rebuilding an nurturing your relationship:

  1. Enhance Your “Love Maps”. This is about re-learning each other and ensuring you continue to stay in tune with your partner’s life
  2. Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration. This is about thinking about the positive sides of both your partner and your relationship, and taking time to appreciate them
  3. Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away. This is about actively expressing appreciation for each other (side note, I thought I came up with the marital bank account idea used in prior posts on my own, but apparently I read it here first)
  4. Let Your Partner Influence You. Learn from each other, and be willing to make changes for each other
  5. Solve Your Solvable Problems. Learn how to deal with issues in a non-judgmental way, and learn to compromise
  6. Overcome Gridlock. Some problems will never be solved, and will be perpetual issues in your marriage. This is about learning to accept and live with that problem in a way that you both can talk about it and accept that it’s there, and is simply an acceptable difference between you
  7. Create Shared Meaning. To me this is about emotional intimacy. Finding the deep inner meanings that you can agree on that bond you together, and trying to learn and understand your partner at a deeper level

It had been a few years since I had read this book, but reviewing it for this post reminded me of just how much relationship gold it contains. It should really be a must read for anyone in a relationship, but it is especially good for “distressed” relationships (side note – why is it that you need a license to drive a car, but you don’t need to demonstrate any ability to work as a team prior to getting married?).

Focus on the Positive

Looking at your problems it’s easy to get caught up in who has done what, or what is wrong. So one of the biggest suggestions you will find for repairing and rebuilding a relationship is to remember the good, and focus on it. When you can see how much good you have, it can put into context the things that need improving.

Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough – Paul Pierce

Make lists of all the positive things you can think of about your relationship and your life together. Things like your happiest moments and characteristics that you love about your partner. Then invite your partner to do the same, and share the lists. Sometimes when the relationship is tense it can feel like nothing is going right, so it is important to reminder yourself about what you love about your partner. But sharing this allows you to remind them of the things that you love (and vice versa). This should increase feelings of warmth between you and help rebuild the bond.

Bring Back the Fun

Fun. It’s so important, and so easily lost when things are in a bad place (think of the losers mentality from above). Think of the last time you and your partner had fun together. Has it been recent, has it been a long time?

In part 1 I talked about Robert De Niro’s character from Analyze This. He had lost sight of his wife, and only saw her as the mother of his children instead of his friend and lover. It can be hard to do in the early years of being a parent, but it’s important to always make time to be a couple and not just family.

Go on regular dates, and try to bring back a sense of fun and romance (both partners are equally responsible for this). Find an activity you can both do together on a regular basis and do it. If all you are doing is stuff as a family, then you are simply reinforcing the idea of partner as family. You NEED to be a couple, and be able to have fun as a couple again. To do that you need to spend time alone, away from the kids. And importantly, you need to get out of the house!!!

I mentioned a couple I knew who tried this, and they found they didn’t know how to talk to each other anymore. In addition to taking time as a couple, find other “friend couples” that you can go out with. This allows you to interact as a couple while still being in a social setting, and it takes some of the pressure off of having to “fill the silence” with each other. This can be things like going to dinner or events, playing cards/board games/whatever. Couple dates and joint friends allows socializing in a fun/friendly atmosphere, and helps reinforce the sense of team. This is invaluable for helping to build and maintain bonds.

In addition to rebuilding a feeling of closeness, you have to become lovers and place a priority on maintaining physical intimacy. This can be one of the hardest parts of rebuilding, but being lovers is a natural extension of emotional connection. As emotional connection is rebuilt this *should* come back naturally. That said, it’s a sensitive and complicated topic (which I believe it warrants it’s own post), so I’ll leave this one alone for another day.

Final Word on Passion

It’s human nature to want a fulfilling relationship, we all want it. If you are in a long term relationship, you came together for a reason. When the connection has broken down remember why you came together. Rediscover each other, your passion for each other, and work to maintain it. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that relationships must be maintained, and it is the responsibility of both parties to keep the spark alive. It requires commitment, and it requires effort.

There are many ways to show your commitment to improving your relationship, and what works for one couple may not work for another. Take a look and pick what you think may work for you. Try it, if it helps great. If not try something different. But the key is you need to take action, try different things, and put in effort.

I like to think of a relationship as a plant. With water and sunlight the smallest seed can grow into a strong beautiful tree. In a relationship, the water and sunlight is the tenderness, affection and effort that we put into each other. Once plants have had time to establish their roots, they can weather all sorts of storms. Times of drought can take a toll, and without care eventually the strongest plants will die. They are remarkably hardy though, and even when they appear dead the roots may still be alive. As long as the roots are alive it’s never too late, and if given the attention it needs the plant will return. The new plant may look a bit different, but it can still be just as beautiful.

sapling photo

Long term relationships require effort, but I believe they are worth it. A close friend once compared rebuilding passion and emotional connection to trying to get an iceberg moving. At first it seems like an impossible task, and the effort to get it moving is considerable. Slowly though it will start to move, and as it moves it will gain momentum. But that momentum requires effort and commitment on both parts. Commit to your partner, and together you can achieve anything.

I’m interested in what YOU think, and if you have any ideas or suggestions for maintaining the passion and emotional connection that keeps us together.

Finding Passion – Part 1 1/2

passion7

In part 1 I discussed the loss of passion in relationships, and how I believe it is the leading contributor to affairs, divorce, and unhappy relationships (or at least relationships that are less happy than they could be). Loss of passion is somewhat inevitable in long term relationships, but that doesn’t have to be the case, and there are ways to try and rebuild it when it’s diminished or gone.

I was planning on talking about “ways to rebuild” in part 2, but as I started writing I realized there was something important to cover first about loss of passion. So I’m going to cheat a bit here. Instead of part 2, I now present you with Part 1 1/2!!!

Team Building

Relationships are like small groups, or teams, and in the mid 60’s a guy by the name of Bruce Tuckman came up with a theory on the stages of group development. Tuckman believed there were four stages that all groups or teams can go through; forming, storming, norming and performing. Here’s a brief explanation of each stage:

  • Forming. This is when a team comes together. This stage is characterized by excitement, optimism and anticipation of what the future will bring.
  • Storming. At this stage reality sets in and it doesn’t quite match what was expected. Members may become dissatisfied and/or frustrated. There is some anxiety as they are adjusting to the fact that the team isn’t working out quite the way that they thought it would. At this point there is a resistance, conflict and emotions tend to run high. Members may start looking out for themselves instead of doing what is best for the team.
  • Norming. At this stage the team has worked out most of the issues. They understand the idea of shared goals, and have learned to cope and accept each other. There is a sense of relief and lowered anxiety, as the members are engaged and supportive of each other.
  • Performing. At this stage the team is performing at a very high level. They truly understand each other, and have a strong sense of teamwork and cohesiveness.

tuckman-model

If all teams go through these stages, isn’t a relationship really just a special type of team? Let’s take a closer look at these stages in the context of a relationship.

The Forming Stage

All of us have our own idealized views of what our perfect relationship looks like. Looking at traditional gender roles (which by the way I don’t buy into), young girls may have this idea that they will meet their “handsome prince”, who will sweep them off their feet and lead them off to a life of romance. That’s how the fairy tale romances are depicted by Disney anyhow. The traditional gender roles for guys are a wife who takes care of both them and all the domestic stuff.

Whether or not you buy into the “traditional roles” we all have some sort of idealized view of things. One problem about with an idealized view is that it is almost always a selfish view. It is about “what this relationship will do for me”.

In the early years of a relationship, there is the excitement of the new, and the promise of what the future could look like. In the early stage of a relationship things seem perfect, and it’s easy to overlook the “flaws” in your partner.

It seems clear that this love is real, and will last forever. And if nothing else we all expect that no matter what happens in our life with our chosen partner, we will always be happy together. Eventually reality sets in, and we find that reality doesn’t quite match what we expected.

The Storming Stage

This is where the fun begins. In this stage we realize that our chosen partner is actually a regular person. They may still be wonderful, and a great match for us. But they have flaws just like anyone else. And not just that, but our idealized vision of a life together isn’t quite correct. Most of our time is still taken up with jobs, and the need to pay bills. We may still have dreams that we want to accomplish together, but most of our life is actually pretty mundane.

I believe much of our enjoyment and appreciation of life is based on expectation. A while back I wrote a post on expectations in relationships. I think it’s probably one of my most important posts, but sadly is one of the least viewed. Here’s a simple analogy for expectations:

A few years ago Marvel Studios was just getting it’s start, and they put out Iron Man and an Incredible Hulk movie (with Edward Norton) in the same summer. I was in full “daddy mode” at the time so I didn’t get out to the theater much, but I heard all the hype – both from buddies and from reviews. From everything I was hearing, Iron Man was a fantastic film while the Hulk, ehhh, it was alright.

That fall I finally got a chance to see them, and I enjoyed Iron Man but I really didn’t think it was amazing. I also found that I enjoyed the Hulk much more than I expected to. You see, my expectation for Iron Man was high while for the Hulk it was low. As a result my enjoyment of the films was colored by my expectation.

We do this in all aspects of life. Our happiness or enjoyment of something in some ways is related not to what something actually is, but to how it met expectations.

ALL relationships go through this storming stage. And this storming stage is really a collision between our expectations of what we believed our partner and relationship should look like, and the reality of the situation.

Our level of disappointment at this stage is really about how big the gap is between reality and expectations. If the gap is small, then it’s not a big deal. If the gap is large though, trouble ensues. Because this gap is based on your own expectations, it will be different for each person. As a result one person may be quite happy in the relationship, while the other person isn’t.

As one or both partners become dissatisfied and frustrated they may start turning away from the relationship, and start looking out for themselves. This period of dissatisfaction can lead to conflict and high emotions, and put enormous strain on the relationship.

When a large gap exists, the question becomes why? What exactly is wrong? Is it an issue of unrealistic expectations? Or is the relationship somehow lacking? In all likelihood it is a mix of the two. The situation may actually be pretty good, but it doesn’t match up to expectations and so it is seen as unbearable.

Because our expectations are partially formed by experience you can also see the opposite happen. If someone has been treated very poorly in the past, then may find a new relationship where someone treats them marginally better (but still poorly), and this may be seen as acceptable. It’s very hard to judge things for “what they are”, as our expectations always determine our level of contentment.

All relationships go through this storming stage, and it can be a very difficult time, sometimes lasting years. In some cases people are able to close the gap between expectation and reality. People may realize their expectations were unrealistic and find a way to re-frame them, or they may find ways to improve the reality by working on improving the relationship.

In other cases the gap between expectation and reality is too large, and the relationship fails. Not all relationships make it through this stage. And honestly, not all should.

The Norming Stage

I believe the norming stage of relationships is where true love blossoms. It may not be the stuff of fairy tales, but it is a deep, mature love.

At this point in a relationship both partners have “weathered the storm”. The couple that comes out on the other side is different, but stronger. They have learned strategies for coping with their differences (which may or may not be healthy strategies), and they have come to accept each other for who they truly are, and not just who they wish they were.

Most people will agree with the idea that perfection doesn’t exist. But saying they agree, and accepting it in your own relationship are two different things. A while ago I came across a great quote that sums up the norming stage well. I didn’t write it down, but I believe it went:


Choosing a partner is about choosing a set of problems you can live with.

It sounds terrible, but it’s true. Perfection doesn’t exists, and all people have traits that are hard to get along with sometimes. But we need to find a match that works for us.

Continuing with the super hero movie analogies, there’s a great scene in X-men: Days of Future Past. Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Magneto were close friends when they were younger, but became enemies for a number of years. Now older and wiser, reflecting on the past Magneto says:

All those years wasted fighting each other, Charles… but at least we got a few of them back.

In some ways the storming stage IS wasted time. It is a power struggle and a time where the “me” gets in the way of the “we”. But it’s an important (and necessary) stage for all couples to go through. Of course some couples take longer than others, and the severity of issues may be worse in some cases then others.

The norming stage is when people realize it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation – they can be both “me” and be part of a “we”, and they are able to strengthen their bond moving forward.

Some couples slip through these stages a few more times, but for many once they have figured it out, they are able to maintain their relationships and truly commit “till death do us part”.

I’ve heard people describe this process in their own relationships, saying they came to a point where they weren’t sure if the relationship was what they really wanted. But after some time and soul searching (and usually frank conversation with their partner), they were able to recommit and make their relationship stronger than it had ever been.

The Loss of Passion

Bringing these stages back to my original topic, the loss of passion, it is in the storming stage that passion breaks down. It’s pretty hard to maintain passion for someone who at least on a subconscious level comes across as a disappointment. And it’s also hard to maintain passion when the relationship feels like a struggle.

The hard part becomes rebuilding that passion once they have been able to weather the storm and recommit to each other. The difficult in rebuilding passion is based on two factors:

First is the length of time that the storming stage has gone on, and the severity of the issues encountered and damage done during this time.

The second factor is the attitude people bring into the norming stage. Some people stay together because it’s what they know, they feel it’s best for the kids, or because they are scared to be alone. When this happens it’s almost impossible to rebuild any passion, and I think it’s better for both parties to just let the relationship end.

Others stay together because they realize that they truly do love each other, warts and all. And they want to continue to build their life with their partner. If that is the reason for staying together, then passion doesn’t have to be rebuilt. It’s already there, and it just needs to be nurtured.

The Performing Stage

You may have been wondering, hey, what about the performing stage? I left this for last on purpose. This is where the team is working at a very high level, and has a strong sense of team and cohesiveness. One interesting thing about Tuckman’s theory is he believes most successful teams plateau at the norming stage, and very few ever go on to achieve the performing stage.

I think the same can be said of marriages and long term relationships. Many go through the hard years, and come to some sort of peaceful coexistence. But how many are TRULY happy? How many achieve something closer to their initial idealized view (tempered by reality)? Or how many simply accept that what they have is “good enough”.

I’m a big believer in continuous improvement, and I believe that regardless of the state of your relationship currently, it can always be better. You can always find ways to communicate better, and come to understand each other better. Passion should never die. You should be able to feel just as passionate about your partner at 80 as you did at 20.

To me this is the goal. This is the sort of love we all aspire to. It may not be the stuff of fairy tales, but it’s the real life version of fairy tales.

So how do we get there? Next up, my ideas on this. I promise this time

Finding Passion – Part 1

passion

My post from last week on Can Guys and Girls Just be Friends has received a surprising level of response. Since statistics show around 40% of men and 30% of women will have affairs, I suppose it shouldn’t be that surprising.

I thought I was finished with this topic, but comments and emails from readers have led me to explore something I’ve only touched on a bit in the past – the loss of passion in long term relationship.

I believe that more than anything, loss of passion is THE leading contributor to both affairs and divorce. Statistics are clear, many marriages or long term relationships fail. What statistics don’t show is that many of those that “succeed” aren’t really happy relationships – or at least not as happy as they could be.

Some people accept that this is just natural, and tell themselves maybe this is what marriage really is. Or they decide it is better than the alternative of being alone. So they emotionally disconnect and become roommates who live parallel lives, each person doing their own thing with maybe the occasional “duty sex” thrown in once in a while.

Other people ask themselves, is this all life is? Is this what marriage is really about? It seems obvious that the answer is no. That isn’t what anyone expected when they agreed to “in good times and in bad”. Unfortunately although this loss of passion happens gradually, once it has happened it can seem hopeless to get out.

Living parallel lives is one way to deal with the pain, but ultimately that will lead to an affair, divorce, or acceptance of an unhappy existence. That pain does not go away though. It gnaws away at you, and will start to permeate all aspects of your life. One reader described it to me as follows:

Nothing is more painful than a broken relationship. Nothing is more painful than feeling love for the person sitting next to you, and feeling nothing in return. Knowing they are right there, but they are a million miles away.

Affairs allow someone to feel as though they have reignited the passion, and allow the person to convince themselves that yes, it WAS the relationship that was the problem (after all, they can feel passion for someone else, right?). But all the evidence shows that after a year or two the passion in the new relationship fades and the person is back in the same exact spot.

Divorce is another way out, but it is also a way of blaming the relationship. And like affairs, there is no guarantee that any future relationship will be any better.

Short of things like physical and emotional abuse it seems clear that improving the current relationship is the best option if possible – especially if kids are involved.

Commitment involves what you are putting into the relationship, and remaining as roommates isn’t healthy for anyone. So if you have emotionally disconnected you should either start actively working on the relationship or you should get out.

I believe in both love and marriage, and I don’t believe passion has to be lost. If it has been lost, I believe passion can be found again. Marriage can be wonderful, loving, fulfilling and passionate. It should be a place of personal and emotional safety. If yours isn’t, I don’t believe it’s ever too late to change that.

What is Passion?

The first thing to look at is passion. What exactly is it? When I think passion in a relationship, I think of sex (or at least the feelings that lead to sex). I think of people who can’t keep their hands off each other. People who are fumbling with each other’s clothes when they are barely through the door.

I’m sure most people have experienced that, however briefly, and it’s a great feeling. It’s also how passion is sold to us in romance novels and movies. But is that really what passion is?

Science has shown that the intense emotions of the early stage of a relationship are really hormone induced infatuation, and that this emotional intensity is unsustainable for longer than 6 months to 2 years (incidentally the average length of an affair – hmmmm).

Does that mean long term relationships are destined to be sterile and passionless? I don’t believe that to be the case at all. Quoting myself here:

Being passionate about something means REALLY enjoying it, and having strong positive feelings for it. You can be passionate about all sorts of things: cooking, traveling, a sports team, whatever. When people talk about passion in a relationship it’s the same thing. You are passionate about the other person. They are very important to you, and you care greatly for them. Seeing them happy is a source of happiness for you.

The hormone induced early passion may be destined to fade, but a healthier passion can and should stay in long term relationships. Unfortunately, that often fades too.

Loss of Passion

Why do we lose passion? Where does it go? There are all sorts of possible answers to this question, but for one of the big ones (in my opinion) I’ll turn to the movies. Have you ever seen the movie Analyze This? It’s a great film, with Robert DeNiro playing a mob boss who is going to see a counselor/psychologist (played by Billy Crystal). Here’s an exchange from the film:

AnalyzeThis

Crystal:  What happened with your wife last night?
De Niro: I wasn’t with my wife, I was with my girlfriend.
Crystal:  Are you having marriage problems?
De Niro: No.
Crystal:  Then why do you have a girlfriend?
De Niro: What, are you gonna start moralizing on me?
Crystal:  No, I’m not, I’m just trying to understand, why do you have a girlfriend?
De Niro: I do things with her I can’t do with my wife.
Crystal:  Why can’t you do them with your wife?
De Niro: Hey, that’s the mouth she kisses my kids goodnight with! What are you, crazy?

I thing this amusing exchange touches on something very important. I’ve talked about roles before, and how we have different aspects to our selves. In my view, our partners have at least three distinct roles that they need to play in our lives. They need to be friends, lovers and family.

In long term relationships, all of these roles need to be nurtured and maintained. Time and effort needs to be spent on being both friends and lovers. When that doesn’t happen, it’s easy to start seeing your partner only through the roles that you do maintain, and that’s when trouble begins.

This becomes especially pronounced when kids are introduced to the mix. I have kids, and I love them. They’re great, and I couldn’t possibly imagine my life without them. In theory kids act as a bonding agent for a couple. They are a product of their love for each other, and they bring the kids into the world together. Even couples who have split up will admit that in an ideal world they would have been able to raise the kids together.

But kids also require great sacrifice, and can put strain on the relationship. As awesome as they are, they are demanding little buggers in terms of time and energy. And time with them (or just as a family) is time not spent as a couple. It is very common for couples (usually the guy) to admit that they miss the time they used to have with their partner before kids.

Many women also lose themselves in being mothers. Add in hormonal and physical changes, and it can be difficult to find the energy required for being a couple. I’m a guy, so I won’t pretend to “get” this stuff. But I know that as as the kids get older it is common for women to have to find themselves again (there are a number of books written on this topic).

In the scene from the movie, De Niro’s character has lost sight of his wife as a lover. His view of “wife” has come to see her only as the mother of his kids. He may still see her as a friend, but he no longer sees her as a lover – he has stopped seeing her as desirable or sexual.

With or without kids, many couples fall into the trap of not making time and prioritizing each other as friends, and lovers. It may be not making time for each other, or taking each other for granted. Like anything else, if you don’t use it you run the risk of losing it, and over time this lack of focus on each other can lead to an emotional disconnect.

When someone says “I love you, but I’m not in love with you anymore” this is likely what has happened. For whatever reason, not enough focus has been spent on being an “us”, and the end result is a breakdown of emotional connection. This happens to varying degrees ALL the time, with many couples.

How do you solve this? From what I can see, it is a puzzle many, MANY people wish they could solve. If I *knew* the answer to this I would likely be on the talk show circuit promoting my latest relationship book instead of writing this blog, but based on a variety of sources I do have some thoughts. Stay tuned for part 2.