If I’m looking to build the ultimate passionate relationship, a love affair filled with joy, intensity, loyalty, and desire, a relationship that becomes deeper and sexier as time goes on, then I want to build that on a very strong foundation.
Janine and Ed sought me out because they haven’t had sex in four months. They describe themselves as “best friends.” They text each other frequently throughout the day, sharing updates about kids and chores. When he has a work deadline, she brings a meatloaf sandwich to the office, and when she has menstrual cramps, he snuggles beside her flannel-clad body. But they are friends, not lovers—they have too much intimacy and very little sensuality or thrill. Janine rarely wears anything other than yoga pants, and Ed is more likely to kiss the baby than his wife. Not only is their sexual life at a complete halt, but they don’t even flirt with each other. Janine and Ed need to work on their Passion Triangle.
The passion triangle is the model I use to teach couples how to create lifelong romantic and sexual passion. You want your relationship to be built on a strong, reliable foundation. My friend Ian, who is an engineer, told me that the equilateral triangle is a highly stable structure on which can be built huge, beautiful buildings. It has three equal sides, supporting each other. If I’m looking to build the ultimate passionate relationship, a love affair filled with joy, intensity, loyalty, and desire, a relationship that becomes deeper and sexier as time goes on, then I want to build that on a very strong foundation.
The three components of the passion triangle are:
Thrill: The ineffable sense of excitement, interest, and attraction to your partner that you experienced when you fell in love but that often fades.
Intimacy: A deep sense of knowing and being known that develops over time through shared vulnerabilities and deepening emotional connection.
Sensuality: The spectrum of romantic, erotic, and sexual connection between two people, from hand-holding to wild sexual delight.
If you are like Janine and Ed, you are strong in some areas of the triangle and weak in others. But if you want sustainable passion and connection, you need all three sides to be strong. Now, let’s begin by examining each side of the passion triangle a little more deeply.
Imagine you are seated at a table in your favorite restaurant, waiting for your partner. You’ve just returned from a week away on business, and you have missed them terribly. As you sit there scanning the sidewalk through the window, searching for them among the crush of people hurrying home from work, you feel an edge of excitement. There is an aroused quality as you seek your beloved’s face. And then you spot them, and there is a small rush of thrill in your body and emotions. It’s unsettling in a delicious way. That’s what I’m talking about in terms of thrill.
Do you feel that titillating anticipation of thrill these days? Or are you more likely to watch cat videos on your phone than scan the restaurant for the welcome face of the one you have chosen to spend your life with?
If you rarely, or never, feel thrill anymore, take heart. It’s a big old myth that the thrill can’t last forever. That is simply not true. As an awakened lover, you will learn that even though the thrill does fade for a whole lot of couples, it doesn’t need to be that way for you. It’s not easy, but you can uncover the thrill that you used to feel.
Thrill is always there, shining brightly underneath the routines and familiarity of “Marriage Inc.” You will learn to get mindful and see your partner—and the world—with fresh eyes. Then, what is old becomes new again, in this very moment. And this one as well. You will fall in love all over again, with the one you are with.
When I use the word “intimacy,” I’m talking about deep emotional connectedness and loving friendship. True intimacy is a sense of being deeply known by the other. To be known is to share your secrets, to reveal your best, and also to reveal the parts of yourself you are not proud of. In a deeply intimate relationship, you learn to trust that your partner will love and accept you no matter what. You don’t need to hide the fact that you have vulnerabilities and fears, and that you’re not perfect. In the depth of intimacy, you can be seen for everything you are, dark and light. You don’t have to play a role or pretend.
Real intimacy develops over time and through many shared life experiences. I am not talking about the initial false sense of intimacy you can feel with a stranger. For example, my friend Anna had a fantastic first date with a man. They shared tapas and wine and talked and touched and laughed and then walked by the ocean. She said, “I feel like I’ve known him all my life.” Except she hadn’t. She had known him for four hours. That early sense of connection, while it feels wonderful, is not the real thing.
Your love-song-laden heart projects fantasies onto the person standing in front of you. This creates an intoxicating sense of closeness. The problem is projection obscures reality. What you are feeling is not real intimacy, and it doesn’t last. After the lust chemicals die down, the work of real intimacy begins.
Intimate partners share multiple joys and sorrows. They are in it, to quote the traditional marriage vows, “for better and worse, richer and poorer.” As an awakened lover, you realize your partner is not responsible for your happiness. You make efforts to deepen and refresh the intimate connection between you by paying mindful and loving attention to your beloved as though you are still infatuated. You learn to see your imperfect partner and your imperfect relationship with clarity—and love them more than ever.
Sensuality. What a delicious, fantastic, rich word. For the purpose of the passion triangle, when I say “sensuality,” I mean the entire spectrum of sensual and sexual energy that you feel within you and exchange with your partner. There are untold possible sensual delights. However, if you are like many people in a relationship, your sexual spectrum has narrowed to only a few colors. Perhaps in the beginning, you made love all over the house and nibbled on each other’s toes. And then your thrill slowed down. Life got busy, and Marriage Inc. took over. You know, the routine, tag-team partnership of two jobs, two kids, two busy people, and one neglected lover life. Your sex life became predictable, infrequent, or nonexistent. But you can change that. These teachings of the passion triangle will help you expand your sensual repertoire.
As an awakened lover, you connect with your five physical senses and the sixth sense, which is your mind, in new and powerfully erotic ways in the service of sensuality. You explore new ways of connecting with sensual pleasure and joy, whether that’s intertwining your fingers while you take the dogs for a walk in the woods or sharing an urgent, fast orgasm in the spare room while your family has dessert downstairs. You learn that desire starts in the mind as well as the body. You inhale the scent of your partner’s neck and linger as you savor the taste of their skin. Holding eye contact brings erotic intensity, and you revel in the sound of their sighs as you massage their feet. You delight in the sensual pleasure of touch, from the shiver of fingertips caressing the back of a hand to the neglected art of kissing for hours. Then, once you hit the bedroom, your sensual exploration will range from the sweetest, soul-shaking lovemaking to the hottest, raw sex to tantric transcendence. There are almost limitless ways that two hearts, minds, and bodies can connect in the sensual realm. That is sensuality. This sensuality can be present at orgasm and just as importantly when you are holding hands in the woods, and at every moment you spend together or apart.
Balance Your Triangle for Great Love and Sex
To have a fantastic long-term sexual and romantic relationship, all three sides of the passion triangle are vital. When they are out of balance, your relationship will suffer. You can end up with love but no lust, or excitement without connection. If you’re best friends and intimate confidants but don’t cultivate thrill and sensuality, you won’t have an exciting sex life—you might have pleasantly pedestrian sex, but it’s not going to be passionate. Or, if your intimacy is harmed by conflicts and criticism, you won’t feel thrilled when your partner walks into the room, and you won’t want to make love with them. If you have lots of sensuality but low intimacy—you can only connect through sex, but you hold parts of your heart and mind back, unsure whether you can be accepted fully—you won’t be able to explore the true depths and breadths of your entire sexual self. It takes intimacy to make soul-shaking love and to trust that you can play in the dark depths of your raw desire. Yet when all three sides of the passion triangle are strong—wow. You feel accepted and known, and you feel alive and intrigued, and you are able to reveal your deepest sexual desires. You can let go of inhibitions while remaining deeply connected to your lover and explore your sensual self with freedom and abandon within the safety of love and intimacy.
Now, back to Janine and Ed. I tell them it’s time for them to take action and cultivate more thrill and sensuality. I coach them to send each other one sexy or romantic text a day. Janine tells Ed that she misses the guy who used to sweep her off for surprise dates—the manly, romantic lover under the sweet, gentle daddy. He says he misses seeing her in feminine clothes, looking pretty and sexy. Together they come up with a plan for Ed to court her again—he will plan dates; she will dress up. They pledge to make one night a month an erotic date—they wanted to explore combining emotional intimacy with deep sexual desires. Over time, with commitment, effort, and a sense of play, this couple begins to strengthen the sensuality and thrill in their marriage and uncover the passion under the passivity. They learn that good things come in threes.
Do you want to know where your triangle is currently strong, and where is it weak? Rate yourself on Thrill, Intimacy, and Sensuality by taking the Passion Quiz. You will receive scores and feedback to help you re-ignite great love, romance, and passion. Click here to take the quiz
Sharp, frank, and fearless, that’s Buddhist sex therapist, Certified Gottman Therapist, author, and speaker Dr. Cheryl Fraser. With a rare combination of academic credibility, humor, straight-talk, and life-changing advice, she has helped thousands of couples jumpstart their love life and create passion that lasts a lifetime. She has taught for Tony Robbins and Jack Canfield, appears on countless podcasts, and writes about love and sex for magazines.