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The Paradox of Intimacy

“Modern relationships are cauldrons of contradictory longings: safety & excitement, grounding & transcendence, the comfort of love and the heat of passion,” Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity
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The Paradox of Intimacy

When it comes to relationships, it seems as though the more time you spend with a partner, the more your sexual interests disappear. This paradox of intimacy leaves many people feeling like they’ve lost their way. From an evolutionary perspective, the Coolidge Effect can partly explain what happens when someone gets used to being with the same partner. Yet the main reason people lose interest is often the same reason they long for a partner in the first place: the fact that they learn to see each other as a fixed entity, a safe place. 

It sounds contradictory because isn't that what people want? The safety, the commitment, and the stability? If you think about areas of your life such as finding emotional comfort or creating strong family household dynamics, then yes. But when it comes to sex, desire often stems from the unknown, or a sense of curiosity or separation.

These are the polarities that sex therapist Esther Perel consistently highlights in her book Mating In Captivity. To get a sense of how she suggests we foster separation and keep desire alive, keep reading.




It has become so normalized in society to form a union with your partner/s (the commonly used phrase “my other half” may come to mind). However, doing so leads many to believe they have nothing left to explore.

“When people become fused…connection can no longer happen,” Perel explains. “There is no one to connect with. This separation is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex (1).” The solution? Alter your mindset and foster a sense of independence.


When it comes to intimacy, it is important to understand that love is unstable almost by design. Instead of a fixed entity, it is a consistent act of choosing (1). Embracing the idea that you are continually deciding to be together can help you feel a broader sense of freedom, which can in turn create space for your desire to grow.

One specific tactic that can help form this idea is to acknowledge the existence of a third party.


“Marriage has become a matter of love; love is a matter of choice; and choice implies renouncing others. But that doesn’t mean the others are dead (1).”

The Idea

A third party does not necessarily mean a third partner. Rather, it can come in many forms, such as porn, sexual fantasies, or simply the acknowledgment that others options are out there. One sex therapist goes as far as to insist that monogamy isn’t possible without them: “When we are two, we are together. In order to form a couple, we need to be three” (1).

This very idea can cause some people to feel a lot of anxiety and jealousy. It can be difficult to accept that your partnership is not fixed. But while the threat may feel overwhelming, the ability to imagine this as an opportunity to form a stronger relationship can help alleviate the fears.

“When we establish psychological distance, we, too, can peek at our partner with the admiring eyes of a stranger, noticing once again what habit has prevented us from seeing,” Perel explains. “Finally, renouncing others reaffirms our choice…. Perhaps it is another way of looking at maturity; not as passionless love, but as the love that knows of other passions not chosen (1).” 

An Open Relationship

The third party could even be a consensually added third presence, whether that’s a third partner in a threesome or an open relationship altogether. Perel urges people to think about several questions:

  • Is emotional commitment always bound to sexual exclusivity?
  • Can we love more than one person at the same time?
  • Is jealousy an expression of love or a sign of insecurity? 

An Affair

An actual third-party appearance, such as an affair, may also increase sexual desire between partners. Surprising, right? But if a partner has been cheated on, the sense that they don't fully know their partner or that they aren't permanent allows the sense of “otherness” to grow and desire to creep back in.

An affair can also force you to acknowledge that other people find your partner attractive, or that your partner has options from which to choose. This is by no means meant to encourage an affair, but to explain the confusing elements that lead to a surge in sexual connection where many people typically focus on hurt and betrayal.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the details of how people foster their individuality in partnerships will look different for every couple. One final tip from experts is to see the relationship itself as a third entity. With this mindset, you are both contributing to your specific relationship, and working to make it the best you can — but because you are not that relationship, you can see it as a third element or an extension of yourself, rather than as a part of your identity. Even with these tips, this process can be difficult and it is virtually impossible to always get it right. But hopefully, some of these ideas can inspire you to rethink your dynamics and reignite sexual connection.

And to learn more from Perel herself, I suggest checking out her book here!


  1. Perel, Esther. Mating in Captivity. HarperAudio, 2006.


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