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  • Jed Murphree, LPC

Passion, desire, and sexual expression.

Individual sexuality and sexual expression are two things that make us who we are as human beings. As a species, we are not solitary loners by nature; we are social creatures that need connection and community. We benefit from having peers with similar interests and from confidants with whom we trust. Equally as important to a peer group are those that differ from us in a number of ways to provide other points of view for balance and objectivity. Out of all the relationships cultivated through the lifespan, the ones that take on a sexual component possess a very different meaning to our lives, not only because of the closeness that sexual expression can create, but also for all the vulnerabilities and confusion that it can expose.

Now, this post is not about the mechanics of sex. It's about the role sex plays (not "sex role plays") in relationship and how the concepts of desire and passion informs, impacts, and sometimes distorts the meaning behind individual sexual expression.

Passion is the third component of Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love, and when combined with commitment (a"we'll make it work" mentality) and a strong emotional connection, which is intimacy, you arrive at the sweet spot of the triangle, the consummate relationship. For Sternberg, this type of relationship is "complete", nothing else needs to be added or removed as all components are balanced. He also believes that ability to create a

"complete" relationship is no guarantee of being able to maintain it. Relationships fail just as much as they succeed; and either outcome is just as potentially likely for a myriad of reasons.

Sex in relationship is important, as it accounts for one third what comprises Sternberg's

view of love. The sexual aspects of relationship are equally important as the concepts of commitment and intimacy for staying a loving and fulfilled couple. Passion, as described by Sternberg, is the drive that promotes physical attraction, leads to romance, and results in sexual consummation. Actually, that's a rather boring description by today's standards. However, it is a broad framework and sets the stage that allows for a discussion about desire.

Another clinical, yet approachable, definition for passion is - a strong inclination toward a defined activity that is important and worthy of the interest of personal time and energy, according to Richard Vallerand. For him, passions are self-defining for each individual and come in two flavors: harmonious or obsessive. Harmonious passions provide positive outlets for personal expression, and are seen as being self-affirming. Obsessive passions come to control a person and are ultimately destructive in their pursuit. These passions appear more like addictions or compulsions, and act to alienate a person over time.

Vallerand states that our passions are absolutely necessary for our overall psychological well being. Individually, knowing what is exciting, provides pleasure, and is self-affirming, along with knowing when enough is enough or too much is vital to a balanced and boundaried sense of self. When we are passionate for another, and their passion is harmonious and in synch with our own, then the sex life is mutually beneficial and sustaining for the relationship. Especially as the relationship ages and the meanings associated with sexual expression change.

The reality is that passions for our partners ebb and flow, wax and wan overtime as the relationship/couple go through its own phases of growth. Despite the stressors of real life (i.e career, children, changes in health, etc..) opportunities can and do remain throughout long term, committed relationships to keep desire for one's partner active and viable.

Metaphorically, passion and desire often appear associated with fire: smoldering, ablaze, on fire, or just hot, have been used to characterize passionate love and sexual desire for another person throughout modern and historic culture. The "spark" that is kept for another is the wanting, the longing as is described by Esther Perel in her 2006 book about modern day relationships, Mating in Captivity.

Perel's book is all about the challenges of staying connected to a partner intimately and erotically throughout the relationship. Her take on maintaining "the wanting" for a partner, keeping desire alive and flourishing, requires much more than just taking a pill to enhance an erection, or scheduling time to be with the significant other when opportunities arise (penciled in sex in day planner or e-scheduler). To maintain the desire, individual space must exist so that each partner can still take care of their own autonomous needs (personal, emotional, career, peer group, etc.) balanced with the emotional and physical needs of the relationship and mate. Too much emotional closeness begins to strangle the passion felt for a partner. Desire, according to Perel, requires a certain edge of excitement and uncertainty, newness and risk; whereby emotional closeness requires trust, consistency, conscientiousness, and steadfastness.

When the work (and at times it really is work) to keep those two aspects in balance is successful enough, the result is an ongoing physical dialogue and exchange that results in the meeting of each partner's sexual and emotional needs.

Key to that balance is the ability to communicate about sex. That can be tricky when opening up to a partner about physical turn ons and turn offs. Particularly if those conversations have rarely ever occurred. It requires vulnerability to really speak up about what one likes and enjoys sexually as well as what is off limits regarding one's body and behavior. It also requires some practice as misunderstandings are common and feelings get hurt all too often. Many adults lack proper sexual education, or hold strongly negative or unrealistic beliefs about sex. Those mindsets stand in the way of accepting and feeling comfortable with one's sexual identity and generally impact the relationship negatively.

Sometimes only one partner maintains the "flame" of relationship due to situation or circumstance. Distractions and real world responsibilities often create scenarios where one partner is working, or traveling, or caring for children, and passion takes a temporary back seat to other needs. At other times, when only one partner holds the "flame" it indicates a dysfunction that deserves attention in order to reconcile. A sudden marked lack of sexual interaction in the relationship, or a lack of sex in general is a sign of other issues that need be addressed. Faltering desire is often a very complex problem that requires professional help to explore and change.

Lastly, the fact that sex has multiple functions within a relationship warrants a few words. Beyond procreation, sex has many roles in the relationship and can communicate something different for each partner. Sex is contextual and therefore holds multiple meanings. It is way to express value in a partner and to solidify a couple's commitment to one another. It can used as a means to nurture another, to enhance one's own feelings of personal power, as stress relief, and for feeling pleasure. Sex can be used a reward, and sex can be used to punish.

Sex is power, and power is often perceived as sexy. Knowing how to use that power is either a benefit to oneself, or it becomes a hindrance to deeper emotional connections and may be abusive. Sex without love is common and easy, because hormones happen. Yet, love without sex is stale and lifeless; passionless, dull, and demonstrates a relationship that is likely incomplete.

So if you have been experiencing issues of desire or passion in your relationship, it may be time to seek input from a professional. If even for a short period of time, counseling can help re-ignite the spark and flame held for your partner and for yourself.

Just remember, mental health matters.

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