Desire Dynamics: Navigating Intimacy and Attraction in Relationships

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Many studies show that sexual attraction in long-term relationships decreases over time. Is this decline inevitable? Are we doomed to be not as into our partners as we were in the honeymoon period? Can we get too close to our partners? 

APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum interviews relationship expert Amy Muise from York University to answer these questions. Muise’s recently published work in APS’s journal Current Directions in Psychological Science addresses when and how closeness with our partners forms and declines over time. Muise shares a new development in relationship research on how to maintain desire in relationships. Together, Fischer Baum and Muise discuss the importance of cultivating an individual identity alongside intimacy within a relationship to sustain attraction over time. 

Send us your thoughts and questions at  [email protected].

Unedited transcript

[00:00:00.000] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Sexual attraction towards a partner is a distinct aspect that sets romantic relationships apart from other close connections. However, desire can be delicate and tends to diminish with time. What are the factors that play a crucial role in maintaining and even enhancing desire in couples over time? This is under the cortex. I am Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum with the Association for Psychological Science. To speak about relationship dynamics promoting intimacy, such as shared identity and emotional interconnectedness, I have with me Amy Muise from York University. She is the author of an article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science. Amy thank you for joining me today. Welcome to Under the Cortex. 

[00:01:04.730] – Amy Muise 

Thank you so much for having me. 

[00:01:07.190] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

I want to start my questions right away. I really enjoyed reading your article. Intimacy and sexual relationships is such an interesting focus area. What brought you to this sub-wield of psychology? 

[00:01:20.990] – Amy Muise 

Yeah, the focus on relationships was something that I had early on in my undergraduate program, but at first I thought I might pursue those interests more as a therapist. So I thought that I would work more on the practical or clinical side of things. But where I did my undergrad, which was Western University in London, Ontario, Canada, there was a relationship research lab run by Dr. Lauren Campbell when I was there at the time. And I was able to do my undergraduate thesis project in his lab, which really sparked my interest in relationship research. And I thought, okay, relationships and sexuality are things that I could study. Maybe I could get these interests met outside of being a therapist, but possibly being a researcher. So that was the first time I became really intrigued by this possibility. And I did a master’s degree in a more interdisciplinary program. So it was like a family relations human development Department, and this was at the University of Gualve. And I really focused there on sexuality. So my interest started in the intimacy and relationship space, and it led me to seeing social psychology as being a way that I could really understand these questions. 

[00:02:31.710] – Amy Muise 

And one of the questions that I was really interested in was about the maintenance of desire over time. And it was in part because of this paradox of desire, where it’s something that often draws partners together, at least in Western cultures. But then it’s also one of these more fragile relationship elements that often declines over time. So I was interested in understanding this question, and I thought that social psychology theory and methods might be one way I could expand our understanding of these sexual processes and relationships. 

[00:03:04.670] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah, so that sounds wonderful. You basically attach the literature of science, social psychology, to this question that I think Many of us are wondering why this happens in intimate relationships. In your article, you provide a new way to think about what makes the spark, in relationships, less. Can you tell us a little bit about your new theory? 

[00:03:34.030] – Amy Muise 

Sure. There are several existing theories that suggest that desire and passion tend to be high in those early stages of relationship, but then will decline as a relationship becomes more secure, more comfortable, and often closer. But the decline in desire, so because this decline in desire corresponds with a time when closeness is often quite high, there are these ideas out there that couples can become too close and comfortable, and that this is part of what might squash that more intense desire. So in our recent review paper, we really wanted to review the empirical evidence for this association between closeness and things that we know are related to closeness in relationships and sexual desire. And particularly, we wanted to see what evidence existed for this idea that very high closeness in relationships And we think about this as the interconnection between partners or the inclusion of the partner in the self if this very high closeness was actually associated with lower sexual desire. But instead, what we found in the literature was that although people do sometimes feel like they’re too close in their intimate relationships, we didn’t find evidence that high closeness in and of itself was associated with lower sexual desire. 

[00:04:58.590] – Amy Muise 

Instead, closest is quite important for desire in relationships. So when people feel connected to their partner, they can disclose their innermost thoughts and feelings. When they feel like their partner really understands and values them, they tend to report higher sexual desire. And this makes sense, of course. Those are all things that might make us feel connected and drawn towards our partner. And if, in fact, desire did start to wane at these very high levels of closeness, we might expect that there would be a curvilinear associated association between closest and desire. So at high levels of closeness, desire might start to level off or even decline. And we had some data in my lab that we could combine to test this idea among several hundred couples, and we didn’t find any curvilinear effect. Really, this was a linear association. So higher levels of closeness were associated with higher levels of desire. We didn’t see any leveling off or declining at these very high levels. So instead, in this new model, we propose that there’s a separate construct. So there’s something that we’ve been calling otherness or this distinctiveness between partners that might be important to pair with high closeness to foster desire. 

[00:06:17.520] – Amy Muise 

So this term otherness, at least in this context of relationships, was coined by Esther Perel. So she’s a couples therapist who’s written several popular books about the maintenance of desire in relationships. Yeah. And so she has talked about otherness as being this space between partners that’s needed to see each other in a new light, to acknowledge each partner’s distinct contributions to the relationship, and to provide the mystery and intrigue that might be necessary to create some of that wanting or desire. So drawing on her ideas and other work, we propose that high closest in a relationship, likely underlies high desire, but instead it might be this low otherness or low distinctiveness. So when partners are too enmeshed, that they lack the surprise or the intrigue, that this is what might detract from desire. So there’s been qualitative work with couples. So in this work, people in relationships are just asked what things fuel when they feel desire in their long term relationships. And one of the key themes found in this work is this idea of autonomy. And this includes things like physical distance, having personal projects that don’t involve a partner, or just this more psychological sense of otherness. 

[00:07:41.690] – Amy Muise 

So recognizing the partner as a separate person. And then on the flip side, a key theme in the work on the factors that might detract from desire include things like over-familiarity, so this lack of distinctiveness from a partner. So rather than thinking that too much closeness might be bad for desire or might stifle desire. We think closeness is very important for desire, but we should also consider the role of having sufficient otherness or distinctiveness between partners. And that might be this important, much less explored factor that is associated with desire. 

[00:08:19.110] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. This is really very interesting. What you are saying is couples want to be close, but sometimes people are too entangled or Or they see the other person as an extension of themselves. Maybe they have joint interests, but then they became one. I’m using these popular terms, but they became one instead of being two distinct people. For clarification purposes, I want to ask you the following, why aren’t closeness and distinctiveness opposites of each other? 

[00:08:58.140] – Amy Muise 

Yeah, this is a great question. I think you’re picking up on something that we may have been using some of these terms interchangeably. When we’ve been thinking about closeness, we’ve been equating it with low distinctiveness or low otherness. And I think they’re actually separate things, and both of these could be fostered in a relationship. And you also mentioned this idea that we do promote these things in the way that we sometimes talk about relationships, in terms of two becoming one. We do perpetuate some of these ideas that closeness is the most important thing for a good relationship. So we don’t think that these things are just two ends of the same continuum. And in fact, when we’ve been able to assess these in our work, they do tend to be positively correlated with each other. So there’s other theories in social psychology and relationship science that have looked at some similar constructs. Essentially, what we would say is that this need for closeness coexist with the need to be a distinct, independent person, and the fulfillment of both these needs could combine to influence relationship processes. So another idea that informed this work was there’s work on optimal distinctiveness theory. 

[00:10:16.800] – Amy Muise 

And this has mostly been based on how people with multiple group memberships balance their need to feel affiliated with their group, but also their need to be seen as a distinct individual from their group members. And this has been applied to romantic relationships. So in a study, they found that when people’s closeness needs or their affiliative needs were met, they were more likely to show interest in these opportunities to be distinct from their partner. So pursuing time without their partner. So we think that this work might suggest that people naturally try to balance these things in relationships, and that they might choose to maintain or pursue relationships that have the potential to meet both of these needs. So We don’t necessarily see them as contradicting needs, but things that might both be important. We think that there’s an application here to desire that hasn’t been fully explored yet. 

[00:11:11.800] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. They go closeness and otherness. They go hand in hand and they are not contradictory to each other. Following up on this, you mentioned you cite a study of your own. It sounds like it is possible to improve both closeness and otherness. You You found that sharing novel experiences with a partner fostered both of those relationship concepts, right? Can you say a little bit more about what it means to have a novel experience together with your partner and having both more closeness and, I don’t know, better otherness? I don’t have a good modifier for that. 

[00:11:54.440] – Amy Muise 

Yes, you’re exactly right. The paper you’re talking about, I’ll give a show note here, is led by Sophie Gosse, who’s a former undergraduate thesis student in my lab. And she’s also the co-author of this current directions paper that we’ve already been discussing. So she was really integral in some of these ideas as well. But in the paper, in the empirical work, we were extending some of the research on self-expansion. So we think about self-expansion in relationships as having novel and exciting experiences with a partner, having experiences with a partner that might broaden our perspective of our self, of the world. And in In an earlier paper, I found that this is linked to higher sexual desire. So on days when people in relationships report higher levels of self-expansion, both partners reported higher desire, and then they were even more likely to engage in sex on those days. So we identified the role of self-expansion and desire. But in this paper, we wanted to understand some of the reasons for this. So we looked at both closeness. So when people report more self-expansion, do they feel more close and connected with the partner? And that’s something that’s been fairly well established in some of the other self-expansion literature in terms of links to relationship satisfaction. 

[00:13:09.940] – Amy Muise 

But we wanted to know if this was the route to desire as well. And then we also looked at this idea of otherness. So in addition to maybe feeling closer, it’s also possible that these experiences would allow people to see new sides of their partner or to gain a broader perspective through these experiences. So to see that, oh, there’s still opportunities for me to be surprised by my partner and notice the unique things about them. And we did find that. So we found that when couples reported more self-expansion, they reported both higher closeness with each other as well as higher otherness. So also noticing those more distinct aspects of the other. And then in turn, both of those things were associated with higher sexual desire. So this was giving us some of our early evidence that Maybe it was possible to foster both closeness and otherness in a relationship, and that might be an important combination, particularly for feelings of sexual desire. 

[00:14:11.460] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. And let’s talk about gender differences a little bit. In your article, you also mentioned that. Actually, I want to leave the floor to you to talk about them. What are the gender differences and why do you think they exist? 

[00:14:27.350] – Amy Muise 

We find individual variability in desire, but we do find on average that men tend to report higher sexual desire than women in the context of mixed-gendered relationships and especially longer-term relationships. People have talked about these innate gender differences in desire. But beyond these, we know that there are social influences on desire. And that’s really where my research has focused. And then more recently, I’ve been thinking about some of these broader structural factors that might contribute to our understanding of gender differences in desire. So there’s a recent theory paper that’s led by Sari Van Anders that lays this out really nicely, with one key point being that these structural gender inequalities that position men and women into different roles, especially in the context of a mixed gender, heterosexual relationship, might play a role in some of these gender differences that we see in desire. So some of these types of examples could include women being more likely to be positioned as the caregiver. And this can be of children, but can sometimes also extend to having that role with a partner. So one possibility that we talk about in the paper is that these gender differences in which women take on more of the childcare or household responsibilities than men on average, that this could limit feelings of closest to a partner, but also limit their opportunities to feel distinct from a partner and distinct from the household and relationship. 

[00:16:04.250] – Amy Muise 

And maybe these are some novel processes that might help us understand some of the social factors that might be explaining the gender differences in sexual desire. We haven’t thought as much about some of these more broader structural influences on desire, and that desire is influenced by multiple things. We know that there’s relationship processes that influence desire. We know that there are some of these more physiological differences that can influence desire. But there’s also these other social and structural factors, and it might be important to think about those and how then they set up certain expectations within a relationship that might foster some of these differences. 

[00:16:48.350] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

And what about research about how attraction and desire fail in queer relationships? Are you familiar with in the research? Is it the direction that you would to go? What are your thoughts? 

[00:17:01.800] – Amy Muise 

Yeah, definitely. There is research. I mean, of course, we need more work on sexually diverse samples. I haven’t seen work that has tracked levels of desire over time in predominantly queer samples or during the transition to parenthood for parents who are in same gender relationships. We do have this work in samples that are predominantly identified as heterosexual or for samples of mostly mixed-gender parents. But it would be interesting to see how these trajectories or patterns of sexual desire might compare to what we know about predominantly heterosexual or mixed-gender couples. But there is work, and Kristin Mark is an example of someone who’s done work on desire in sexually diverse populations. And largely, we find that we can assess sexual desire in the same way. So a key measure of desire that was developed in samples of mostly heterosexual people are shown to be valid for sexually diverse samples. And then a lot of the factors that are associated with sexual desire tend to be similar. I think she and others would suggest that there might be additional considerations when we’re thinking about sexuality among more marginalized folks. So maybe things like the role of minority stress or feeling accepted by others in terms of your sexual expression, your relationship. 

[00:18:23.680] – Amy Muise 

Those other factors might impact desire. But I think in terms of the things that we’re talking about here, I would expect these ideas about closeness and otherness and desire to be relevant for people with diverse sexual orientations. And as we collect more data on these constructs, we aim to include people with diverse identities and experiences so that we can understand these processes more broadly. 

[00:18:51.100] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. A similar question would be, what do you think about using the same methodological constructs in different cultures? Would you expect to find similar things about closeness and otherness? 

[00:19:08.030] – Amy Muise 

Yeah, that’s such a good question. I think that it’s tricky in some ways because it depends on some of the values of the culture. I would say that this work is really situated within these ideas in Western culture, where we do expect, and often in relationships, have more of that early intensity, and that sexual desire and an attraction initiates a lot of our relationships. That wouldn’t be true in some other cultures. And so I think maybe the processes or mechanisms are different in terms of what people value. I mean, there might be some ideas here that are more individualistic, in terms of this distinctiveness and separateness. So it’s interesting. I mean, I feel like a collaboration with cultural psychologists or cross-cultural researchers could really inform whether some of these constructs might be relevant in particular cultures or how we might think of these processes in terms of what might be valued and what are the expectations for relationships that might be different. 

[00:20:19.340] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. Well, thank you, Amy. This is definitely a great start to think about all these things. Obviously, there are so many different directions that you can with this, and your sample size was impressive. I am very interested in and excited about to hear the new directions about your research. Now, I have one more question to you. What about some practical advice for our listeners? Overall, we established that based on your current data, closeness and otherness, they go hand in hand, but they are both important. How do you think people can find a balance between these two? 

[00:21:03.680] – Amy Muise 

Yeah, let me first say that I think this is a difficult balance to strike, and I think this is evidenced by the fact that we know desire is difficult to maintain in long-term relationships. We see average declines. But I think what I would say is this, you certainly want to take strides to maintain closeness and connection with your partner in a relationship. We know a lot about this in relationship science. We know a lot about the that contribute to closeness. So you want to be responsive to each other’s needs. You want to provide support, show care and concern, repair conflict, do fun things together, share responsibilities, among other things. And fostering that closeness is likely going to be good for your relationship quality and for your sexual desire. I think what we have focused less on in the research, and I think in our culture more broadly, is the importance of also fostering your distinct identities and interest to be able to continue to grow and expand and bring new aspects of the relationship. And I’m starting to see evidence that these aspects might be particularly or in some cases, uniquely associated with sexual desire. 

[00:22:19.410] – Amy Muise 

But I think you’re right to talk about this balance, though, because too much otherness or distinctiveness could cause partners to drift apart. We’ve seen some evidence for this in our work that on days when people pursue personal growth, so they do things without their partner that are self-expanding, they tend to feel higher desire for their partner. But if they do these things more chronically, so if they engage in self-expansion without their partner over the long term, that tends to detract from their desire. So it’s possible that this high otherness, high distinctiveness that’s not balanced by high closeness and connection with a partner could end up turning attention away from the partner and the relationship and ultimately detract from desire. So that’s all to say I don’t think there’s a straightforward solution. I think it might be that we know relationships take work and effort, and maintaining the connection to a partner is important. But I think, I guess what I’d like to add to those ideas is that paying attention to those opportunities, to see each other in a new light, to bring new parts of yourself to the relationship, might also be important and something that we want to pay attention to, while also acknowledging that we might be limited in our ability to do this at certain times, and remembering that it is common for desire to change as a relationship progresses, and that it does ebb and flow in some ways over time. 

[00:23:49.650] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. So they shouldn’t think about the alarm bells ringing. They should be like, Okay, this happens. This happens a lot of people. This is what data shows. But there are ways, if they have novel experiences, they will strengthen their relationship by fostering both closeness and otherness, basically. 

[00:24:13.130] – Amy Muise 


[00:24:14.070] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Is there anything Is there anything else that you would like to share with our listeners? 

[00:24:19.630] – Amy Muise 

Just that we’re continuing to try to understand these ideas and test them in different samples. We’re currently looking at this in a sample of people who have clinically low levels of desire, so to try to understand if we can see the role of closeness and otherness in this sample. And we’re also really trying to understand if we can orient people to this high closeness in their relationship, what happens then if we move around those feelings of otherness, is that where we might see the differences in desire? So if we orient some people to high closest and high otherness, but then other people to high closest and low otherness, would How do we see that difference in desire? So these are some of the questions that we’re currently pursuing. 

[00:25:07.340] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Well, Amy, thank you very much. This was a wonderful conversation. I learned a lot, personally, and I’m sure our listeners did, too. 

[00:25:16.280] – Amy Muise 

Thank you so much for having me. 

[00:25:18.790] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

This is Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum with APS, and I have been speaking to Amy Muise from York University. If you want to know more about this research, visit 

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