Love, commitment, sex, and desire (part 2)


As I was reading (and loving) Esther Perel’s book, which I told you about in Part 1, a question kept nagging at me.

The process of self discovery (whether through spiritual tradition or in psychotherapy) leads to ever-deepening levels of awareness. Awareness leads to authenticity, with the self and with the other. And in relationship, when we show our authentic self to another, we call this intimacy.

In my own experience, as I’ve gotten close and closer to my own authentic self, what arises is incredible desire and passion. A new ecstatic energy; not just in a sexual context, but in a creative context too. (My hypothesis here is that creative energy is the same as erotic energy, but that’s a different subject entirely).

So how do I reconcile my experience with Esther’s seemingly sound position that intimacy kills desire? Is it true that if we cultivate “intimacy,” that desire necessarily dies?

I think that the answer requires taking a small step further into what we mean by intimacy, and then drawing a distinction. (I think Esther taps into this, but without a proper framework. I humbly offer my own reconciliation for your enjoyment).

The kind of intimacy discussed in Mating in Captivity is what I’ll call egoic intimacy. This is the merging of two into one. It is emotional safety and enmeshment, care-taking, clinging, and a loss of self into the relationship. A coping mechanism for the inherent anxiety of romantic love. (At vulnerable depth it sounds like : “please love me, want me, tell me I’m special, need me, and promise you’ll never leave me.“).

It feels safe and secure, but comes with a price. It is a fusion or a collapse of personal boundaries of the self. Initially good, but ultimately not good. In it’s most negative experience, it can feel like obligation, responsibility, control, manipulation, engulfment. The communication that manifests sounds sort of like surveillance masked as concern (“where were you? who were you with? and what were you doing there so long? I was worried about you.“). The relationship threatens to consume the partners and suffocate their individuality. This, says Esther, kills sexual desire. To reawaken the desire, partners must create psychological distance, separateness, emotional privacy, and a reclaiming of a sense of self.

This, however, is very different from the intimacy that is cultivated (with the self, or in relationship with another) in spiritual practice. I think of this as authentic intimacy. Regardless of tradition, the focus is always on grounding the self into the body, into feeling and into subjective experience. This leads into emotional awareness and equanimity. It fosters independence and personal emotional responsibility. There is a conscious practice of healthy attachment culminating in non-attachment, non-clinging, and self-love and self-nurturing (which runs counter to the caretaking, anxious, engulfing vibe of egoic intimacy). There is a recognition that your happiness, security, and self-worth do not belong in the hands of your partner.

This is the communion of two separate entities, choosing to engage freely, without emotional coercion, sacrifice, or obligation.

In this latter type of intimacy, you are confident (because you are aware of yourself, and able to handle all of your emotions). You have agency in your own being, and experience of living. You are passionate. You are completely alive. It is a kind of loving that leaves your partner free to be themselves, just as they are. This is what’s sexy. This is a kind of passion and desire that doesn’t die. This is awareness of your own needs and desires, and asking for them authentically, vulnerably, and courageously. This is sharing and communicating (without blame, or judgement, but rather with love and kindness). You cultivate desire (your own, and that of your partner) by being in awareness, by being open, authentic, self-loving, self-nurturing. That kind of confidence, competence, agency, surrender, courage, and vulnerability is highly seductive, but it’s an entirely different way of entering into a relationship.

If you’re interested in this latter version of intimate relationship, I highly (highly!) recommend The Art of Intimacy, The Pleasure of Passion, by Mel Schwartz. I’ve been following and enjoying Mel’s work for a number of years (at Mel’s book answers the question posed by Mating in Captivity (although it was published a lot earlier), by re-conceptualizes the issue of intimacy. In essence, if you do intimacy correctly (with yourself and with your partner) from the beginning, passion doesn’t die.