Could Distance Be the Best Thing for Your Relationship?

We all know the sex stereotype: Men’s biological imperative to “sew oats” makes them lustful and prone to rove, while women crave the security of monogamous relationships because babies. In a new book, What do Women Want: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, New York Times writer Daniel Bergner discusses the landslide of recent studies evidencing what we ladies have always known to be true: Sexual novelty is as important to women as it is to men. Yes, it would appear science has finally laid down its copy of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus long enough to realize that when it comes to sexuality, guys and gals are both stuck on planet Monogamy is Hard.

Bergner recently joined Larry Mantel on KPCC’s AirTalk to discuss his book, with the conversation fast turning to men and women’s shared struggle to maintain sexual desire while in paired relationships. According to Bergner, therapists are beginning to recognize that “a love that’s passionate isn’t necessarily going to be unconditional. It might need distance and uncertainty because, of course, desire needs a distance to cross,” or, as Mantel succinctly puts it: “Closeness can be a barrier to sexual desire.” The key to beating boredom in the bedroom may be the reintroduction of the separation and doubt characteristic of love’s early stages.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Currently, American notions of marriage/monogamy don’t tolerate either space or the unknown. We’re taught to regard marriage as a merging, and though most of us are smart enough to know our partner can’t “complete” us, it’s hard to shake the expectation that our sig other will fulfill the gamut of our needs. As Bell Hooks has pointed out, our society’s focus on the nuclear family has had an isolating effect—we now rely heavily on our partner in aspects of life where extended family once provided support. I personally have always expected that I would—or should—be able to tell my man everything. But I also see how this is tantamount to farting in cupid’s face.

Yet another hurdle to clear is identifying specific steps that will help recreate new love’s exhilarating distance and uncertainty. Bergner and Mantel don’t get into details—perhaps because every relationship is different, perhaps because they aren’t licensed sex therapists. I know some couples keep separate bedrooms or take separate vacations. There are even some “crazy New Yorkers” who live in separate apartments.

I think the unconditional love and certainty one feels in a close, intimate relationship are pretty inevitable over time, and one of the best things about that type of bond. As fun as the eros stage can be, the relationship and my sanity were never able to last in cases where uncertainty was perpetual—no matter how good the sexytimes. Further, Bergner and Mantel present newness as the sole root of desire, which just isn’t true.

Yet it makes sense to pursue separateness of lived experience in a long-term relationship. The more time you take apart, the more your life and stories remain novelties to your partner (not to mention the wait itself can be an aphrodisiac). When you cultivate your own unique interests, the resulting confidence boost is sure to lead good places in bed. Focusing on relationships outside your romance makes you a more selfless, interesting, secure human being, and your partner doesn’t have to double as your shrink (sorry friends, at least it’s a reciprocal burden).

With our growing awareness that a little distance can bring a relationship much closer, it will be interesting to see how couple’s navigate monogamy in the future (that is, if they stick with it at all). But despite our best intentions, we’re still human—confliction is as unavoidable as breathing. Head and heart, body and mind, desire and love, we want everything in harmony, but these things never seamlessly and continually coincide. Balance is key. As is communication. Let’s not start conflating distance with silence.