“Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness.” – Esther Perel
8 years ago, the relationship therapist Esther Perel did a remarkable TED talk on sustaining desire which has now been viewed by close to 6 million people. And it’s no wonder why.
Sustaining desire in a relationship is one of the hardest things to do. If you don’t think so, then answer this question: How do you make someone want what they already have? That’s the trick.
When two people have been together for a long time, there’s a natural decay that tends to set in. Humans are by nature designed to seek novelty. As Esther put it in her TED talk, on the one hand, we need security, predictability, safety, dependability, reliability, and permanence.
But on the other hand, we also crave novelty, a little bit of chaos, suspense, and adventure. Knowing how to sustain desire requires you to know how to balance these two opposing forces in human nature.
Desire Needs Space
One of the central ideas Perel discoursed in her talk is the importance of space in sustaining desire.
Just like fire needs air to build up and become stronger, desire also needs space to wax stronger. In theory, this may seem obvious or even easy. But in reality, it’s a whole different game.
Here’s the thing: Intuitively, we are designed to look at, go close to, and be around the things we like, desire, or find attractive. This is the simple reason why people will climb each other at concerts just to see or touch a celebrity.
When you love someone, the last thing you want to do is give them space. But according to Perel, to sustain desire we need a space to cross or somewhere to go to.
As she explained, in her experience questioning most couples, most of them usually confess that they often find their partners most attractive when they are in their element. This could be when they are on stage singing, playing the piano, or hosting a talk show. Why?
Because when your partner is in his or her element, you can join others to admire them, as though he or she wasn’t yours. Though you have them already, at that moment, you let yourself desire and want them.
Learning to calibrate your expectations, as Esther explained to Lewis Howes in an interview, is one of the most important things in having a successful relationship.
What does it mean to calibrate your expectation?
Well, when expectations are too high, whether it’s in a business or a relationship, people usually set themselves up for disappointment. Most people go into relationships wanting their partner to be everything to them.
They want them to be their playmates, their trusted confidant, their therapists, doctor, advisor, romantic partner, defender, teacher, father, mother, etc. But these high expectations often lead to unmet fantasies.
As Esther said, “Don’t ask one person to give you what a whole community is supposed to give you.” There’s nothing wrong with wanting your partner to be many things to you. After all, he’s your partner. However, this is where calibrating your expectations comes in.
Your partner cannot be great at all these things. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Sure, he or she is going to be great at giving some of these things to you, but they are also going to fall short of some of them. Understand and accept that.
“If you want to create intensity, it demands risk taking, doing new things, outside of your comfort zone, a little bit more on the edge.” – Esther Perel
Sustaining desire in a relationship is all about finding the balance between chaos and order. This is true for every aspect of life, not just relationships.
Talk about business for instance. If you stick to one way of doing things, afraid to take risks, and adapt to new technologies, you’re going to be swallowed by competitors and your business will die out.
On the other hand, if you take too much risk, make big changes too quickly, your business might also suffer a blow. It’s just the same for relationships. A little bit of novelty once in a while sustains desire.
Novel Activates the Dopamine Reward Loop
In psychology, there’s a phenomenon called the dopamine-seeking reward loop.
It explains that when we have great or intense experiences with people, we associate the feeling of that experience to the person we experienced it with.
So if you went skydiving with your partner, for instance, and you enjoyed it, you’re going to associate that experience with your partner. And each time you think of it, you’ll smile and wish you were with him or her (if they’re not there with you).
This is why seeking novel experiences is so important. It gives your partner something to fantasize about. It gives them a feeling of craving. Even if they already have you, whenever they think of all the experiences you have together, they want you even more.
Grow With Your Partner
One of the most vital things in sustaining desire in a relationship is choosing the right person in the first place.
We have this idea that we have to go away and work on ourselves before we can get into a relationship, but according to Esther Perel, this is just a myth. Growth is more accurate when there’s someone else to interact with, not when you’re in isolation. In her words,
“Growth in a relationship is interactive. You need an amount of self awareness but you also need to be in a relationship because people will help you become more aware.”
A partner you can grow with will be able to stick with you even when things get tough. When you both understand that growth is interactive, then there’s an awareness that you both need to support each other to take your relationship to where it needs to be.
Choose Values Over Feelings
According to Esther, to have a successful relationship, you cannot depend on feelings alone. Values are much more important.
We often pay more attention to the attraction we feel for someone when entering a relationship. However, in the long run, the alignment of your values will be one of the major determinants of how successful your relationship will be. As she said to Lewis Howes,
“When you’re looking for the right person, it’s not just about what attracts you, it’s about who you can build a life with.”
Sustaining desire in a relationship requires deliberate effort. It will take more than the impulsive attraction that happened in the beginning. But since desire is the fuel on which every relationship thrives, every effort put in that direction is always worth it.