(If you missed part one of For the Love of Lust, Click Here)
We are built for bonding. There is no doubt. Whether we ever satisfy our innate need for deep connection is dependent on countless factors, but suffice it to say, creating meaning through our relationships is a prime motivator for much of what we do in life.
Could it be possible, however, that our desire for intimacy has a shadow to it? Maybe that the moral laws that govern our fidelity do not coalesce with passion? Could it also be that through our efforts to increase togetherness in our relationships, we simultaneously create an emotional barrier to eroticism?
Many partners will admit to waning desire that can become a burden to relationships, coming alive only in response to others or conversely deadening one’s spirit of Lust altogether, after significant time has past. Most will simply describe this process as fact, as natural. And while sex and eroticism can take dramatic turns over the course of time, to submit to these socialized beliefs can actually cause harm to these unions we’ve worked so diligently to forge.
In Part One of this article, we spoke to the evolutionary advantages of Lust. We spoke to the health and necessity; to the brain circuitry specifically designed to support it’s expression. We also acknowledged the complexity of attaining a harmonious balance between Lust and Love. (Again, if you missed that, click here).
Becoming Friends with Lust—Ours and Our Partners
Esther Perel, PhD, author of Mating In Captivity notes that lust doesn’t always play by the rules of good morals. In fact, sometimes those rules are actually antithetical to the cultivation of lust and eroticism because, for that circuitry to be activated, humans tend to require a little bit of risk—something that our intimate bonds have a propensity to constrain.
When we consider the closeness that intimacy allows, the stripping away of lifelong emotional layers that lends to the foundation of relational love—the transparency that fosters safety—we have to wonder as to the other side of the coin. When we have become so open, so able to yield into the transparent dance of togetherness, we leave nothing for our partners to seek out in us. And our practice of seeking is related to another region of evolved brain circuitry that is necessary for us to thrive as humans. Seeking feels good to our brains–it provides a sense of purpose and pleasure and forward motion. When there is nothing left to seek out in our partners, the pleasure that comes from seeking must find another outlet for expression.
To destabilize our intimate bonds with behavior that many see as risky—for example, to rekindle eroticism—can feel as if it opposes the exact behavior that is nourishing our relationship. So often, our “lust needs” take a back seat to the cultivation of care and closeness.
And yet… as is clearly stated in Part One, we are hardwired for lust as well. So while lust can quiet itself for a time, that particular brain circuitry needs expression and ideally that expression would be practiced in a way that supports our vision for an integral relationship.
Lust, for most people, tends to require a certain amount of risk—these two emotional constructs act very similar in the brain, in fact. The question in the development of lust in an intimate relationship subsequently becomes, how do we RISK without risking too much?
Neurochemicals of Risk
The nature of risk is related to the emotion excitement, which is essentially a combination of hope and fear. Excitement, on a physiological level, provokes a state of hyperarousal, where thoughts and body states are pushed to stretch beyond homeostasis—our natural state of equilibrium—to a palpable emotional experience that, while stressful, is also related to positivity. You see, when we push ourselves just slightly out of our comfort zone, and we experience some resulting pleasure, the reward center in our brains lights up like the 4th of July!
Exciting experiences activate dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain’s reward system that helps us experience pleasure. The pleasure and reward center is housed primarily in the frontal lobe of the brain, and provides a “reward value” for experience.
For risk to be related to reward, our brains need healthy doses of dopamine and adrenaline, along with their available receptors. And the culmination of reciprocated lust ignites serotonin as well—which is related to feelings of happiness and mood regulation. Top that off with healthy doses of oxytocin, vasopressin and endogenous opioids and this neurochemical cocktail—if given to a skilled mixologist—is deserving of a worthy name! No wonder our drive to acquire, and experience, the rewards of lust are so powerful.
The fact is, even a one-night-stand can stir these potent neurochemicals into existence, which is why we can experience incredible closeness—the feeling of, anyway—after even a brief sexual encounter. And yet, one-night-stands do little for the other driver of our relational circuitry—those connected to Care, Bonding, and Love.
Cultivating the Sweet Spot
Our brains and bodies have evolved to the point of reaping significant benefits of both intimacy and lust—just rarely collaboratively. The relationship between the two is complex and clearly non-linear, as we may have previously assumed. Science has demonstrated that both are necessary to our collective evolution. And if we are to thrive, individually and collectively, we need to stretch into new possibilities for these constructs not only to co-exist, but also, to inform and enhance one another.
The current marital trends are far from indicating a culture of happy unions. With over 50% divorce rate (60+% in second marriages) it’s time we take a look at the deeper implications of a society that is known to deny the health of lust. More importantly, we need to cultivate a more united vision of intimacy and lust working, and playing, side by side.
There are many practices that have been designed to deepen our awareness and experience of intimacy and sexuality. I’ll focus on three that I believe, and that are grounded in science, as central to supporting a healthy transition into developing lust within an intimate partnership—whether you’re in one or not.
These practices are for individuals, maybe those who are deeply connected to a partner and looking to enliven a relationship; and also for those who are seeking to explore a new relationship, where lust is alive from the beginning, and remains a central theme in the developing journey of Love. These practices are simply “some” ways to help reconcile our need for security and adventure, closeness and separateness, stability and risk, predictability and novelty.
1) Honor Autonomy
In our desire for connection, we can often forget that we are primarily individuals seeking togetherness. We can become essentially “fused”—not knowing where we end and our partners begin. This feeling can be incredibly soothing and seductive initially, as we can imagine we’ve found our intimate home and that, finally, we are met, deeply recognized, loved unconditionally. However, becoming over-connected can, in reality, become a hindrance to eroticism.
For deep connection to be possible, separateness is vital. While this may seem contradictory, the ability to step away from our partners as separate entities, the ability to self-regulate and practice autonomy, are necessary qualities for one to be able to move toward the other. As Esther Perel states, “When people become fused—when two become one—connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: This is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.”
Find ways to establish—or reestablish—independence, autonomy, and separateness. Nurture activities and personal interests as a means for strengthening not only your attractiveness and desire-ability to your mate, but your own internalized “attraction to self.”
Also, encourage your partner—or future partners—to do the same. Honor his or her need, whether stated or not, for separate interests and activities. When developing closeness, look to the future vision that you would like to create—where there are worlds yet unexplored within the context of your partner’s autonomy.
2) Cultivate Mystery
It can be difficult to be lustful for someone about whom we know everything.
If nothing is left to the imagination, our minds become uninterested, lacking the tension necessary for desire to flourish. And as science of the mind is fairly certain, our sexuality is more related to the space between our ears than the space between our legs!
Nourishing the mystery in our intimate unions can feel somewhat counterintuitive since some of the elements of lust don’t necessarily support the development of a harmonious, transparent relationship. Clearly, lust and intimacy are on very different trajectories, and when they yearn to coincide, fears of the unknown can destabilize our inner worlds as well as our intimate journeys.
One place where we can always escape the confines of fusion is into our own minds—where imagination can take us anywhere, to anyone. And when we honor the beauty of our minds, simultaneously soothing the innate fears that may arise, we are cultivating our unique mental wanderings that may inform us of what naturally excites us.
The question becomes, can we tolerate the anxiety provoked by our partner’s developing autonomy—by his or her intrinsic capacity to always escape into the sanctuary of the mind, to where we are quite possibly NOT the center of their attending neural processes? When we can stand firm in our own sense of self, within the vulnerable “unknowns” of our partner’s inner mental territory, we give space to his or her unique exploration of self, grounded in the safety of an intimate home.
An important distinction to consider with this level of the erotic dance is whether or not we are utilizing our fantasies as fuel for our intimate partnerships, or whether we are escaping into the erotic, only to return to safety and stability with our partners, and leave the fantasy separate. Part of how fantasy can serve to edify our relationships is to acknowledge and share at least part of what is occurring in that solitary space. Risk bringing the erotic design of your own mental forays into sexual play with your partner—and be open for him or her to do the same.
Conversely, when our own imagination confronts what we assume about ourselves—the principles and experiences within our comfort and moral code—with new stimuli that forces us to question our truest desires, our integrity, and our natural wiring for lust, we have an opportunity to strengthen our sense of self and to share something new and different with our intimate partner.
Through imagination, we maintain a sense of freedom and personal wonder
that can bring new life to our relationships.
It can feel intimidating to allow our imagination to wander and wonder, to consider what or who, besides our current partner and situation might naturally entice or excite us. Through our development of safety and closeness, we’ve forgotten that our erotic mind needs to flourish as well. So allow yourself to re-attune to your innate lustful longings, and then allow them to come alive with your intimate partner.
3) Practice Mindfulness
a. In perception
Practice increasing your tolerance to the exploration of space between you and your lover. When your partner feels distant, or when you are proactively choosing to strengthen your own autonomy, allow the emotions and the sensations that activate your nervous system to arise. Welcome them, sit with them, yield into the discomfort of “stretching” your perception and tolerance. Allow them to inform you of the long-standing patterns of anxiety and fear that tend to surface and cause discord. Welcome that knowledge like a long-lost friend, here to help you increase both your ability to push the edges of your comfort as well as to strengthen your ability to track your natural sensation that ultimately will lend to deep understanding.
b. In thought
Practice unconditional acceptance and presence to all of your thoughts from the perspective of an observer. Practice noticing the thought, and letting it go, over and over and over. Don’t fall into spiraling thoughts that trigger fear. Rather, notice the thought arise, and witness it being released with each breath. Notice any impulse to create a story with your thoughts, to give deeper meaning to fear or insecurity.
According to Dr. Brent J. Atkinson, in his article, “Rewiring Neural States in Couples Therapy: Advances from affective neuroscience,” we can easily “blindly trust” a feeling or thought, because our brains are hardwired for self-protection. We often automatically attach ourselves to an emotion—as if the emotion is real, and the idea that someone else caused it feels just as real. In all actuality, the automatic processes of the brain do this naturally. Our “protective mechanisms” are designed for hypervigilance, first and foremost. So if we feel fear, for example, we will seek out a source—external to us—that we can attach to the cause, and from which we can then protect ourselves. This dynamic, while serving us in regard to our survival, can be toxic to our relationships.
Instead, practice simply noticing the thought without attaching it to any external source. Allow it to exist solely, without spiraling out of control. Practice being present to all that arises in regard to mental information, just as it is, without trying to dismiss, avoid, or change anything that may ultimately serve to bring awareness. Simply witness… and let go.
c. In body
Pay attention, nonjudgmentally, to the subtle signals and sensations of your body. Reject nothing. Notice in detail the sensations that are present—especially any tightness or tension that arises or that draws your attention. Notice any small, seemingly automatic movements that could be related to a deeper emotion. Allow those sensations to simply “be” without attempting to dismiss them or push them away. Allow your sensations space to exist, and time to guide you to your body’s internal wisdom.
Also, nurture physical practices that help you touch into your own internal resources—your body, your strength, the wisdom that resides in each and every cell of your being, along with your ability to practice new skills. Experience your body in moments of strength, in times of vulnerability, though practices that stretch and push you beyond what you know. Our physical selves help to shape our psychological selves, so be present to the shape and flow of your life.
Research has demonstrated that those people who enjoy physical practices, such as strength training, dance, cycling, running, or yoga, experience more excitement in their lives. And as we practice risk by exploring new physical practices, risk becomes an integral aspect of our natural drive for learning and pleasure. So the very practice of getting physical opens your neural pathways to experiencing more excitement, more risk, and ultimately more lust.
Embody Your Intention
We have an opportunity, individually and collectively, to transcend the inhibitions and fears ignited by longstanding ideas of lust, as well as our attachment to any historical meaning or power we’ve given over to it. Lust is a natural, potent, necessary quality of human beings. Like all other qualities intrinsic to our evolving selves, this specific circuitry in our brains needs to be understood and allowed space to breathe—to find it’s way out of hardwired constraints—in a way that helps us to thrive rather than has us cycling in a spiral of fear.
It is time we transcend the fears that bind our relationships, and allow our bodies the chance to expand their language repertoire—to own and practice our original language and deepen our understanding of the subtext, the nuances, the dialects of our own—and our partners—primary tool of communication. It is time we work toward becoming fluent in our unique erotic style, allowing ourselves to fully embody the dynamics of seduction, and then share that energy with those whom we love and trust.
Through following the practices of presence, mindfulness, autonomy and mystery, we can begin to lay claim to our birthright for experiencing both the intense nurturance and love of intimacy, along with the fiery and erotic dance of lust—together.
If you’d like more tips for enhancing your intimate partnership, check out my !0 Rules For Intimacy, a free download with lots of juicy and challenging tips for Relationship Transformation. And keep coming back and joining in the dialogue here!
For the Love of Your Life…