115: Creating Relationship Satisfaction – Dr. Sara Nasserzadeh

Dr. Sara Nasserzadeh is a global thought leader in psychosexual therapy, couple counseling, and social psychology. A former member of the International Federation of Journalists, Dr. Sara combined her journalism experience with her expertise in sexuality and relationships, to host a program called Whispers for the BBC World Service. The show received the BBC’s Innovation of the Year Award in 2007 and continues to gather Farsi-speaking viewers around the world. In 2007, she earned the World Association for Sexual Health runner-up award for Excellence and Innovation for her human development work. Harper’s Bazaar named her as one of the Best Love Doctors, and DatingAdvice.com named her one of the 10 Best Sex and Dating Experts in 2015.  

She is the author of three books in English: Orgasm Answer Guide, Sexual Health Needs and Preferences of Young People, and Wheel of Context for Sexuality Education. Recently, she developed the Emergent Love model as an antidote to Love Confusion and the design of a validated inventory called the Relationship Panoramic Inventory to help couples assess and develop their relationships. Her personal and professional life is defined by her goal of creating world peace one relationship at a time. 

Types of Love 

Dr. Sara explains that there are several types of love. Eros is the passionate, romantic love we usually think about. Philia is the affectionate love we feel for family members. Storge is friendship love, Ludus is game-playing love, Mania is possessive love, Pragma is practical love, Philautia is self-love, and Agape is selfless love. She suggests listeners take the Love Attitudes Scale test to find out what types of love show up in their relationships. In her practice, she found that a lot of couples who scored highly in the Philia aspect of their relationship came to her with the statement, “I love my partner, but I’m not in love with my partner.” Dr. Sara believes that it’s useful to be aware of these different types of love, as it can clarify the fact that people truly do love their partners, even if their current love feels different than it did initially.  

Dr. Sara’s contribution to the realm of love and sex is making the distinction between submergent and emergent love in relationships. Submergent love happens when two people need to spend a lot of time together and are over the moon when they’re with each other, she tells us, and emergent love is the developed, calmer love that comes after partners know each other better. 

What if You Don’t Feel Butterflies when They Walk in the Room? 

Dr. Sara explains that Helen Fisher researched this infatuated, honeymoon period of love and found out that it lasts, on average, two years. According to Dr. Sara, this early, submergent stage is something to build up the relationship from, not an experience meant to be sustained indefinitely. She also mentions that submergent love isn’t necessary to create a fulfilling romantic relationship, and people shouldn’t feel bad for not feeling that way about their partner. Many people she consults worry because they don’t feel butterflies or intense passion, and it makes them wonder if they’re supposed to feel their love in their heart and ‘just know’ if a person is right for them. Dr. Sara shares her distinction between submergent and emergent love helps people better understand these foundations of love “it is something you do, not something that happens to you that you have no control over.”  

Five Ingredients of Emergent Love 

Dr. Sara spent time studying 312 relationships to discern what qualities were important to couples who were not only happy but thriving in their current relationships. The five ingredients that they shared are a shared vision, compassion/empathy, physical attraction, respect, and shared values. This research is where she says she learned that romantic, passionate, submergent love was not necessary, and that even couples who began with that kind of love moved beyond it and developed a different kind of love that John Gottman calls compassionate love. 

Individual Traits Conducive to Emergent Love 

In an attempt to generalize and solidify her findings, she created a study that surveyed 306 US individuals and 159 US couples who rated their relationships from satisfied to thriving. She reports that they had people of many orientations and relationship types, and they controlled for educational level, economic background, and some other variables. She found four levels of identifiers of satisfying relationships, the first of which was individual fundamentals. She teaches us about this first identifier by comparing love to dancing; we dance with partners, but before we can dance, we have to do things like stretching to avoid getting hurt and make it easier to dance. Individual fundamentals are the ‘stretching’ portion of finding love, which she describes as the ability to connect moral values, have positive thoughts and emotions, be present and mindful, have a healthy financial attitude, and be capable of abstract thinking. While some of her clients insisted that if these were the requirements, they could never develop those healthy traits well enough to sustain a healthy relationship, Dr. Sara considers these findings to be a source of hope, because each trait can be improved and developed with the help of a therapist. 

Non-negotiable Traits of Sustainable Relationships 

The next level of requirements she found are dyadic fundamentals, Dr. Sara calls them non-negotiable objects that must exist between the two partners. It’s important to note that these fundamentals can be improved. She lists mutual physical attraction, shared vision, shared moral values, and shared financial attitudes as the necessary elements asserting that financial attitude factor was something she investigated more deeply to discover if it was not having money or merely people’s attitudes towards money that had to be compatible, and the research showed that it was the attitudes that actually mattered. 

Interpersonal Dynamics 

Respect, compassion, love, commitment, and trust are the five aspects of the third dyadic fundamental which she calls interpersonal dynamics. According to Dr. Sara, these are all choices we make on a daily basis. She says we choose to be loving towards others, to be worthy of respect, to be trustworthy, etc., and these choices and actions produce the love, respect, and trust we desire from our partners. She notes that while these are all verbs, and they’re all things we can do, they’re also things that we don’t only do in our relationships, but in the world at large. In other words, they’re also states of being. She clarifies that this is also a hopeful reality because therapists can help people attain those traits as well. 

Relationship Outcomes 

Dr. Sara describes this aspect of emergent love as indicating good results on the individual level. The results she includes are overall satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, better self-care, better sleep, less anxiety, and less preoccupation with their partners and the relationship in general. When people find these traits growing during a relationship, she says people can be certain they’re on the right path.  

Physical Attraction  

Dr. Sara believes that physical attraction is largely socially constructed and thinks it’s important to deconstruct where our attraction comes from, who told us to be attracted to certain things, and how you’re approaching attraction. After you do this, she believes that we can be freed from these preconceptions and be attracted to more traits and types of people. She also emphasizes that it’s important to find yourself attractive so that you don’t project the feeling of being unattractive onto your partner. Once you deconstruct and move past your barriers to physical attraction, she says that once you have physical attraction, you also need sexual chemistry and the ability to move that towards sexual harmony, where you actually work well together physically. 

How Can People Integrate Dr. Sara’s Knowledge into Their Lives? 

Dr. Sara suggests starting with the survey she created called the Relationship Panoramic Questionnaire or the love attitudes scale and taking the results of the surveys to a therapist who will know how to interpret it and help them implement the necessary changes. She also recommends watching The Anatomy of Trust by Brené Brown with your partner, so that you can better understand and build trust in your relationship. 

Resources for Dr. Sarah Nasserzadeh: 

https://bettersexpodcast.com/dr-sara-nasserzadeh-new-perspective-passion 

https://www.sara-nasserzadeh.com 

https://www.bbc.com/persian/tv-and-radio-40532793 

https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/orgasm-answer-guide 

https://eprints.mdx.ac.uk/6278/1/Nasserzadeh-Understanding_the_sexual_health_information_needs…..pdf 

https://www.wheelofcontext.com 

https://relationship-panoramic.com 

https://fetzer.org/sites/default/files/images/stories/pdf/selfmeasures/Different_Types_of_Love_LOVE_ATTITUDES.pdf 

https://jamesclear.com/great-speeches/the-anatomy-of-trust-by-brene-brown 

https://twitter.com/dr_sara_ 

https://www.facebook.com/Dr.SaraNasserzadeh/ 

https://www.instagram.com/dr.saranasserzadeh/ 

More info:
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Jessa Zimmerman

Jessa Zimmerman is a couples’ counselor and nationally certified sex therapist. On Better Sex, she and her expert guests share their insights, strategies, and ways of thinking about sex that will help you improve your intimate relationship.

James Hamilton Healy

James Hamilton Healy is a Best Selling Author, host of Business Innovators Radio and contributor to Small Business Trendsetters and Business Innovators Magazine covering Influencers, Innovators and Trendsetters in Business, Health, Finance and Personal Development.