*Warning, naughty language ahead.
We don’t desire familiarity. We don’t (usually) want to fuck family members. For most of us this is neurobiologically wired into us. It enables us to live in close proximity to sisters and brothers, sons and daughters without desiring them. We feel familiar with them. We don’t view them in the same way that non-family members do.
As boys, we play fight and tease our beautiful sister and can’t see why other lads are interested in her. To us, she is simply irritating. As girls, we think our little brother is smelly and stupid, until one day he comes home with a beautiful brunette tottering in Manolos, fluttering her long eye lashes at him amorously.
Desire is fueled by difference. It’s like sailing toward an exotic new country for the first time when we meet a new partner. They represent the tantalising unknown. We see distant palm trees, aquamarine waters, and strangely shaped fruit as we approach in our rickety wooden rowing boat. It’s hit or miss whether we’ll make it to this new land. The currents and eddies are strong, and we keep drifting off course. Our yearning makes the country even more alluring.
When we finally step onto the golden sands and first meet our lover, we have no idea what they’re thinking or feeling. We have no clue about their lives. We make up stories about the kind of person they are. We’re not sure of their intentions toward us or whether they can be trusted. Do they mean what they say? Will they hang around? Do they like us as much as we like them?
Uncertainty breeds fascination and attraction, but also tension and anxiety. As couples and sex therapist Esther Perel says, this uncertainty and “not knowing” fuels desire. It is at once scary and exciting. Not fully knowing them gives us a kind of freedom. We create a fantasy version ourselves, showing only the parts of ourselves we like. Our lover sees us at our best, not when we stagger out of bed with the flu, aching limbs, dry tangled hair, and a puffy face. They are a blank screen to project our fantasies on. They become our dream person, our Mr. or Mrs. Perfect. Fueling our sexual desire is a dream about buying a bright white detached three-story house in a nice neighbourhood with a trim lawn, surrounded by similarly bright white houses. Or we dream that this person will keep us sexually entertained with wild tricks for the rest of our days.
Homogeneity is for milk, not couples.
We colonise this exotic land in order manage our fear and anxiety. We get to know more and more about the other. We plant our native vegetables, we erect our own architectural style. Think colonial cities in Brazil. By making our environment familiar, by making it the same as where we came from, we quell some of the anxiety surging in our chests and throats like massive tidal waves.
We homogenise our lover. We look for what is the same about us and ignore what is different. In the glow of dripping beeswax candles after sweaty, life-affirming sex, we cuddle and create shared values and dreams for a future life together. When our partner clips their toenails in the sitting room or makes us cringe with the trousers that hang unfashionably just above their ankles, we subtly or not so subtly steer them in the “right” direction. When we meet their friends and secretly judge them as douche bags, we hope that by begrudgingly agreeing to socialise with them, our “significant other” will come to their senses and realise they aren’t suitable friends.
We rage as if it’s a terrible treachery if our “other half” doesn’t stand up for us when our boss criticises us. We’re guilty of the sin of proflection, a Gestalt Therapy term. This is when we make an implicit, unspoken deal with our partner and then get disappointed when they don’t act accordingly. It might go like this: “If I support you in any arguments you have with others, even if you acted like a total idiot, I expect the same from you.” We’re bound to get disappointed as 1) we have not made them party to our agreement, 2) they have not therefore agreed, and 3) we have ignored the fact that they are different from us and may not have the same values.
Time goes by. The same-making develops. We plod around the house cosily in woollen, calf-hugging slippers while our partner fixes our tea in a greying terrycloth robe. We no longer want to pounce on them. Even worse, we need to muster up desire, much like poking the dying embers in a Downton Abbey fireplace.
But we want both. We feel dissatisfied, bored, our eyes start to wander. But the idea of starting with someone new scares us. What if we never find anyone who loves us as much? What if we do, but then the same thing happens with them? We don’t want to give up our comforts, our nice life, our planned trip to Mexico, our friends, or our identity as a couple.
We feel hopeless and stuck because it seems to us that we have to choose one or the other, perpetually seeking or boringly committed. Polyamory is an option for some, but for others the anticipated uncertainty and jealousy doesn’t entice us. Faced with no good enough options, we dunk the tenth shortbread glumly into our extra-shot latte, twirling around the dull stainless steel teaspoon, the future looming forlorn and bleak.
Or is it? By getting our heads around these five concepts, articulated by Gestalt therapist Joseph Melnick, we just might be able to get both love and lust:
1. Embrace differences
Firstly, we need to embrace the differences in our partner. These don’t need to threaten our security. Many of us, including myself and my clients, fear them.
“What do you mean you don’t like Christmas?” I challenged my partner feeling perplexed. Christmas meant so much: the hanging of decorations, cheesy Michael Bublé playing from the first of December, baking cookies, and a cosy family gatherings complete with wood-burning fire and the smell of a real Christmas tree. My heart fell imagining that my partner would not fulfill my fantasy of being the loving Christmas enthusiast at my side. My frustration bubbled as I tried to change his outlook and convince him mine was better. What did this lead to? Frustration and disappointment and a stuck situation—as my partner, feeling increasingly pressured, clung more doggedly to his anti-Christmas views.
Instead, I could have understood that his lack of enthusiasm didn’t mean I had to forego my excitement. After all, I have plenty of friends and family to get Christmassy with. Trying to force him to participate would just lead to resentment and decrease the chances of exchanging amorous glances and delicious lovemaking on Christmas Eve. Was it really worth pressuring the relationship over Christmas?
As I explain to the couples I work with, differences are inevitable. What’s more important is identifying the differences I can work with and those that are non-negotiable. Perhaps I can accept his non-enthusiasm about Christmas, but not his desire for children.
This leads us on to the second concept, polarities…
2. Acknowledge polarities
We all contain polarity qualities. Think of the shy person hovering timidly around the coffee machine at work, who is a secret sexual dominant. Consider our jolly public persona that contradicts the hopeless, depressed Sunday morning part of us. Think of how laid back we can be about our friends and yet feel intensely jealous with our partner. Think of the bold, energetic professional part of us and the part that gets terrified when we get out of our depth in water.
The Gestalt Therapy concept of polarities comes from the Taoist philosophy that every quality has a polarity. Where there is day there is night, where there is sun there is moon. Where there is joyful there is depressed, where there is Capricorn there is Cancer. The two polarities give meaning to each other. Without one, the other would lose some of its significance. Although they seem at odds, they complement each other and there is a relationship between them.
Going back to the Christmas example, my partner and I have become polarised. My subtle or not so subtle message is, “be as excited as I am.” His response is “no.” The situation feels stuck and rigid. We see the two positions as either/or. There is no movement as we both become more entrenched in our stance. The relational connection is not acknowledged and no middle ground is developed.
So what the heck is the relationship between our stances? Well it’s his “no” in response to my “yes.” So, I can be curious. I can find out how it is he learned to hate Christmas. He describes unhappy family experiences. He starts to feel listened to and so asks why I love it so much. I tell him about the cosy childhood memories. We both start to soften. We are less entrenched in our positions as we feel more understood. Then movement becomes possible. He agrees to do Christmas my way if I agree to do New Year’s his way, for example. A compromise that feels bearable is reached and the relationship remains intact.
3. “Do” aggression
Let’s re-think aggression. The Gestalt Therapy term aggression is broader than the typical dictionary definition. It refers to the outward going energy that propels us forward through life and helps us to get what we need from others and the world in order to survive. Without aggression we would lie like a translucent jelly fish, rotting away on a beige pebbled beach, emitting a putrid stench. We need aggression in order to survive. However, aggression in our society often summons up images of red hot faces, punching, kicking, foamy spit gathering in the corners of mouths, vicious words, and heart ache.
But, we don’t have to “do aggression” that way. We can assert ourselves and confront in a calm, yet clear way. I don’t have to blame my partner or character assassinate him over our Christmas difference. By asserting my wishes whilst being curious about his stance, he becomes someone to discover something new about. However, if I say nothing and feel resentful, then I’m likely to act out in a passive aggressive way like “falling ill” the next time he wants me to meet his friends. The resentment bubbles and spews like putrefying sewage in a rat-infested pipe. Living on top of resentment doesn’t make for wild sex. Neither does calling my partner an “asshole.”
So be aggressive in the healthy sense of the word—which means, be clear, direct, and calm about your needs, wishes, and feelings. Own them as yours and as no less or more valid than theirs. In order to do so, we need to know a thing or two about projection.
4. Own our projections
Projecting is when we make assumptions about the other constructed from few concrete facts. The process can also be referred to as the stories or fantasies we make up about others. Projecting can be helpful. Being able to imagine what the other is feeling helps us to empathise with them—a necessary trait in order to get on with others. The trouble comes when the story we make up about the other is wrong and we cling to that story doggedly like a screaming, snotty-nosed toddler unwilling to give up their dummy which has fallen on the dirty floor of the supermarket aisle. Rather than “reality check” our assumption about the other and own our projection, we feel hurt and angry and start to blame and judge.
How do we not do this? By using language like “when you say ‘no’ to decorating the tree, I imagine you just want to spite me and I feel hurt.” In this way, we own our imagining about the other’s motives and that it is a result of our assumption about them that we feel hurt. This enables the other to not get defensive as they experience us as owning our experience rather than blaming them for it. It gives them the opening to correct our assumption: “Not at all, I just have such bad memories about being forced to decorate the tree as a child that the thought of doing it now fills me with dread.” We stand corrected and start to feel a little bit of empathy for our partner. This opens the door for an I-Thou relationship.
5. Develop an “I -Thou dialogue”
This term was coined by Martin Buber, an existential Austrian philosopher in 1923. It was developed in Gestalt Therapy and Joseph Melnick summaries it as the recognition that meaning arises through the meeting of others. As a result, life is always co-creation. If this basic fact of mutual dependence is not acknowledged and embraced, then the relational aspect of living is minimalised, and the potential for connection and resolution of difference is hampered.
In practice, it’s the opposite of the usual argument which involves blaming, judging, criticising, and defending. As we all know, these lead to stalemate, heartache, time-wasted, and increasing damage to the relationship. An “I-Thou” stance means we keep sight of the other as an individual with differences that are no less worthy than ours. We recognise that there is probably something in their difference that we can connect to if we remain curious. Rather than blame and judge, we own our assumptions and feelings. We also don’t shy away from stating our needs, and are clear about the difference between our needs and our wants.
This way, we keep the dialogue going and we stay relational. We become interested in learning something new about the other. And this novelty fuels desire. The partner that we thought we “knew” reveals something new. This sparks our interest—and our desire. Rather than hostile silence and shoulders turned away from each other in bed, we get laid. Rather than moaning that the thrill is gone, we feel happy to be stuck with them.