Some people feel very strongly that a person cannot be both a friend and a lover, as one will undermine the other. It’s one or the other, these people say, and cite the importance of mystery and the excitement of the new and the exotic as powerful forces that fuel sexual passion and physical attraction and lust between two individuals. How can you feel the attraction, they say, if you know the other person as an open book? When do you ever feel passion for a friend?
People who believe in the incongruity of friendship and erotic passion quote the numerous experiences long term couples often talk about: lovemaking becomes stale, boring, repetitive and very predictable; the friendship and companionship that develop through the years of being together eventually kill the initial passion and all that is left is unimaginative and infrequent sex.
Of course, there is a point in what they are saying. We are all aware that lust and desire decrease as people live together for a long time. Lovemaking becomes less passionate, exciting and adventuresome. Many jokes on how marriage kills sex reinforce this view.
Physiologically, we know that levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in our brain that creates excitement and the in-love feeling and stimulates the release of testosterone; the hormone that awakens desire in both men and women; are high at the beginning of a romantic relationship. As the relationship continues, dopamine levels decrease and oxytocin, called the “cuddle” hormone, increases, stimulating bonding.
So, are we all doomed to either constantly move from one partner to the next in order to keep passion alive (high levels of dopamine), or accept that love and passion change for the worse with familiarity and friendship (increase in oxytocin levels)?
The question I ask is: can love be prevented from becoming more boring with the years because of these intrinsic physiological changes that inevitably develop with couples being together for a long time, and is there something that long term couples can do to keep the spark alive between them? After all, both men and women claim that lovemaking with someone with whom they have deep loving feelings heightens, rather than dull, their sexual experiences. And oxytocin spikes after lovemaking, encouraging bonding, pointing to the fact that lovemaking is one of the ways in which bonding in couples is reinforced.
Indeed, there is something to be said about the deep appreciation, fondness, respect, love and, yes, friendship that develop between two individuals who know each other intimately and who have spent a long time together. It doesn’t seem that friendship and sex are so antithetical to each other in ALL circumstances and that nothing can be done to change the fate of love in the long run. What is required, however, is for long term couples to be more aware of what they need to do to maintain the passion between them alive.
Life just happens; with challenges, crises and detours that require a constant rearranging of priorities. Over the life of a long term relationship, there are plenty of times when couples may feel they don’t have time for each other, or they take each other for granted, as they tend to what they consider to be more urgent problems than each other. For instance, young parents tend to be less inclined to be amorous with one another when they are physically exhausted and emotionally spent in taking care of their children. Or some couples may have less time for each other while they work at demanding jobs, are absorbed by financial or medical problems; they may be in the middle of relocating, or are mourning the death of a person close to them.
While there is no way we can totally insulate ourselves from any of these situations, it is nonetheless important not to forget about our intimate partners. The spark of sexual desire and passion can be kept alive by making time for each other; by making each other a priority, even and particularly during difficult times, and by not taking each other for granted. We need to invest the energy, time, effort and hard work needed to give our partners the message that they come first; that their happiness matters to us, and that our own happiness is not possible without them in our lives.
Love and friendship, then, rather than being in conflict, can actually reinforce each other and bring about the combination of emotional security, and the playful and joyful feelings that can be fully experienced when we are physically close to someone we cherish and love.