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.

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.

Working With Sexual Aversion

I’m continuing my series responding to the answers my readers sent me in response to the question, “What is your biggest challenge working with sex issues in therapy?” This week, I’m discussing a really challenging one: sexual aversion.

Understanding a little about the Dual Control Model of sexual arousal will help you begin to approach sexual aversion with more confidence. The Dual Control Model was developed by Jansson and Bancroft from the Kinsey Institute. Emily Nagoski’s excellent book Come as You Are presents the model accessibly and in depth, if you want more information. 

The Dual Control is useful in understanding lots of sexual dynamics. The idea of the Dual Control Model is that sexual arousal isn’t an on-off switch. It has two components–excitation and inhibition, which Nagoski frames as being like an accelerator and a brake. That is to say, things that turn you on hit the accelerator, and things that turn you off hit the brake. The point is, you can stomp on the accelerator all you want, but if something’s holding down the brake, you’re not going to get anywhere.

With sexual aversion cases, generally what’s going on is that something is holding down the brake, hard. No matter what your client or their partner might do to increase stimulation (or hit the accelerator), nothing is going to improve in any substantial way unless they figure out how to let up the brake. Your job as a therapist is to help them identify what’s hitting the brake, and how to let it up.

Anxiety is the biggest brake ever. Sexual aversion is a form of anxiety, or even panic. Aversion sometimes results from a history of trauma, or from untreated sex pain, or a subtle (or overt) feeling of coercion or pressure around sex, but there isn’t always an obvious cause. If you think of it as anxiety, you’re more likely to get to the bottom of it. There might be subtle but pervasive shame about sex, for instance, or body image issues. Start with the Will Lily brief assessment to make sure you are targeting your questions and not missing anything crucial. (Spoiler alert: don’t forget to ask if any kind of sexual contact is uncomfortable or painful!)

Regardless of cause, there are some skills that usually require strengthening in order to resolve an aversion. These include: 

  1. Help them get control over the situation. Your client must feel in control, at all times, when in sexual contexts. It is extremely helpful if their partner is on board with taking a supportive role until the aversion resolves. The role of the partner is so important to this treatment plan, because aversion is an entirely systemic phenomenon. Any little hint of external or internal psychic pressure about sex will have to be addressed. If this is an individual client, see if you can have the partner come in every now and then so you can see the dynamics between them, and strengthen the collaboration and teamwork. It is also very helpful to have both partners in the room for complicated psychoeducation that requires a perspective shift, as is often true when discussing sex pain, psychic pressure about sex, sexual pleasure (which can really increase desire!), and sexual differentiation of self. The partner of someone with a sexual aversion probably also could really benefit from some support; it is an extremely difficult situation to be in! It would be fabulous if you could support them both as they learn to work together and heal this dynamic around sex. They have a lot to gain.
  2. Build their ability to identify desires, set boundaries, and hold those boundaries. Without the ability to identify desires, preferences, and boundaries, communicate them, and back them up with action, it will not be possible for the client to really feel in control.
  3. Diagnose physical problems. Painful sex will make aversion worse, guaranteed. Absolutely get any sex pain diagnosed and treated. While that is under way, the client will need to completely abstain from any painful type of contact.
  4. Practice relaxation or mindfulness. Once safety and control are in place, the linchpin of your treatment plan will be teaching the client, and their partner, how to relax in sexual situations and enjoy sex for the purpose of pleasure, rather than performance. This is a lot easier to do in a relational therapy where you have both partners in the room. Consider bringing in the partner for a few sessions if this is an individual client.
  5. Explore intrapsychic blocks. Ambivalence about sex is worth a deep dive. Look for signs of past or current trauma, including psychically “benign” sex pain, but don’t forget to look for subtle shameful messages about sex, which are extremely pervasive. What were they taught about sex? About themselves sexually? About people who enjoy sex? Are they able to enjoy pleasure in any aspect of their life? How about sexual pleasure? You can identify blocks by having a client talk you through a sexual interaction, step by step. Ask what occurred, but also what they were feeling, and what they were thinking. At the first little sign of anxiety, which might be merely a body sensation, delve into the multiple messages they are telling themselves in that moment. “What are you telling yourself to make yourself feel anxious?” “What are you telling yourself to make yourself feel scared?” Chair work can be very helpful in both uncovering and treating blocks of all types.
  6. Keep your client’s goals front and center. Don’t forget: Having sex is not a requirement of life. It is possible your client is asexual, or just not very interested in sex. Before you really dig into treating an aversion, ask where your client would like to get. There is no point in working toward a goal that your client isn’t interested in meeting. That said, if they have the type of aversion that comes with a big “ick” reaction or panicky feelings, they might want to resolve the negative feelings. But having anxiety-free sex is not the only possible positive outcome. Being in control of what they choose to do, even if that means being able to feel good about themselves while saying “no” to sex forevermore, would also be a great outcome.
  7. Refer or consult if necessary. If you don’t find your treatment plan progressing, a sex therapist can probably help. You might choose to refer the client, for a time, or permanently. You could also consult with a specialist every now and then as the treatment evolves, while continuing to do the therapy yourself.