How to maintain passion in a marriage


Can you love someone if you no longer desire him or her sexually? Marriage and relationship therapist and author Esther Perel has advice for maintaining passion in a marriage and understanding the difference between love and desire.

How to maintain passion in a marriage

Why is it so often the love remains but the passion withers in a marriage? Is it even possible to be in love without the desire that fueled your romance in the first place? Esther Perel, a well-known marriage and family therapist, offers bold and provocative advice on intimacy and sex:

The difference between love and desire:

  • If love is about having, then desire is about wanting.
  • Although you can be generous in both love and desire, they’re not always the same thing.
  • Desire allows one to safely experience the darker emotions of love, like jealousy, aggression, power and control.
  • Being in love creates a sense of closeness that can sap the erotic vitality out of a relationship. Desire needs space to thrive.
What saps the desire from a loving relationship:
  • Passivity and complacency: partners sometimes complain “You don’t make me feel desirable” when they could be asking themselves “What can I do to help generate feelings of desire from my partner?”
  • A breakdown of imagination: When you have a breakdown of desire you have a breakdown of imagination and you have people who no longer know how to say erotically engaged.
  • Familiarity: It’s common for couples to be in love but not have sexual desire. A couple can become so familiar with each other that they get stuck in certain roles that desexualize each other.
What can you do to keep the spark?
  • Each partner should ask themselves: what is my responsibility in generating a certain kind of excitement between us? Not just the excitement in bed, but the excitement in the relationship. Keeping your relationship interesting and vibrant helps a lot.
  • Try to recreate the energy that first got you together.
  • Remember that desire ebbs and flows, but love remains constant.
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LISA BIRNBACH: Hi, I'm Lisa Birnbach for Why is it that so often the love remains, but the passion withers in a marriage? Is it even possible to be in love without the desire that fueled your romance in the first place? Marriage and family therapist, Esther Perel, has written a book on the subject called Mating in Captivity, Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. It's a great book. Esther, thank you for joining us.


ESTHER PEREL: My pleasure.


LISA BIRNBACH: Esther, you talk about loving your mate versus wanting your mate. What is the actual difference there?


ESTHER PEREL: I would say if love is about having, desire is about wanting. And those are two verbs that have a very different energy and a very different movement to them.


LISA BIRNBACH: What about giving? Where does that fit in?


ESTHER PEREL: In both. I have an exercise that I often ask people to do, where they divide a page in two, and on the left they write images and thoughts and associations about love and on the right about desire or sexuality. And there's certain words that often will appear in the category of love that have to do with protection, with acceptance, with reciprocity, with mutuality, with softness, with caring. Hunger, need, urgency, excitement, power--those are words that appear on the other side.


LISA BIRNBACH: Is it marriage that cools off those spiky feelings?


ESTHER PEREL: When you love and you cultivate that sense of closeness, sometimes you end up sapping the very erotic vitality that brought the relationship into being because desire actually needs space to thrive. But what saps the desire is for one passivity. People become complacent, and they often tell their partner, "You don't make me feel sexy. You don't make me feel desirable," when they could ask themselves, "What is it I am doing? What's my responsibility in generating a certain kind of excitement between the two of us?" And I'm not talking about the excitement in bed. I’m talking about the energy between two people that makes them interested in each other, erotically speaking. The other thing is that desire over the long term is much more relational, and so if the relationship isn't good, isn't interesting, isn't vibrant, isn't lively, isn't connected, isn't caring, then you will instantly experience it in the realm of desire. It's like sex is the projector under which you will see all what is troubling in the marriage. And at the same time, the opposite exists, as well. And we used to think that if I don't desire anymore, then I don't love. But in fact, what we are seeing today--and this is a worldwide phenomenon of modern couples-- is that we love each other very much; we have no sex.


LISA BIRNBACH: It's universal. You hear about this all the time.


ESTHER PEREL: When you have a breakdown of desire, you have a breakdown of the imagination, and you have people who no longer know how to stay erotically engaged. So it requires rethinking how does sexuality play itself out? Why is it that certain people create such over familiarity that they actually feel that they are living with their roommate or their brother or their sister?




ESTHER PEREL: And familiarity of that nature will kill the sex. Relationships become de-eroticized and people get so stuck in certain rules that they also start to desexualize each other. Those are actually the main elements that block desire more than time and stress and kids, because that answer is more true for young children and less so when children are older.


LISA BIRNBACH: Can marriages survive a desexualization?


ESTHER PEREL: Yes, in the best couples desire ebbs and flows. The difference is that those that have a spark know how to resurrect it. It's not that they don't have periods where they are immersed in something else or other concerns or are preoccupied, but they have sometimes a way, when they have these little children and they know that this is not going to happen in the next week or two, of having a gaze and a glimpse to each other in the elevator. And they wink and they just say, "You remember? We will again." And they maintain that thread, that complicity, because the majority of couples separate in the first three years of their marriage.


LISA BIRNBACH: Hmm, so interesting. Esther, thank you so much.


ESTHER PEREL: Thank you.


LISA BIRNBACH: For, I'm Lisa Birnbach.

meet theexpert
  • Esther Perel

    Esther Perel Marriage and Family Therapist, Author Esther Perel is a licensed marriage and family therapist and member of the American Family Therapy Academy and the Society for Sex Therapy and Research. She's author of the international bestseller: "Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence." more about this expert »

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