Does Intimacy Kill Your Sex Life?

by Maria Yagoda
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In an article in The Telegraph this week, relationship counselor and author Esther Perel claims that intimacy can kill passion, and to this I offer a resounding, "Huh?"Conventional wisdom (and personal experience) would have us believe that sex is more enjoyable when you do it with someone you're close to, whether a boyfriend or husband or long-term hook-up, as you've developed a clearer understanding of each other's turn-ons and turn-offs. More intimate relationships encourage open communication, which should make sex better for everyone. One night stands with strangers can be sexually unsatisfying for a wide range of reasons, including mutual inebriation, lack of communication, general apathy towards the other's pleasure.

But Perel, who works with couples in Manhattan, found that many of her clients were in very close, stable marriages, yet led entirely unsatisfying sex lives. "I kept seeing people coming out of couples therapy, and everything else in their relationship had improved, but nothing had changed in the bedroom," Perel said in an interview with The Telegraph . "It led me to begin an exploration of the nature of erotic desire in long-term relationships."Her best-selling book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, published seven years ago, explored the surprisingly prevalent disconnect between satisfying sex lives and long-term relationships. Intimacy, she posits, is often a killer of sexual passion and desire. In The Telegraph, Perel insisted we separate "secure attachment and erotic desire;" instead, we should understand them as "parallel narratives."

Our definition of intimacy is not that of our grandparents, who lived together, worked the land, had a partnership and shared the vicissitudes of everyday life...Intimacy as we define it today is about transparency, sharing everything and being known, and transcending our existential aloneness by the shared connection with one other. We still want everything we wanted from traditional marriage – a family, companionship, social status, economic support – but we also want that person to give us mystery and transcendence.

For one, intimacy — and what Perel calls "wholesale sharing" — detracts from a sense of mystery and curiosity, both key to sexual chemistry. This is especially problematic today, when sex is the metric by which we often judge the happiness and health of a relationship; sex is no longer just a "function of procreation."

This line of reasoning makes sense. It can be difficult to get in the mood when you see your husband on the toilet everyday because you're both so close and comfortable that he leaves the bathroom door open. In the most intimate relationships, each partner has seen the other through thousands of unsexy moments. And couples can fall into ruts of monotonous, boring sex, if they're having sex at all — which is problematic when science tells us that frequent sex is key to happiness. That said, studies show that people have orgasms more reliably when they've been with a partner several times, a situation that would indicate intimacy. Perhaps there is a sweet spot between the six-sexual-encounters stage and the "this is getting boring stage" that we need to find and harness?

Far trickier to swallow that the intimacy/passion conundrum, however, is Perel's insistence that infidelity should not necessarily be confessed. "There is a moralistic aspect to infidelity in America, that is not universal," she says. "There is more emphasis on the lying, on the definition of honesty as confession."

Perel doesn't find the act of confessing infidelity to be particularly valuable. She told The Telegraph:

“Several times already this week I’ve asked [male] clients, ‘Why did you tell her?’ They say, ‘I wanted to be honest,’” she cries, slapping her palm on the table in frustration. “I say to them, ‘For what? Who benefited from this? You? Your conscience? Your marriage, which is completely in shambles? Couldn’t you just finish this [infidelity] off and move on?’”

Most therapists would strongly discourage keeping infidelity — or any toxic secrets — hidden. Dr. Wendy Walsh, relationship therapist and author of 30 Day Love Detox, told Bustle that the act of sharing infidelity with your partner can bring you closer. "When handled the correct way, cheating can be growth-enhancing for a relationship. The road to intimacy is one paved with rupture, followed by repair.”

If we are to follow Perel's line of reasoning, I suppose "the road to intimacy" is also paved with unsatisfying sex. Should we really have to choose between the two: great sex or great relationship ? Could more open, fluid marriages — in which spouses are free to have sex with anyone — help preserve a couple's relationship?

There are ways to add mystery and excitement to the dreary sex life of a long-term couple. Sex toys, for example, will shake up the typical routine. (There are some fabulous ones for couples.) Extreme intimacy and wild, passionate sex do not have to be at odds; it just takes some work.We'll hear more on this subject soon — Perel is in the processing of researching a book on infidelity. In the meantime, I'm off to find a mysterious stranger with whom I can have passionate sex.