Published in Alternative Medicine magazine
©Johanina Wikoff. All rights reserved.
Rose is on the red-eye flight back home to San Francisco after making love with her new boyfriend Charlie for the first time. She is thinking about him, still feeling delicious sensations that charge her body with tingling aliveness. Looking out the jet’s window at the Rocky Mountains far below, she feels a wave of orgasmic pleasure and then immediately another of sadness and longing to be back in Charlie’s arms. Instead of resisting and turning her attention to the book sitting on her lap, she yields to these feelings and gradually the sadness transforms to a sense of openness, tenderness, and curiosity in everything she is experiencing right now.
In her diary she writes: “Desire. Something in me is deeply touched by you. What is that quality? Like the song says, ‘Something in the way you move’. I can name the parts: the tilt of your head, your smile, the smoothness of your skin. But it is the whole of you, your unique ‘you-ness’ that my soul recognizes and wants to join with. There is no one else in this world quite like you and you feel so right to me that I ‘fall in love’ with you. I lose interest in food and look better than I have in years on little sleep. And miracle of miracles, you fall in love right back. It is spectacular, exciting and scary. And I want this feeling. I grasp at it lovingly, greedily, anxious that it will end.”
Later over the phone, she describes to Charlie what she felt. Fueled by his own desire, he decides he will fly to San Francisco to see her over the weekend. Charlie and Rose begin to travel between coasts. After six months of one weekend each month in Boston and San Francisco and a two-week vacation in Mexico, they decide that they want to live together and make plans to move in on their one-year anniversary. Charlie, having recently sold a business and retired, moves to San Francisco to be with Rose. While they were still commuting to be together they often went a week or two without seeing each other.
When they first would get together their ritual was to spend the first 24 hours in bed. They made love, talked and got “reconnected”. They slept little, ate lightly, and felt a sense of energized well being that continued for months. But a little over a year after they moved in together something changed. Rose and Charlie now experience a sense of comfort and security with each other. But the passion is dwindling. As Stendhal put it, “Love is like a fever that comes and goes quite independently of the will.” Like Charlie and Rose, many people wonder: Why does love and desire ebb and flow?
The chemistry of desire
The poet W.H. Auden called sexual desire “an intolerable neural “itch.” Perhaps he knew what science now recognizes as the chemistry of desire. Science tells us that attraction and infatuation may begin with PEA or phenylethylanine, a substance in the brain that produces euphoria and exhilaration. PEA is a natural amphetamine that stimulates the brain. It also lies at the end of some of our brain’s nerve cells and helps impulses to jump from neuron to neuron. Michael Liebowitz, M.D., of the New York State Psychiatric Institute says that when neurons in the emotional core or limbic system of our brain are bathed in PEA and other brain chemicals, we experience infatuation.
This explains why new lovers require less sleep, loose weight, and stay awake till the wee hours making love and talking about how grateful they feel to have found each other; the emotional centers of their brains are being stimulated by naturally occurring amphetamines producing a natural “high”. Unfortunately, as anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D. points out in her book “Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray”, infatuation is not meant to last. In case we forget, in the euphoria of infatuation, the poet Emerson reminds us, “Love is strongest in pursuit, friendship in possession.” Researchers who have measured the time from when a couple first experiences infatuation to when a “feeling of neutrality” for the beloved is experienced have found that period of time to be approximately 18 months to three years. The sexologist John Money believes that once you and your beloved begin to see each other regularly, the passion lasts two to three years.
Dr. Liebowitz theorizes that as infatuation wanes and couples experience an accompanying secure, comfortable coziness, attachment replaces infatuation, So does a new chemical system. Endorphins, chemicals that are similar to morphine, an opiate and narcotic, kick in at this stage. Like PEA, they also are located in the brain1s nerve endings and travel between the synapses of nerve cells. But instead of producing stimulating effects like desire and infatuation, they have a calming effect while reducing pain and anxiety. After sleepless nights of lovemaking, couples who now trigger the production of endorphins in each other feel a sense of safety and security and sleep soundly, without the persistent desire to merge. But sooner or later, one or both members of a couple will begin to wonder, “What happened to the passion and desire?”, and find themselves wanting it back.
Does this mean that we are destined to have relationships composed of two years of intense passion followed by many years of friendly or frustrated companionship? I think most people would not happily settle for this. Nor do we have to, if we recognize and consciously pay attention to the cycles of growth in a committed relationship.
The emotions of desire
There is a psycho-spiritual aspect to desire that is rooted in our yearning to be one with, connected to and not separate from life. Who has not personally felt or listened to another express their hunger to be one with another, a “soul mate”? And who has not wondered at some point in a relationship if the passion and desire had gone for good and perhaps tried some approaches to revive those old lusty feelings?
“You mean, now that we are feeling secure with each other, we can’t expect to have great sex?” Charlie asks me. Charlie and Rose share a dilemma that many of us face. How do we maintain passion over time in a committed relationship?
In the beginning of a relationship we may have a naturally induced chemical high driving us together. Still, the art of making love doesn’t reach its peak in the beginning of a relationship. Learning to be emotionally and sexually sensitive to our lover takes a lifetime; and during that time relationships go through cycles.
Dr. Fisher puts it this way: “Infatuation may be part of nature’s scheme. soft-wired in the brain by time, by evolution, and by ancient patterns of human bonding.” We come together infatuated and become bonded. But she also says that desire does not sustain itself under close and constant contact but rather likes the element of unavailability.
Lovers travel back and forth across towns and countries, rearrange schedules fueled by the excitement that distance and difficulty create. And some couples maintain passion and desire by fighting and making up and making love. Others find that a little jealousy spices up their desire for each other. But, living in different cities, time-consuming drama, and emotional roller-coastering is not everyone’s cup of tea, and may not be the healthiest options.
If we are to have lifelong passion with one other person we need to learn to surf the ebbs and flows of desire. In “Living Happily Ever After: Couples Talk about Lasting Love”, author Laurie Wagner and other contributors share insightful stories of longtime lovers. Couples who stay together successfully report that they have had many relationships within their relationship with each other, as they grow from the challenges they encounter.
When T.S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets: “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time,” the poet was acknowledging the cyclical nature of all things, including desire. After the initial wave of passion fades, fear of loss may cause us to hold too tightly to the form of our relationships, or push too far away from it. We enter an emotionally conflicted battle between holding on to our selves or holding on to each other.
Both reactions can be traced back in time to our fears of abandonment or engulfment. In such emotionally enmeshed states, passionate adult love is not possible. And holding on to your partner out of fear of losing her; or avoiding intimacy out of fear of being engulfed by him turns our once passionate connection into a union of wounded children reenacting their core issues. Desire in a committed, ongoing relationship requires that we grow up, and relationship gives us the opportunity to do so, witnessed by another. We can grow by learning to come together and also by dancing alone. When we re-engage after personal renewal, we come together stronger as individuals and as a couple.
Before moving in together, Rose and Charlie each had had independent and full lives. But when they moved in together they agreed to focus on their relationship so that it would have a strong foundation. In the process they became close “best friends” and partners. When they found themselves in my office blaming each other for the lack of passion in their relationship, I suggested that they ask themselves where the passion was in each of their own lives?”
Rose revealed that she no longer did those things she loved that Charlie did not also enjoy. Every time she thought about taking time away from the relationship she stopped and reminded herself that she was the only person Charlie knew in town. And while Charlie seemed content to spend all his time with Rose, he also revealed that he loved to sail. In fact, he had owned boats in the past and had a dream of buying a boat and sailing on weekends, but because Rose was afraid of the water and wasn’t interested in sailing, he hadn’t pursued his dream.
Accommodating each other can be a caring gift we give, but it can also be a sacrifice that we come to resent. When the energy that used to go into making our lives rich and whole now goes into keeping a relationship intact, accommodation leads to emotional fusion. An unhealthy dependence is created with partners leaning on each other rather than standing in their own lives and relating from the ground of their own being.
When Charlie and Rose saw how they each had given up on the dreams that the other had not wanted to participate in, they soon decided once more to begin living their dreams. As a natural result, they also started to become more interesting to one another again. One day Charlie came home from a day with a sailing club exhilarated and announced he had seen a boat that he wanted to buy. Rose couldn’t say she was thrilled with his plan, but she did find his energy and enthusiasm attractive.
The spirit of desire
Against all odds, desire drives us to cross continents for a night or two with our beloved, and to rearrange our lives so that we can be together and discover each other fresh each day. At the root of such longing is the yearning to be one with, connected and not separate, to be known in the mystery of love. But, the highs of passionate love ebb and flow; and we can not will a passionate response. We can however, rekindle the flames of desire by rekindling our own individual interests and passions in life. And in so doing, we rediscover desire by rediscovering ourselves.
Desire asks that we not hold too tightly or draw away too soon; but allow desire an open hand, as she is a winged visitor who tires of repetition and routine and falls asleep or retreats, only to awaken again stirred by the winds of change and transformation.