Many couples seek counseling to increase intimacy and feelings of closeness and connection. Likewise, these couples often report difficulty in the area of sexual desire, in particular, tension due to differing levels of sexual desire. Interesting to note, scholars and therapists have acknowledged an erotic paradox that exists in the area of intimacy and sexual desire, such that, desire hinges on wanting something which centers around mystery, unfamiliarity, distance, dangerousness, and the unknown. Intimacy on the other hand, hinges on closeness, connection, trust, familiarity, safety, and knowing or being known. Therefore, the question begs to be asked, how do couples balance these two paradoxical aspects of sexual desire and intimacy? How can couples balance mystery with familiarity, danger with safety, and distance with closeness?
We propose a shift away from dichotomous ways of thinking about intimacy to viewing these paradoxical desires as complimentary and necessary.
Murray Bowen is a family therapist who developed a theory around how closeness and distance are integral parts of couple relationships. He coined the term "differentiation", which suggests autonomy combined with closeness are necessary for intimate relationships to function. He believed that if couples were too close and “lost themselves” in their relationship they no longer possessed a healthy sense of self and could therefore not truly be intimate. Likewise, if a person had too much autonomy and distance, they could not let someone close because that would require too much vulnerability.
Intimacy is an important aspect of couple relationships and is tied to many individual and couple’s outcomes. For example, high levels of intimacy are highly correlated with relationship satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, relationship viability, relationship stability, and a host of individual outcomes such as well-being, happiness, mental and physical health outcomes, to name a few. Yet distance and autonomy are also important components of couple intimacy and sexual desire. Couples often find themselves on different ends of this continuum where one partner wants more distance or autonomy while the other partner desires more closeness and connection. Both aspects of autonomy and closeness are important needs for any relationship to remain healthy.
According to sexologist Esther Perel, affairs often occur when couple relationships are out of balance in one of these directions. For example, too much familiarity and closeness could lead to a relationship feeling boring, routine, uninteresting, or banal. However, too much distance might leave a couple feeling more like roommates living separate lives.
Intimacy, according to Perel, is associated with closeness, familiarity, trust, feeling known, dependability, routine, and safety. Sexual desire however, hinges on a certain amount of distance, newness, the unknown, danger, mystery, spontaneity, and novelty. Couples who find ways to balance and appreciate both aspects of intimacy and sexual desire maintain a healthier relationship.
Recommendations for couples
There are several ways a couple can navigate closeness and distance, such as activities together and activities alone/apart. Sometimes seeing one’s partner in a new light, doing something new, or seeing them do something different brings a sense of mystery and attraction.
Assess for which aspect may be out of balance in a relationship; then be intentional about scheduling time for an activity aimed at bringing closeness or fostering autonomy. The ability to connect is predicated by each partner’s ability to be their own person, self-sufficient, confident, competent and unafraid to risk being vulnerable.