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.

Leaving the Honeymoon

In my last post, I wrote about some reasons romantic sparks flicker out, and how that shift relates to the natural evolution of relationships, as the early crushy, head-over-heels symbiotic stage gives  way to a more mature phase of the relationship. 

This week, I’m discussing a related question: How can we navigate the transition (from super-hot to less-hot) gracefully, in ways that promote a deepening connection?

It’s important to recognize that nobody can, or should, live in the honeymoon phase forever. At some point other commitments and connections will need some attention. In order to reconnect with friends, hold down a job, and engage in solo pursuits as well as mundane tasks, we have to go to bed and wake up on time, focus on something other than the new love, and resume building and maintaining a stable life. 

The reality of this might feel a bit melancholy–falling in love is magical, after all–but falling in love can also be immensely destabilizing. Also, let’s be honest, it’s not the state from which to make major life decisions (for instance, marriage) since the rose-colored glasses are too thick for flawless judgement. If you tell yourself that you are losing out as the honeymoon phase fades, you are doing yourself a disservice. Instead, I recommend focusing on what you gain through developing further. 

I can speak from experience here. I’ve had several failed relationships, as many of us have, so I understand how difficult it can be to move from symbiosis into a more differentiated relational state. But I also have a 25-year-long resounding relationship success. I can honestly say that my long-term relationship definitely has much more depth, intimacy, and rich connection than any honeymoon phase I have ever had. 

That richness comes with being very realistic about who we are, rather than trying to change one another, or pretend to be someone we really aren’t. We each believe in personal growth, and take our own growth and development seriously, but we don’t try to change each other. Change is an individual project, and how my partner changes (or doesn’t) is something I can influence at most–not something I can control. There is a powerful intimacy that comes with knowing and being known deeply, accepting the truth of your challenges as well as your strengths, and working together to maximize your potential and support your dreams and growth over time. 

The art of creating synergistic relationships, strongly interconnected yet independent, involves some very specific skills, including: 

  • Being able to identify what you think, feel, and want, separate from what anyone else might want for you or from you
  • Being able to get grounded and share that information even if you think the other person will feel uncomfortable hearing it
  • Staying balanced when your partner tells you something you are not entirely comfortable hearing. 

For more on this, check out my blog series about differentiation of self.  

Part of the process of moving out of symbiosis and towards a more differentiated relationship involves seeing our partner more fully, flaws and all. That will involve acknowledging some differences that probably got obscured in the excitement of the early relationship. It may be that you expect a very different level of cleanliness in the house, or you have very different levels of desire for sex, or one of you is a homebody and the other wants to go out almost every night. 

To strengthen your connection while acknowledging differences like these, you first need to approach relationships with the philosophy that difference is acceptable, even enriching. This is quite different from the “Disney Relationship Model” in which two halves of the same soul meld and complete one another, happily ever after. This shift requires you to look at your belief systems about relationships. Shifting toward celebrating differences requires that we neither take these differences personally, nor catastrophize them. 

Cultivating curiosity about your partner is one of the most important skills for navigating differences: “I would love to know more about why you feel that way, because it will help me deepen my understanding of you, my love.” That can feel like a stretch when it comes to a thorny topic with strong feelings attached. But keep in mind that if the two of you stagnate in a state of too-much-the-same, it will certainly kill the spark. Learning to find the spicy, somewhat sexy aspect of even very inconvenient differences will help motivate you to get curious. 

No matter how long you’ve been together, no matter how well you know each other, there’s always room for discovery–and that discovery can be thrilling. Maybe the spark from the honeymoon period can’t last, but there’s another kind of spark that comes with watching the person you love evolve and reveal new dimensions over time.

Working With Relationship Problems in Individual Therapy

A few weeks ago, I asked my readers to answer this question: “What is your single biggest challenge when working with clients with sex issues?”

I’m so grateful for all the thoughtful, nuanced answers I received. I’m still sorting through them (and they’re still rolling in; bring it on!). Over the next few months, I’ll be answering as many of those questions as I can, beginning today. 

A few people wrote to me about the challenge of working with an individual client whose partner has problems that they are unwilling or unable to work on in therapy, and which are negatively affecting the relationship dynamic. This can manifest in a huge variety of ways. Perhaps the partner has a medical problem that is affecting both their lives, but they are unwilling to seek treatment. Perhaps they have difficulty self-soothing and managing emotions, and that’s contributing to unnecessary stress and tension in the household. 

In any case, it can be a tremendously frustrating position to be in as a therapist. What do you do when you know that you have interventions at your fingertips that could help your client and your client’s partner, but you’re unable to directly reach the person who needs them the most? 

  • Consider bringing them in for a joint session. This hinges on your client’s partner being willing and able to access therapy. But if it’s an option in your case, it’s a great idea. You can get a fuller, more accurate picture of the dynamic at play, and speak directly to the partner. I often provide a bunch of psychoeducation about sex in this manner, so one partner isn’t in the position of carrying information home to their partner from me, some of which might be a little challenging to hear, and some of which might lose something important in translation. In particular, if sexual satisfaction, desire, orgasm, or consent/willingness are part of the issue, I always prefer to see both partners together if possible. 
  • Consider collaborating with a relationship therapist. Again, this hinges on your client’s partner being willing and able to access therapy. 
  • Get some inspiration. I often suggest the book It Takes One to Tango to clients in this situation. It’s written by a Developmental Model therapist, Winifred Reilly, and is about how she used the Developmental Model to transform her relationship–all without her husband’s participation. If you want to help your client feel empowered to make a change in their relationship single-handedly, in ways that are compatible with the Developmental Model, this is a great place to start. 
  • Focus on your client’s part. Part of the challenge of being an individual therapist is that, when you’re talking about relationship dynamics, you only get one part of the story. Everything you hear is coming through the filter of your client, and they are almost certainly missing important aspects of their partner’s perspective. It is incredibly tempting in individual therapy to focus on the many annoying things their partner does. Don’t do it! Instead help your client identify their own meaningful goals for change…within themselves. If their primary distress is relational, ideally the things they decide they want to change will have something to do with improving how they show up in their relationship. At the end of the day, all any of us can change are things that lie squarely within us. 
  • Help your client show up as the partner they aspire to be in their relationship. If your client lacks insight into what they might be able to change that will make a difference in their relationship, here are some very common areas of potential focus:
    • Does your client self-soothe well? 
    • Are they able to figure out what they want, feel, and think? 
    • Are they able to communicate those things to their partner in non-dramatic ways?
    • Can they tell the difference between things that are about them, and things that are about their partner? 
    • Can they hold steady when their partner is telling them something they find difficult to hear? 
    • Can they take action on their own? 
    • Can they recognize a desire to set a boundary, and then set one? 
    • Can they hold that boundary warmly if pushed by their partner?
    • Does your client listen well, and then are they able to get curious about what their partner’s experience is?
    • Can they express empathy, even if they don’t agree?
    • Can they show love even when they are annoyed or disappointed? 
    • Can they feel their partner’s love even when they are annoyed or disappointed?