Intimacy Deadens Desire but Distance Ignites

Intimacy Deadens Desire but Distance Ignites September 9, 2019

Photo by Everaldo Coelho on Unsplash

Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. More particularly, absence of the thing or the person that we want, makes the desire burn hotter. We want what we cannot have. So the question remains: Can we want what we already have?

This is the very question that world renown clinician and speaker Esther Perel asks and addresses in her international bestseller, Mating in Captivity.

Her contention is that intimacy can thwart desire. And the presentation of clinical experience and observation is enough to convince readers; while some couples may benefit from intimacy, many others find that an increase of emotional connection can lead to a decrease of erotic desire.

This seems to be in opposition with what we traditionally believe about our sexual desire. Many views purport the idea that sexual desire operates like a drive, and that if you don’t have it, it means you suffer from a sexual (or psychological) dysfunction.

To argue against this idea, Dr. Emily Nagoski presents fascinating and scientific evidence that demonstrates humans do not have a sex drive; we have arousal in context.

In her New York Times bestseller, Come as You Are, Dr. Nagoski examines how desire occurs in context and with (and sometimes without) the use of, what she refers to as, an “accelerator. The tl;dr version of this term is that our brain needs to push the gas pedal when it comes to arousal, and this gas pedal is called the accelerator. We push that pedal, mentally, when the context we are in is comfortable enough to allow our arousal to come into fruition.

Sexual desire feels responsive or spontaneous, depending on context. Context is key, according to Nagoski. If it’s not, then desire doesn’t occur. We don’t push our accelerator, and if we need to push an accelerator to have sex, then sex cannot be some animalistic drive that is programmed into our brains. We need all the sensors and receptors to receive positive signals. Once the signals are received, then our desire can be activated to do what it does.

Even with this little mental prerequisite, we rely on the context in order to organize our erotic capacity and switch on the desire lamp. The question now at hand is this: If desire is not a drive, then what happens to my desire?

The answer can be found in the basic idea surrounding Perel’s proposition: intimacy deadens desire. Simply put, too much closeness blurs the lines of separateness. We become almost fused to one another—on top of one another.

We become so enmeshed with another that we cannot tell where one begins and one ends. When this happens, unfortunately, we have lost our necessary and distinct individuality—we have become fused instead of differentiated.

If two are already one, there is not becoming to speak of, and thus, desire deadens.

Upon reading Perel’s passages, I was reminded of Jesus’ message to Mary, which is found in the Gospel of John. When the risen Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, after he calls her by her name, “Mary”; Jesus seems to sense a tone in her voice when she responds, “Rabboni!”.

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” (John 20:17, NIV)

Is it that Jesus senses a desperation in Mary’s voice? Or is it that Jesus is reminding Mary that in order to truly experience Oneness, we must be willing to detach ourselves from those that we think identify who we are?

In our relationships, it is important that we are autonomous, separate beings. Our partners don’t choose us because we are just like them, or because we look like the piece that will complement their puzzle the best. Our partners choose us because we are unique and different.

Also because we are alike. It’s a paradox to maintain, not adjust so that we become indistinguishable. We are to remain yin to their yang. The complemented part that makes us whole, but wholly distinct.

Perel’s articulation on the paradox of love and desire is reminiscent of John’s verse:

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.

Perel echoes a fundamental practice to maintaining an erotic relationship: Fusion, clinging, or holding to another begets autonomy. Jesus’ caution to Mary Magdalene is similar: “Don’t lose yourself in me.” Yes, surrender, but also, retain your autonomy.

This is the tension that we wrestle with when we are in relationship with another. In our desire to appease the Other, we can forget who we are and essentially drown out our individuality.

This makes love and desire entirely difficult to balance.

What’s more, the pointed mention of distance; too much distance and there is disconnection—the cord cannot reach, and there is nothing plugged into the port. But without distance, there is seemingly less reason to act—to move, to go, to come, to return, to rejoin.

Jesus traveled far distances to spread the Gospel News. His disciples followed suit by spreading outward after the resurrection and ascension. The traveling of distances near and far was fueled by a desire, all in the name of love.

Love cuts across the distance. Love, it seems, requires distance. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Which, for me, begs the question: Does love require desire? Or does desire require love?

French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion echoes a similar understanding of Perel’s concept, in his book, The Erotic Phenomenon. He posits that to love is to cross a distance.

Loving requires an exteriority that is not provisional but effective; an exteriority that remains for long enough that one may cross it seriously. Loving requires distance and the crossing of distance. In the drama of love actions must be accomplished effectively over distance—distributing, going, coming, returning.

So, is it that love = distance + desire? Or is this equation a bit more complex than it seems?

If it is that love requires distance; does this add weight to the idea that to create desire, we must balance intimacy carefully? Too much intimacy— too much closeness—and we snuff out the flame of desire.  If there is too much space— too much distance— then we can no longer shelter the spark against a breeze and thus, the flame of desire cannot be lit.

It would seem, then, to correct this potential error, we find footing somewhere on the line between having and wanting.

How do we do this? How do we balance the wanting and the having without it controlling us?


About Danielle Kingstrom
Danielle Kingstrom is a writer, podcaster, and leg-warmer aficionado. She is the host of "Recorded Conversations", a podcast dedicated to compassionately considering all perspectives while engaging in connected dialogues about societal issues. Current work includes an upcoming book, "Enfleshed: Making Monogamous Relationships Real". You can read more about the author here.

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