Modern relationships are cauldrons of contradictory longings: safety and excitement, grounding and transcendence, the comfort of love and the heat of passion. We want it all and, in long-term monogamous relationships, we want it with one person. Reconciling the domestic and the erotic is a delicate balancing act that we achieve intermittently at best. It requires knowing your partner while recognizing their persistent mystery; creating security while remaining open to the unknown; cultivating intimacy that respects privacy. Separateness and togetherness alternate in point and counterpoint. We need both but it's an intricate dance. Desire resists confinement, and commitment mustn’t swallow freedom whole.
Faced with the irrefutable otherness of our partner, we can respond with fear or with curiosity. We can try to reduce them to a knowable entity, or we can embrace that which makes them enigmatic. When we resist the urge to control, when we keep ourselves open, we preserve the possibility of discovery. Eroticism resides in the ambiguous space between anxiety and fascination. And when we can harness it, we remain interested in our partners; they delight us, and we’re drawn to them. But, for many of us, renouncing the illusion of safety, and accepting the reality of our fundamental insecurity, proves to be a difficult step.
It can help to ground these ideas down with a simple question: when are you most drawn to your partner? Really think about it. Being drawn to our partner isn’t an inherently sexual experience; it’s not “when am I most turned on by my partner” or “when do I crave their touch.” That can be part of it, of course, but when we take sex out of it, we find that the answers to this question tend to fit into four categories.
1. “...when I see them in their element”
This is the category of radiance and confidence—and it’s probably the biggest turn-on across the board. This group of answers is about seeing our partner from a comfortable distance. “I am most drawn to my partner when I see him in the studio, when she is onstage, when they are doing something about which they’re really passionate.”
When we see our partner in their flow state, it’s as if this person who is so known to us, is momentarily once again somewhat elusive. And in this space between “me” and “the other” lies the erotic élan—that movement toward the other. Because sometimes, as Marcel Proust said, “mystery is not about traveling to new places but about looking with new eyes.” And so, when we see our partner on their own, doing something in which they are enveloped, the ensuing shift in perception allows us to stay open to the mysteries that are living right next to us. It also gives us a glimpse of what it looks like when our partner doesn’t need us—how they behave when they are engaged in self-reliance. There’s something inherently sexy about that. We’re allowed to let go of our caretaking impulse and bask in their shine.
2. “...when they are away; when we are apart; when we reunite”
We tend to think that relational disconnects happen as a result of a lack of closeness, but perhaps the way we construct closeness reduces the freedom and autonomy needed for desire. When intimacy collapses into fusion, it is not a lack of closeness but too much closeness that impedes desire. No wonder they call it “drifting apart”—we all need a little space.
Desire is rooted in absence and longing. And the experience of “not having” increases our “wanting.” If our partner is in front of us all the time, a business trip away or time with friends can give desire the space it needs to thrive. It’s so easy to grow frustrated with each other when we’re constantly in each others’ spaces, making every decision together, going through the motions of a long life together. So, when they’re gone, it’s actually nice to miss them. Absence, it turns out, really does make the heart grow fonder. Spending time apart allows our partner to re-occupy our imagination—particularly the part that shrinks when daily life together becomes predictable. It allows us to reconnect with the way that we imagine them without being instantly constrained by reality.
3. “...when they surprise me”
This category is the hardest one to recognize because, to the question of “when am I most drawn to my partner,” people don’t tend to answer “when they surprise me.” Answers in this category range from silly to sexy to serious, but the throughline is always surprise and novelty. “When we go on vacation” is a big one. But so are “when she tells a joke I’ve never heard” and “when he plays with new style elements in his wardrobe.” Sometimes surprise can come from having the same old fight in a new way, weathering the storm together instead of falling apart: “when we are in a hard conversation and there’s so many moments where we could just stop, but she decides to stay in it—and we walk through the dark tunnel and come out together on the other side with a different perspective than either of us could have come up with on our own.”
Even the answer “when my partner is vulnerable” falls in this category. Why? Because if our partner was vulnerable all the time, we probably would not be drawn to it. It’s the fact that they are someone who usually doesn't show that side of themselves that makes their moments of vulnerability so compelling. And it surprises us when it happens. The same is true of the answer “when they make me laugh.” Laughter is surprising because it disrupts banality or seriousness. It takes us out of the linearity of whatever came before it. In each of these answers, we might never even say the word “surprise,” but each scenario is characterized by improvisation, spontaneity, refreshment, and rejuvenation. It’s about those experiences that show us our ability to bring out new parts of each other. But it also makes us ask: what parts of ourselves are we just now allowing to be seen by our partner for the first time?
4. “...when I see them through the eyes of another”
It could be seeing them with their colleagues, or at a party, or even seeing them field romantic advances from a stranger. Scenarios that show us our partner through the eyes of another can remind us of what we used to see in them or the parts of them we’ve maybe come to take for granted. Seeing someone else react to our partner’s humor or charm or intellect can even make us feel validated, proud, even lucky.
All four categories show us how a little distance can help us see our partner more clearly, but this one makes us stand back the farthest. It allows a new portrait of our partner to come into view. It reminds us that we can always find the stranger within this person who has become so familiar to us. We can appreciate their otherness as an intrinsic part of our love story, rather than a mystery to fear.