Oh, the heart beats in its cage
Yes the heart beats in its cage

The Strokes, “Heart in a Cage”

“I’ve gotta admit I’m looking forward to Valentine’s Day,” said Karen,

“Oh, yeah?” asked her therapist, Dr. B.  “But you were just telling me how you two haven’t been getting along.”

“Yeah, I know,” Karen answered. “But no matter how bad it gets, there are certain times that we manage to put all that aside and act like we really love each other. Well, Valentine’s Day is one of those times.  It’s been like that for years.” 

“Our best and only hope is to learn from our own and others’ experiences.”Grant

People who think of themselves as inveterate drinkers sometimes refer to big “drinking days” like St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Eve, as “amateur night,” because people who don’t usually do a lot of drinking sometimes use those days as opportunities to get plastered.

Valentine’s Day is kind of a similar set-up for people who are ambivalent about their romantic partner, or are unsure about how far they want it to go. Valentine’s Day provides an opportunity to test the waters and see  what it might be like if we allowed the intimacy and vulnerability of our partnership to become every-day life with that person. But why do some of us—like Karen and her partner—allow themselves those opportunities only on “amateur night”?

“I’ve already hired the babysitter, and Don’s made dinner reservations.” continued Karen. “I bought some new sexy undies, and Don even got a Viagra prescription.”

We’ve had more than one reader who has told us half-kiddingly that the best way to achieve sexual abstinence is to get into a committed relationship. Whether or not the evidence is only anecdotal, we often find ourselves in conversations with people complaining about the disappearance of the sexual excitement they felt in the first weeks and months they were with their partner.  What happened, they want to know, to the “be-still-my-heart”— and other excited body parts? 

“What have we been buying off if we show love to our partner only on the ritually prescribed day?”Daniel

“So,” asked Dr. B, “What’s it like when you two ignore your issues and act like you’re crazy about each other?”

Karen lit up. “It’s strange — but it’s great!  After long periods of wondering if our relationship is going anywhere, or even if we want it to, we end up having a terrific time together. I don’t know how it happens, but we even reconnect with the sexual thrill we had at the beginning. Every time!”

A single blog post isn’t going to unravel this riddle for everybody who identifies with Karen. But Karen and Don have found a way, year after year, to return to their excitement with each other from when they first met. So the question is, why do people who have lived together for years still protect themselves from one another? What is so scary about being together that it has pushed intimacy almost completely out of their lives? They still feel the chemistry, but keep it carefully locked away except on limited, carefully managed occasions.

Clearly, sex isn’t the problem: when they reconnect sexually, they’re thrilled to be with one another all over again. The implication is that keeping sex at a distance is a way of keeping other, more scary parts of closeness at arms’ length.

The “protective device” used to keep us at a safe distance from how much we like and want each other is what the authors call, “irrelationship”.  And it works. In fact, it works so well that it ends up protecting us not just from the vulnerability we’re afraid of, but also from the exciting and fulfilling parts of intimate relationships.

Karen was starting to become excited. “Every year we ask ourselves again, ‘Why don’t we do this more often?’ Because it’s amazing every year, every time. But for me it doesn’t stop there. In fact — I’ve never told Don this — I have fantasies all the time about just being with him. I don’t just mean sexually, although obviously that’s part of it. But I mean just being excited to see each other at the end of the day, like it was when we first met.  Believe it or not, I can feel that excitement right now. But somehow, it would be so embarrassing to tell him that.  Even right after making love on Valentine’s Day. Why is that? And how do I tell Don about this? Can I? Do I dare?” 

“We can have Valentine’s Day every day!”Mark

After a pause, Dr. B said, “I don’t know if you’ll dare or not. But if you do, be prepared for something a lot more intense than your annual Valentine’s Day sexcapade. When you let yourself take even a baby-step outside that once-a-year safety zone, you might be starting out on something a lot more exciting than anything you ever dreamed you could have. Wouldn’t it be a shame not to find out?”

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