Dealing with “New Relationship Energy”

New relationship energy, or NRE, is a concept that comes from the polyamory community. It refers to that heady, overwhelming, crushy feeling that you get in the early stages of a new relationship, when every train of thought gets rerouted to refer back to the person you’re crushing on: “Oh, I’d love to see this new movie…I wonder if Marie likes it…” 

New relationship energy can be a wonderful thing. It’s a delightful feeling, and it helps you bond closely to your new partner. The world would be a duller place without it. But it’s also a powerful force. Often, people just don’t know how to control their impulse to be with somebody when they’re so driven to think about them, contact them, and be near them all the time. As you can imagine, this can cause some problems in polyamorous relationships if the partners don’t have some good strategies in place for how to handle it. 

Imagine you’re in a committed polyamorous relationship, and your partner has just started seeing a new person. They’re head-over-heels, completely obsessed. They might be able to keep a larger perspective in mind, strive to be as considerate as possible, and enjoy the NRE while still being a committed, responsible partner. 

On the other hand, they might get so caught up that they lose sight of the larger picture, in which case things can get a little annoying. Here are a few common ways I see this go awry: 

  • Phone snubbing. It’s no fun to be sitting across the table from someone who is busy texting with their crush. 
  • Mentionitis. Every conversation turns back to the person: “This meal is so delicious…I bet Marie would like this!”
  • Not honoring commitments. Maybe they end up changing plans at the last minute to accommodate the new person’s schedule, or maybe shared commitments start to slip their mind because they’re so focused on the new person. 
  • Being unreachable. This is a very common one: they’re out on a date with the new person when a crisis comes up at home, but they’ve turned off their phone or are ignoring it, meaning their partner doesn’t have help dealing with whatever is happening on the home front. 
  • Breaking agreements about safer sex. This is a bad one. Sometimes people get so caught up in the excitement of the new relationship that they don’t abide by the shared agreements they’ve made about safer sex. This is a real betrayal, because it puts their partner at risk, as well as other partners their partner may have, and the trust in the relationship suffers greatly. 

When NRE is causing problems for a polyamorous partnership, I make sure that my clients know that this phase is chemical and transitory. I say to them, “What’s going to serve you best in the long run? How do you want this to end up? Could you possibly place your need at this moment aside a little bit to attend to your relational contract with your spouse for the purpose of reaching the goal that you want, which is a stable open relationship?” Sometimes a stronger challenge is needed: “It’s not reasonable to expect your partner to show up for you, when you’re not showing up for them,” or  “It’s not reasonable to expect your partner to feel good about you, Marie, or polyamory when you’re breaking agreements.”

I also help the other partner self-regulate as much as possible. It certainly helps if they’ve had NRE experiences of their own and are able to chuckle over mistakes they might have made when caught up in the early stages. It also helps if they have other partners to lean on during this time. If they are able to do it, I truly believe the best strategy is to give their partner a lot of space and minimize expectations or commitments. I call the the “give them as much rope as possible” strategy. I ask: “Out of all the relationships you have ever had in your life, how many panned out into stable, long term situations?” The answer is usually one, or two. Then I say “So, what are the chances this thing with Marie is going to turn into something long term?” Then I offer a challenging piece of psychoeducation: “The one surefire way I know to make NRE last a really long time is to place limits on how much or what kind of contact people can have with one another. Longing obsessively is hot, and on the other hand, spending a little too much time with someone and discovering they are not so sexy after all is much less hot. Under restrictive circumstances, I’ve seen the spark of new love last YEARS rather than weeks or months. I know what I’m suggesting would be extremely challenging. I’m just saying, there is a risk to placing limits on your partner’s NRE. And there is a high likelihood of a good payoff if you give them a lot of rope.”

The one thing we can say for sure is that the NRE won’t last–eventually their partner will have to come back down to earth. Hopefully, it will be a learning experience, and they will be able to resolve to act with more consideration in the future. In most every successful polyamorous relationship I see, both partners have very good manners and act with consideration and thoughtfulness for one another. That said, when there are lapses, they almost always involve NRE. Help your clients manage their impulsivity, and keep their eye on the long game.

What Do You Need To Know About Asexuality?

I believe that every therapist, and certainly all sex therapists, should be prepared to work with asexual, or “ace” people. Some might assume that sex therapists don’t have anything to offer asexual clients. I can understand the misconception: what could a therapist who specializes in sex issues have to offer someone who has little or no interest in sex? However, NOT wanting sex is just as valid as WANTING sex, and both can create relational stress in certain circumstances—which you might be called upon to work with in therapy. 

Asexuality is one of the topics therapists ask me about frequently, so I’m going to provide a very brief primer on asexuality here, focusing specifically on challenges therapists have asked me about. There is much more to know; check out these online resources about asexuality:

The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network

Trevor Support Center: Asexual

50 Shades of Attraction: Understanding the Asexual Spectrum

If you’re going to work with asexual clients, there are a few basic things you must know. Asexual people and everyone in that ballpark (ace, demi-sexual, aromantic, grey-a, etc.) are marginalized populations. That means they get discriminated against as a result of people either having misconceptions and misinformation about them, no information about them, or believing they are in some way inherently bad, wrong, or broken. When you work with marginalized populations in therapy, it is extra important that you know enough about their identity (in this case, asexuality) to avoid causing harm. 

Happily, my blog post, a little online browse, and an open mind should be sufficient to get started. There is one important caveat: if you do a little reading, and find that you still believe asexual people are in some way flawed, you are not yet qualified to be their therapist. In that case, if you are still interested in working with the ace population, you will need extra training, consultation with an expert, and/or to refer those clients to someone who knows more about asexuality. 

Here are some basics:

  • An asexual person doesn’t need to have sex in order to be healthy and happy. 
  • It is possible to have a wonderful relationship without having sex. 
  • Asexuality isn’t a problem; it’s a perfectly normal way of being. 
  • Asexuality is an identity, meaning it is part of the way some people are, or how they see themselves. 
  • Asexuality is not the same as sexual aversion, or low desire, and is not a sexual dysfunction.
  • Asexuality is not caused by fear of intimacy, or attachment wounds. It is not connected to any psychopathology, any more than any other sexual orientation or identity is. That said, of course some people in any group may have attachment wounds or psychopathology. It is the lack of causation that is the important part. 
  • Asexuality is not the same as abstinence; some aces are abstinent, and some are not. Some experience self-pleasure, arousal, orgasm, and/or partner sex, and others do not.
  • Some aces enjoy romantic connections, some do not.
  • There is a huge range of self-expression in this, as in any other population. If you can imagine it, it exists.

You can put your asexual client at ease by making it clear that you understand and respect their identity, and that you’re not going to try to “fix” their asexuality. It’s ok to tell them you don’t have much experience in this area. For most people, the most important part is that your mind is open, your heart’s in the right place, and you’re willing to learn (and not just from your client). But if you happen to have a client who really wants a therapist with a lot of experience with asexuality, it would be doing them a disservice, and would also be unethical, to misrepresent yourself in this matter.

There are a number of sex- and relationship-specific challenges that might bring an asexual person to therapy, in addition to the vast array of challenges people experience that are not related to sex, sexuality, or asexuality.

For one thing, it can be very challenging as an asexual person to find an intimate partnership where they can be themselves comfortably, not feel pressured for sex, and experience intimacy in ways that they enjoy. As a therapist, your role might be to help your client navigate that challenge. You could support them through the emotional pitfalls of seeking and nurturing a relationship, and help them hold steady and speak their truth to potential partners. As always, you can do a great deal of good simply by normalizing asexuality and affirming your client’s identity. Sometimes there is also an opportunity to provide support, information, and resources to partners.

You might also see a client who needs help navigating an already existing relationship. Sometimes asexuality has always been part of the picture, and other times it emerges somewhere down the line. It is also not uncommon for a couple to come to therapy for a desire discrepancy, and in the course of therapy it begins to become clear that one partner is actually asexual. This may have always been the case for them, and they may or may not have been aware of it. Or their asexuality may have emerged more recently. Sometimes the client, and/or their partner, knows what asexuality is, and other times they are learning about asexuality from me in therapy. 

Here are some concepts that may help you as you begin to work with asexual clients:

  • Some asexual people experience willingness to have sex, even though they don’t experience desire. Being willing is sufficient for having a consensual and positive sexual experience. Identifying and accessing willingness to have sex, in the absence of sexual desire, can be a very successful solution for some couples. Of course you must ensure that the asexual partner’s choice to have sex is freely chosen and authentic, without any external or internal coercion or pressure. Otherwise, it doesn’t really check the box for “willingness”.
  • Sometimes consensual non-monogamy is a workable solution, because it makes it possible for the couple to preserve their relationship while also allowing the non-asexual partner to express and explore their sexuality. 
  • Lots of asexual people experience romantic love, so this can offer a point of intimate connection that works for all involved.
  • More people are somewhat ambivalent about sex than you might think, without being asexual. It is certainly possible for a sexual person to be in a relationship with an asexual person, and to make the decision that sex isn’t as important to them as other ways of connecting, experiencing intimacy, and being close. 
  • All relational therapy is about strengthening connection, so place your focus there. Some people connect through sex, some through outdoor activities, some by raising children together, some by playing video games, some by cooking together; the sky is the limit. Sex is far from the only way to experience closeness, intimacy, and vulnerability. 

Is It Possible to Revive the Spark After It Fades?

This is the final post in a three-part series on what happens to the “spark” in a long-term relationship. In the first post, I talked about why the spark of early passion tends to flicker out; in the second, I addressed how people can gracefully transition from the early stage of a relationship to a more mature stage, when it may be less ‘spicy’, but also more deeply intimate, with a more steady and enduring connection. This time, I’m answering this question: Is it possible to revive the spark after it fades? 

The short answer is yes–but reviving it won’t happen without some effort on the parts of both partners, despite the magical nature of passion. There is no step-by-step guide to success, but there are a couple of aspects to consider:

  1. Are there conditions in your relationship that discourage passionate connection? If so, you will have to address these in order to create conditions where something magical can happen.
  2. Are you approaching the problem in a way that ends up suppressing desire? Passion is a feeling, and thoughts, feelings, and actions are intimately connected. Expecting your partner to create your desire is not likely to succeed. Nor is simply waiting for desire to magically re-appear. You can roll up your sleeves and go to work figuring out how to fan the flames of desire through your own thinking.

Here are some examples of situations and ways of thinking that tend to kill desire. Think about your situation, or that of your client, and see which of these areas needs some attention in order to revive the spark:

  • Joined at the hip. If you and your partner spend almost no time apart, consult each other on everything, and/or have given up having individual interests, friends, and personalities, that is a situation where eventually the spark tends to disappear. Granted, it can be scary to give one another a little space, but consider the conditions that created the spark in the first place: you were just discovering one another, and had the opportunity to learn new things about each other every time you were together. You need to bring back a little of that distance–take a step back, so that you can actually see one another again. Give your partner a little space, and get a little fresh air yourself too. Take up a new hobby, and let your light shine. Passion requires a degree of novelty. You will each need to live a little in order to have the chance to discover some newness in one another. 
  • Too much distance. Conversely, if you are both completely absorbed in your own worlds, interests, jobs, etc., that is also a situation where you don’t have the opportunity to learn new things about one another. Go ahead and do you, but go check out how amazing your partner is when they are doing their thing, too. It might be hot.
  • No quality time. If every conversation revolves around chores, finances, raising the kids, or work, you will not get to experience one another as erotic beings. (Or maybe there are no conversations at all?) There is no substitute for spending time together. Have a dinner table conversation about something interesting, or give yourself a two-hour vacation and spend it holding hands and talking. You might hire a babysitter and go have an experience together so you have something new to talk about, or read a book aloud to one another. If you’re not spending high quality time together, that is the first order of business. You must figure out how to put aside the mundane or stressful day-to-day for a little while in order to let romance blossom. 
  • Constant pressure. This is a common dynamic in desire discrepancies: the higher-desire partner constantly pressures the lower-desire partner for more sex, more touch, more closeness, and the lower-desire partner constantly evades, avoids, and retreats. Each pushes the other into a more extreme pursuer/distancer dynamic, which is massively unsexy for everyone. Both partners will need to stop blaming their partner or the universe, and make a deliberate effort to shift their part in this dynamic. Start with a reality-based self-assessment: what are you telling yourself about yourself, your partner, or your relationship that is keeping you in the role you are in? What did you used to tell yourself, when things were hot? Start noticing the not-hot thoughts and challenge yourself to start thinking the way you used to, when you were more actively in touch with your love for one another.
  • Too much familiarity. Eroticism thrives on a bit of uncertainty. It loves novelty. Do you know all there is to know about your partner? If you think you do, there’s at least part of your problem. Get creative and get curious: What does your partner think about the thing you did together last weekend? What are they currently reading? What about it do they enjoy, and what about it do they not like so much? What dreams and desires do they have? Where would they love to go on vacation, and more importantly, why? What hobby or interest would they like to take up next, and why? If they took a class, what would it be about, and what is interesting about that to them? What is preventing them from doing more creative things in their life, if anything? What parts of their teenaged self do they miss, and what parts are they delighted they were able to leave behind? These are all examples of the infinite variety of questions that can start a new conversation. Take it upon yourself to be a brilliant conversationalist–by which I mean, stop talking about yourself and get curious about your partner. 

If you create the conditions for enjoyment of one another, you might find yourselves enjoying one another. Once you have those conditions in place, it is time to look at your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Rather than thinking desire and passion are outside of your control, start considering: What do you tell yourself to turn yourself off? And what might you tell yourself to turn yourself on? 

You are in charge of your thoughts, and your thoughts give birth to your feelings, including the feeling of not experiencing desire, and the feeling of desire itself. (For more about how to create shifts in thoughts and feelings, see my post on creating change in yourself.)

The strength of the spark will certainly fluctuate in a healthy long-term relationship. There will be plenty of times when you’re dealing with all the minutiae of everyday life, and things just don’t feel optimally sexy. But there can also be moments when you are suddenly struck anew by how special your partner is, and what a miracle it is that you get to spend your lives with one another.