Marta Meana watches from the back of the room when her husband, a professor of literature, gives talks.
"It's amazing how attractive that is to me," Meana tells journalist Daniel Bergner in his new book, What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, which charts the latest science of what is, by all accounts here, a vastly underestimated force.
Gazing at her husband from afar helps Meana see him the way a stranger might. For her, that's hot.
Meana, a scientist and couples counsellor, urges her patients to seize on moments like this, to view their spouses "apart" from their relationships. Another of her tips to women: Arrive at your dates separately – the way you probably did when you first started seeing each other.
Perhaps we've gotten it wrong on the couples therapy couch.
Visiting with pioneering sexuality researchers (many of them Canadian) and conducting in-depth interviews with women whose libidos had lagged in long-term committed relationships, Bergner controversially posits that women's desire may dissipate more quickly than men's – monogamy might be more of a cage for wives than for husbands.
He argues that we've falsely assumed women need emotional intimacy and safety to spark and then maintain their lust in monogamous relationships. Laughing over the phone during an interview, Bergner says that women "are a lot more like men, if not more like men than men are, maybe." Ultimately they might need distance – not closeness – to reignite their loins, just like men apparently do.
Both of Meana's tactics are "tricks of disentanglement" designed to inject some of the mysterious stranger back into your by-now-very-familiar spouse, Bergner explains. Such techniques are on the frontlines of new therapeutic approaches that seek to refuel marital libido by re-instilling psychological distance – not emotional intimacy – in relationships. When it comes to keeping desire alive in monogamous long-term unions, researchers are beginning to question whether modern couples therapy has overemphasized closeness, communication and empathy. While such traditionally touted values may improve day-to-day relations, it's not necessarily what turns a woman's crank.
"Bad relationships can kill desire, but good ones don't at all guarantee it," writes Bergner, distinguishing between that which is "prized in life" and "most potent" in bed.
If not folded laundry or tender pillow talk, what does it for women long-term? Being hungrily desired, suggests Meana, who as president of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research is now researching how distance stokes lust in long-term couples.
"We tend to be taught about emotional intimacy and we hear a lot about help around the house, help with the kids," Bergner says. "But I listened to the therapists and they were cautioning strongly that helpfulness and emotional intimacy are just not the main keys to keeping desire going."
The new thinking involves trying to see your partner as someone outside your relationship would see him. This is not about novelty efforts that see couples engaging in ziplining to shake up the daily slog, but a "rearrangement of expectations," as Bergner puts it. While partners are naturally still encouraged to caringly support one another, they're also being nudged away from constantly seeking out personal affirmation and unconditional love – and toward a model that's a bit less cozy.
"The longing to depend, to be propped up and protected, was given too much power," Bergner writes in the book, pointing out that the lustful beginnings of our relationships are often far less cushy and certain.
"For many of us it was at a time in our relationships when we were not so sure of our partners," he said. "It might have been after the very beginning, but we certainly weren't slipping into assumption. We were still in a place where that other person was an Other."
Bergner said that while infusing your marriage with some distance and uncertainty can sound "tricky and paradoxical" – if not daunting – "that path is what we're going to see more of as therapists talk more and more honestly."
Distinguished thinkers in the field of female desire such as like Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, agree that too much intimacy may actually be nuking sex in marriage – that while "love seeks closeness, desire needs distance." And Marriage Confidential author Pamela Haag has lamented the passion-zapping effects of the modern friendship marriage.
"The good news in 21st-century marriage is that we're marrying our 'best friends.' The bad news is that we're marrying our 'best friends.' Best friends aren't lovers," Haag said via e-mail.
Haag believes today's couples overemphasize the partnership aspects of their relationships, getting too open when they constantly use "intimacy as disclosure" – they've lost "a healthy sense of estrangement from each other."
"It's the maintenance of some mystery or inscrutability about the partner because that fuels desire."