The Habit That All Healthy Couples Have in Common

Relationships that cultivate "secret gardens" go very, very far

A woman watering plants.
You deserve your own secret garden. We explain.
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“When there’s nothing left to hide, there’s nothing left to seek.”

That’s relationship expert Esther Perel, the godmother of “erotic intelligence” theory, opining on the interplay between domesticity and desire in her 2006 book Mating in Captivity.

For Perel — who has also hosted podcasts and given TED Talks — finding ways to retain individuality within the scaffolding of a relationship is critical for developing healthy, long-term intimacy. We initially fall in love with someone because they are their own person, she points out. They’re separate from us.

But that individuality collapses as we ease into the safe doldrums of daily living. That otherness starts to seem so scary, relative to the security and stability we believe we’ve perfected. The heft of Perel’s POV? Stability is important, sure. But it’s also boring. Where’s the spark? The mystery? The chase?

She concludes: “Everyone needs a secret garden.” Each half of a couple should actively pursue and protect something that is physically or spiritually theirs.

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Who Are You?

Perel’s secret garden CTA sounds intimidating at first. But it can be extremely liberating. Squint your eyes and try to remember — who were you before you met your partner? What did you like best about yourself? What did you like to do? Have you lost touch with that thing, whatever it is, over years of cohabitation (and perhaps codependency)?

It’s become somewhat of a cliche for freshly single adults to suddenly enrich and optimize their routines; with all this new time, plus a host of gnawing insecurities, they join a gym, take cooking classes or plan a solo trip. But it’s possible — and Perel argues, instrumental — that people carve space for these adventures within the context of their existing relationships.

Some Concrete Examples

Don’t think too hard. You know what you like to do. And though it shouldn’t be the determining factor, your significant other likely has a level of respect and/or fondness for whatever that is. You would’ve been doing “it” when you first met, after all.

Think hobbies, skills, classes, fandoms, yearly travel pilgrimages, volunteer pursuits. Anything that gets you out of the house, that spits you back energized and inspired upon your return. Ideally, this secret garden would involve a physical third place, where you can go to exchange ideas informally with someone other than your partner. It would indoctrinate you into a community that exists beyond the borders of your home or apartment.

Go at It Alone, Together

A key to remember: secret gardens are best cultivated on two-way streets. If only one significant other is exploring and protecting their individuality — with engagements or even new friends, in kind — the other may grow steadily envious or irrational. So from the outset, partners should work together to identify and seek out the things they love to do on their own. Then they can date each other (yes, just like the old days), and fill the other in on how whatever it is — running, chess club, community college coding class — is going.

This replaces jealousy with wonder. It puts mystery back into the relationship, and energy back into that relationship’s conversations. Dinner deserves more than chatter about work, kids or Twitter. Perhaps the first date verve is a unicorn, lost forever to honeymoon yore. But it’s possible to bring eroticism back into a relationship, one hobby at a time.

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