Many of the couples who sit on my couch have a few important things in common. Lots of them are long-established couples, having been together for many years. Almost all of them are leading busy lives — juggling their careers, family obligations, social lives, and trying to find a little “me time” amidst it all. And many of them report that one of the ongoing struggles of their relationships is trying to find their way to each other in the intimate part of their connection. I frequently hear complaints about lack of sex, bedroom boredom, and physical disconnection… and this is almost always part of a broader context of disconnection and distance in a relationship between two people who seem to want each other, but sometimes aren’t sure how to find each other. So many couples ask me if this is normal. My answer: it’s common. And then I share my campfire metaphor.
Imagine yourself out on a camping trip, just arriving at a fresh new campsite. You’ve never camped here before, and there’s much to explore. When you go to build your campfire, it’s really easy to do — there’s wood and kindling everywhere you look. You can barely take a step without tripping over something that will help get your fire going. When you build the fire, it’s a wondrous thing to behold–a dynamic, dancing creation that crackles and pops and consumes everything it touches.
This is like the early phase of a new relationship. As we explore and discover a new partner, it’s easy to get excited and turned on by all of the novel things that we’re uncovering as we get to know a new person. When we come together physically, we’re captivated by the headiness of that new experience, of learning what it will be like to touch, kiss, and be close to a new partner. The fire is hot, and we want to sit as close to it as we can. It consumes our mind, our imagination, our bodies.
Now go back to the campsite. This time, imagine that you’ve been camping there for some time. Not just a few days — I mean like you’ve been camping there for months or even years. All that time, you’ve been keeping that same fire going. Over time, it’s become harder and harder to find things to add to the fire to get that dynamic popping thing going again. All of the handy kindling that peppered the campground when you first arrived has been used, and now you have to work a lot harder to find things to throw on the fire. Sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves and take a hike in the woods to find the right piece of wood or enough little sticks to make a difference.
You see where I’m going here. In my metaphor, the above is a relationship with a long-time love. You’ve settled in and decided to stay a while, and your campfire is functional, but sometimes you miss those exciting flames that used to be there. It’s kind of a bummer to have to hike out to find kindling — you wish it were easier. You’ve figured out how to keep the fire burning all the time, but sometimes that low flame or smoldering pile of ash is a little bit boring.
But–and this is important–that fire is a lot of other things, too. It’s calm, it’s consistent, and it’s safe. It’s useful — you can do things with it that you couldn’t do with the big popping dynamic fire–cook on it, for example, or sit close and warm your hands without having to breathe in a bunch of smoke. That fire burns in a campground that has become your home. You know where the water source is and how many minutes it will take you to get there. You know which berries you can eat and what time of day the deer come through. That predictability has become a source of comfort, and you can relax at this campsite more than you ever could have done when you first arrived.
This is true of your long time love, too. Your relationship is largely calm, consistent, and safe. It’s useful in a lot of ways. It can do things that it couldn’t do when it was new–see you through a job challenge, make lasting and collaborative decisions about parenting and finances, and give you the security to be fully who you are and know you will be loved and accepted by your partner.
And as for that big popping fire… with some intention and effort, it never ceases to be possible.
Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, LMFT, provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both our downtown Bethesda, MD and Sterling, VA offices. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Lindsey.