Differentiation of Self is the Key To Keeping Things Sexy In A Long-Term Relationship

Take a moment to think about how you felt last time you started a new relationship. Remember the sunny, dreamy, head-in-the-clouds feeling of a brand-new love, the early days when you can barely stand to spend a second apart and you can hardly sleep for excitement.

In the Bader/Pearson Developmental Model of couple therapy, that stage of a relationship is called symbiosis. The purpose of the symbiotic phase is to build a strong bond between the partners. In this time, you look for signs of similarity, and you may find yourself playing down differences. You probably read your partner’s smallest signs and present yourself as the partner you think they want you to be. Do they seem to like it when you dress up? You dress up. Do they like it when you wear makeup? You wear makeup. Are they turned off by a potty-mouth? You try not to swear. Are they a big fan of that TV show? You watch every episode.

This is perfectly normal and to be expected. But what do you do when you wake up one day and notice you and your new love are different from one another? What do you do when you realize you’re not prepared to go through life concealing certain aspects of yourself? This is where symbiosis begins to give way to differentiation of self, or the process of becoming unique individuals who are different, yet still connected.

This requires a sophisticated skill set, and one that most of us spend a lifetime working on. Part of it is being able to figure out what you think/feel/believe/want separate from your partner, parents, or anyone else. Then, you need to be able to share that with your partner even if you think they might not like what you’re saying, and create space for them to do the same. A big project!

As a sex therapist, I focus on differentiation a lot, because without difference and the slight tension it brings, sex tends to go flat. Playing it too safe is not sexy. However, telling your partner something vulnerable about yourself (perhaps that you want to try a sex act they might not be interested in) is risky. Increasing differentiation in your relationship is all about taking that risk.

If your risky disclosure doesn’t break up your relationship, it will make for a hot conversation and hotter sex in the near future. Even if you don’t decide together to do THAT thing, you will have opened an important conversation about what you might want to explore together. Hot.

If that discussion DOES break up your relationship, you need a partner with a stronger sense of self so they can stay with the conversation even when they’re not completely comfortable. A difficult conversation now and then is just part of the landscape of long-term relationships. You can’t avoid them, so you might as well get good at them.

Discussions about what you do and do not want to explore sexually are just one example of an important kind of conversation to have about sex. You’ll also need to discuss

  • Your thoughts and feelings about reaching orgasm, or not
  • Your preferences when you want to change activities during sex
  • If something is uncomfortable or painful during sex
  • The meanings you attach to initiation of sex
  • The meanings you attach when your partner says no
  • What happens inside of you when something sexual doesn’t go as planned
  • And many, many more topics

The best way to inject some sexiness back into the relationship is to take a risk, to tell your partner the truth about what you really want–and to invite them to share their own unvarnished truth with you. Make a mutual vow not to freak out about what you hear. Create some safe space together to talk, and remember that discussing is not the same as doing.

As Esther Perel says, fire needs air. Letting go of the fear of rejection and allowing your partner to see your true self can be a surprisingly sexy experience.