Humans 101

The Elements of Desire

How to keep the eroticism in a relationship

A grainy low-res photo of a woman with her eyes closed, seemingly resting her head on a pillow.
A grainy low-res photo of a woman with her eyes closed, seemingly resting her head on a pillow.
Photo: Kema Kour/Flickr

HeHe pushed me against his kitchen cabinets as he started to kiss me. More like devour me. It was a good thing he was holding me up, I’m not sure I would have been able to stand on my own. I was so turned on that I thought I might melt. Literally — dissolve into a puddle right there on his kitchen floor. That fact that it was late morning, I didn’t have on a stitch of makeup, and I was already drenched in sweat from a hot yoga class only made the scene more erotic. “Should we be doing this?” I wanted to ask, but his fervent kisses prevented the words from leaving my mouth. I briefly thought about my kids returning from their half-day of school in about an hour. “I should probably get home,” I unpersuasively suggested. Ignoring my words, he led me upstairs to the bedroom.

The scene above describes an interaction I had with my boyfriend early on in our relationship before he was even my boyfriend. There are elements of novelty, separateness, uncertainty, and primitivity. These elements are innate in casual dating, and early on in relationships —which is why you can’t stop thinking about your new lover, or the hot sex you’re having. However, these elements are still available — and really, inherent — in long-term relationships, too. We just erroneously forget to nurture them, to the detriment of both our own and our partner’s satisfaction. When we apply the same elements to our longer-term relationships, we not only preserve the health and juiciness of our partnerships, but we get to live our life with passion.


In the scene I described, it was midmorning after a yoga class. We both decided that rushing back to his house was more urgent, more important than the other things we were scheduled to do that day. We weren’t concerned about work or other obligations; the thrill of an unplanned tryst was our top priority.

As relationships evolve, we get stuck in routines. We form habits. There doesn’t need to be any urgency for midmorning sex if you know that it will be available after dinner. However, after dinner, you feel full and tired. Maybe tomorrow, you think. Availability has trumped novelty. There is no immediate action required for something always available. Only, repeatedly routine sex often does not lead to passionate lovemaking. It becomes easy to deprioritize.

Fire needs air. If we smother it, it will go out.

Years later, I still meet my boyfriend for midmorning trysts. There’s the novelty of an empty office or a few moments alone while the kids are out of the house. Though there are other things we could be doing, we prioritize our time together and take advantage of novel opportunities when they arise. There is something terribly erotic about laying languidly in bed when we should be at work, or fooling around on the living room couch when there are only a few minutes to spare before someone walks through the front door.


The word “desire” was derived from the phrase de sidere, which means “from the stars.” We long for things that are separate from us. At the beginning of a relationship, we try to minimize the separateness with our lover as we begin to merge activities and friends. Once the connection is more established, we often seek solitude and wonder where our life went. By remembering to nurture our friendships and interests, we keep the things that made us exciting and desirable in the first place. It’s no wonder that desire starts to wane when we have all but merged with our beloved.

In Mating in Captivity, author and relationship expert Esther Perel explains that to keep the erotic desire in long-term relationships, individuals need to retain some of their freedom and individual interests. She encourages couples to continue to grow as individuals so that they can maintain their sovereignty. She goes on to explain that eroticism requires an element of separateness — so there is something to desire. Fire needs air. If we smother it, it will go out. This is something I need to remind myself of frequently.

I remember there was this one week when my boyfriend had an unusual amount of client dinners to attend, followed by family obligations. I was feeling unimportant and deprioritized. However, I thought back to previous relationships where I felt suffocated. I would all but beg a boyfriend to find other things to do so I could go out with my friends, attend a yoga workshop, or work on a creative project. Thus, rather than fret about the attention I felt I wasn’t receiving, I was reminded to do something interesting with my own life. Neediness repels desire.


In the opening scene, my boyfriend and I had just started seeing each other again after a rocky start. I wasn’t sure if I should be there or not. And if I had left, I wasn’t sure when I would see him again. This encounter was fraught with uncertainty.

There is always uncertainty in relationships. As human beings, we are inherently fickle.

One reason sex gets boring in long-term relationships is that it feels certain. We believe our partner will always be there. Though, if we’re being honest and realistic, there is always uncertainty in relationships. As human beings, we are inherently fickle. We often make decisions based on irrational and faulty reasoning. Truthfully, we have no idea if our partner is going to want to be with us tomorrow.

Even in stable relationships, there will be crushes, and eyes will wander. Though we desire stability, we also want freshness (elbow nudge: your partner does too). I’m not telling you this to freak you out, I’m telling you this so you can continue to appreciate and eroticize your long-term partner. There is more uncertainty in a relationship than you may think.

Even though I am in a committed relationship, I’m not so naive to think that my partner doesn’t find other women attractive and, more importantly, that other women don’t find him attractive. Similarly, I have a great appreciation for men. I enjoy their company, and they seem to recognize this, there’s no shortage of opportunity. My boyfriend and I are not the last man and woman standing — thankfully. We have options, but we choose to be together. That’s important for us to remember: We desire people we choose freely, not people with whom we feel trapped.

Perhaps because we are both divorced, we know that relationships don’t always work out the way we planned. I don’t think this is a pessimistic stance. We appreciate each other more because of this, not less. We understand the fragility of relationships. When we realize the impermanence of everything, really, we can look at each other, and our union, with fresh eyes and treat it with care.


Did you notice in the scene I described that I didn’t get the chance to weigh the pros and cons of this interaction? I surrendered to my primordial desires. I let him lead me. I can’t speak for men, but for many women, the ability to surrender and let go of control is what they desire in the bedroom.

When it comes to sex, we enter another realm. A primordial realm where instincts take over.

There was recently an article in Psychology Today, “Are we facing the end of sex?” that talks about the unsatisfactory sex life that many couples are now reporting. One hypothesis is that though women have gained equality in the workforce and home life, this equality, while great outside of the bedroom, doesn’t always translate to hot sex in the bedroom. The author states: “For women in long-term, committed relationships, the exquisite feeling of sexual surrender may paradoxically be more likely to unfold with men who express their sensuality in a more bold, self-assured style — literally, when she’s not the strongest force in the bedroom.”

Yes, I know this is a tough one. I struggled with how to write about it. Of course, “no” means “no.” There needs to be unquestionable consent. Yes, and — we also need to recognize and communicate our more primal needs. And what a better place to explore our primordial instincts than in a committed, trusting partnership.

For example, I realize that the things I appreciate outside the bedroom are not the same things I want in the bedroom. For example, I enjoy and appreciate romantic dinners and gifts from my partner. These things make me feel loved and cared for. However, they don’t turn me on. I’m turned on when my partner interrupts me from a task like writing or cooking and throws me on the bed. While most of my life is orderly, I want to feel ravished and a little out of control when it comes to sex. I know this about myself, and he knows it too.

Now, I wouldn’t appreciate him interrupting my writing to tell me to vacuum or walk the dog. But when it comes to sex, we enter another realm. A primordial realm where instincts take over. I surrender and let him take control. I no longer need to think about what to do. My body intuitively knows its next move. Now, what I described might not turn you at all. Why would it? It’s your job to figure that out, own it, and share it with your partner.

When I look back at past relationships, I used to believe that desire had an expiration date. For me, it seemed to wane after about a year or two, or whenever a boyfriend would become too clingy (I’ve also been the one to cling to someone like a life raft). However, I realize that if eroticism is a priority in a relationship, and it is in mine, there are ways to keep the flames of desire burning. When we remember to take advantage of novel opportunities, create space for both ourselves and our partner to evolve, recognize the uncertainty of human nature, and surrender to our more primitive instincts, we can keep the eroticism of our early encounters.

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