25 Jul 2018

Love and sex -- the ebb and flow

Love and sex allow us to connect with another person, someone who is a free individual just like us. That is why both sexual and romantic relationships should be based on connection, and not on making demands.

Wysokie Obcasy
Paulina Reiter Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Love and sex -- the ebb and flow - NewsMavens
Embrace, PixaBay

The following are fragments of Paulina Reiter’s interview with sexologist Alicja Długołęcka, which originally appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in January 2018.

Paulina Reiter: What role does sex play in love?

Alicja Długołęcka: It’s a difficult subject because it involves two elusive elements. But let’s define love first, and then think about the role that sex can play.

PR: Many scientists have studied love and developed various theories. In his well-known model, John Alan Lee distinguishes four manifestations of love: eros, storge, ludus and agape. Let’s start with eros.

Eros is an erotic love based on infatuation, passion, a need for physical intimacy, and a merging into one another.

In our culture, this is the love that is celebrated by the media -- a romantic passionate love full of sexual desire.

PR: Storge is based on friendship.

Yes, and it is the kind of love that’s currently very undervalued -- it is based on mutual trust, closeness, understanding, creating the space for discussion, and giving each other freedom. Eros is exclusive -- storge is not.

PR: So this love is forgiving and empathetic.

Yes. Mature love between partners with a sexual relationship will oscillate between eros and storge.

PR: According to Lee, the remaining kinds of love are ludic love -- ludus, and agape.

The former is playful, set on pleasure while the latter is selfless and spiritual. Ludus refers to pagan sexuality, and agape -- to Christian. Two stereotypical models of femininity are also involved in this division: the whore and the Madonna, the extremes between which women are torn. When I consider this theory, I think that there’s a place for all four kinds of love in a mature relationship.

Loving someone is a process. Every day is different -- it can be terrible on some days and interesting on others. This variety allows us to achieve a state of balance and helps us create deep intimacy and understanding.

Erich Remarque said: “Love is not a pond into which one can always look for one’s reflection. Love has its ebb and flow. And wrecks and sunken cities and octopuses and storms and chests with gold and pearls. But the pearls lie deep.”

PR: The psychologist Robert Sternberg identifies three components of love.

The first one is passion. It is present mostly at the infatuation stage, when our brain is awash in a cocktail of hormones, this stage lasts from about three months to three years.

When we’re in love, we’re under the illusion that it will last forever. But it won’t. Because if we think that, we’ll feel the need to be in this state again and again, but always somewhere else and with someone else. This only leads to treating people like objects.

In our culture, being in love is glorified by the media -- we are surrounded by images of perfect couples who never fight. It’s probably because the infatuation phase is associated with young people, and mass culture values youth above all else.

PR: The second element is intimacy.

Passion brings us closer to someone and leads us to look for maximum pleasure, but there is an intellectual component to it as well. Growing intimacy makes us want to “melt” into the other person, and to create a complete union. And that is a state which is as equally attractive physically as it is mentally. I think this combined feeling is the reason for the existential longing that comes with sex -- the sense that sex is so incredibly important. Intimacy combined with a sexual relationship allows us to feel completely and intensely close to another person.

PR: The third element is commitment.

Commitment is an act of free will, the decision that you want to be with that person “for better or for worse”.

It is the decision to prevail, and to get through difficult times and crises. This component gets bad press nowadays because it’s so pragmatic. But it’s impossible to be with someone without it.

And the same goes for sex. Today, in the age of distractions and lack of time, it is the ultimate expression of how important the other person is to us. We can dedicate time and attention to each other in bed -- it is an open space for empathy, dialogue, and building intimacy.

PR: So the relationship between sex and love is mindfulness?

Yes. I think that crises in our sex life are caused by a lack of commitment, not passion. We forget to pay attention, to avoid pettiness, and to be good to each other.

PR: One of the characters [in the 2013 film] Nymphomaniac says: “The secret ingredient to sex is love.”

I think that Lars von Trier is right in saying that love is the most mysterious seasoning in sex. It’s common sense, although it may sound like a cliché: people who have had sex with someone they love know that it can be simple or happen in uncomfortable places, but it will still be the most beautiful experience. Fancy decorations or techniques are not that important, although that still doesn’t mean you should get lazy and think your feelings are so strong that there’s no need to care about the quality of sex. That leads to routine.

It’s also true that even the most amazing sex full of elaborate techniques will not fill emotional gaps. On the contrary -- it can cause an even greater hunger.

Without a stable emotional footing, we might start a sexual relationship to get rid of negative emotions -- the same goes for overeating, drinking or taking drugs. If we use sex to fill the “gaps” in our psyche, they will only grow.

PR: And that’s when we are bitterly disappointed.

Oh yes. We should have sex for pleasure. That should be our primary motivator. But we, as women, often have a problem with allowing ourselves to feel pleasure.

Women are conditioned by cultural patterns to feel love from sex. They expect to feel important, loved, and one of a kind. This can happen that at the beginning of a relationship -- with a bit of wishful thinking -- we see what we want to see. And if something is missing, we feel the lack and realize that, for us, there’s no love in the sex.

But great sexual experiences come from openness and sensuality, not expectations. Sex can cause love to appear, but sex itself is not enough, just as love is not the only pre-condition for good sex. There are areas where sex and love are connected, and many others where they are independent.

PR: I wish you’d just say “Sex is for pleasure, and feelings are a separate thing.”

Sex is for pleasure! I only want to emphasize that it’s difficult to enter into a sexual relationship solely for physical pleasure, because at some point, even if you don’t expect it, sex can begin to take on emotional and spiritual aspects. The problem lies in expectations. If we consciously decide on a noncommittal sexual relationship, we most will most likely have just that.  But if expectations for more than the relationship can give, come to the surface later, frustration is sure to follow.

It is only when we enter into a relationship with the willingness to develop a genuine connection and no other specific expectations, that we have a chance to build love.

As Erich Fromm famously said, immature love says: "I love you because I need you." (we might as well say “desire”); mature love says: "I need you -- and desire you -- because I love you."

In a relationship founded on intimacy and love, there is no better place in which to search for sexual pleasure.

That’s all. 


Alicja Długołęcka is a Polish sexologist, university lecturer, and the author of numerous books and articles on the psychology of sexuality, including psychosexual disorders, sexual health, and sex education.

-- Translated from Polish by Karolina Wardak


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