Mating in Captivity takes on tough questions, grappling with the obstacles and anxieties that arise when our quest for secure love conflicts with our pursuit of passion. She invites us to explore the complicated union of monogamy and sexual desire. She also explains what it takes to bring lust home. Sexual excitement doesn’t always play by the rules of good citizenship. It is politically incorrect. It thrives on power plays, unfair advantages, and the space between self and other. More exciting, playful, even poetic sex is possible. Still, first we must kick egalitarian ideals and emotional housekeeping out of our bedrooms.
About Esther Perel
Esther Perel is a psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author. She is fluent in nine languages, runs a therapy practice in New York City, and serves as an organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies. Perel’s TED talks have more than 20 million views. Perel is also an executive producer and host of the popular podcast Where Should We Begin?
Why the Quest for Security Saps Erotic Vitality
“Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?”– Esther Perel
Humans naturally seek security. Subsequently, the majority of humans commit to long-term monogamous relationships. This decision is made based on the security associated with this relationship rather than our sexual drive. As well as having a propensity for security, we also have an equally strong drive for adventure and excitement. However, security and excitement are challenging to combine. Hence, humans struggle to lust with the same person that they seek comfort and stability. Importantly, Esther Perel explains that it is not impossible.
It is easy to see that as security increases in a relationship, desire often fades. Hence, desire often fades as relationships lengthen. Perel describes how there are two standpoints where people can stand in a relationship. Either people are romantics who desire intensity and adventure over stability or realists who value security over passions. However, people are often left disappointed on both ends of the spectrum. Healthy relationships often require a degree of both desire and security.
Perel believes that love and desire are not mutually exclusive. Still, they do not generally take place at the same time. The reasoning being that security and passions are separate human needs that are underpinned by different motives.
Perel says that the reality of intimate friction is entirely unsurprising given the recent evolution of modern social support systems. For many of us, the ideas of extended family and a close-knit community have been all but dismantled. In its place is a more anxious, transplanted independence. Intimacy has become overburdened with unrealistic expectations. We expect our partners to be passionate and sexual, but we also expect them to adopt several other roles. We expect them to provide us with creativity, intellectual discussions, psychological advice, stress-busting, caregiving, and work management. These things are fantastic to have in a partner, and everyone is entitled to their own set of needs and desires. However, nobody is going to be perfect at everything. If you believe your partner should be perfect, you will struggle when your partner decides to behave in a way that is true to their authentic self. The sense of safety that you’ve manufactured becomes threatened, and you will react with negative emotions. If you drop your ideas of perfection, you can create a sense of independence within the relationship. You can provide your relationship with the space to exhale and grow organically.
Love Seeks Closeness, but Desire Needs Distance
“Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected. Love is about having; desire is about wanting. An expression of longing, desire requires ongoing elusiveness. It is less concerned with where it has already been than passionate about where it can still go. But too often, as couples settle into the comforts of love, they cease to fan the flame of desire. They forget that fire needs air.”– Esther Perel
Intimacy and sex are often associated with being physically close to somebody. However, Perel explains that separateness is what encourages connection. This includes emotional separateness. For example, we generally choose partners whose strengths match our vulnerabilities. Subsequently, intimacy can become associated with a concern for the wellbeing of the other person. This leads to safe sex. True sexual excitement relies on a degree of selfishness rather than focusing all your efforts on your loved one’s wellbeing. To start bringing lust home, you need to re-create the distance that initially led to your passionate and intense sexual encounters. Perel describes erotic intelligence as being all about creating distance, then bringing that space to life with excitement and adventure.
Desire is energized by the distance between two people. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the novel, the mysterious, and the unexpected. Love is about having, desire is about wanting. Desire requires ongoing elusiveness.
Talk Is Not the Only Avenue to Closeness
Couples are often told that communication is the key to a relationship. Although this might be the case for certain parts of the relationship, it is certainly not the case for desire. Perel explains that too much communication, openness, and vulnerability can place strain on the relationship. If you are continually demanding entry into your partner’s thoughts, your intimacy has become intrusion rather than closeness. Perel compares this to coercion. Hence, she recommends that you do not feel you have to talk about everything with your partner.
Some people will struggle with the idea of not knowing everything their partner is thinking. This struggle will be associated with the fear of losing control. However, sexual fantasy should always transcend moral and psychological constraints. Therefore, you have to let go of control over your partner’s thoughts and give them space to build passion.
One example of partners giving each other true freedom is allowing the other partner to play with roles. Eroticism is the gateway back to freedom, and role-playing removes all forms of control. Your partner is choosing who they want to be in the bedroom.
So, try to control your desire to know every little detail about your partner and their past. If you love them, let them breathe. Too much transparency could be harmful.
Desire and Egalitarianism Don’t Play by the Same Rules
Desire is often associated with feelings that are not generally associated with love, such as aggression and jealousy. The capacity to contain aggression is a precondition for the capacity to love. We must integrate our aggression rather than eradicate it. Aggression as a human emotion cannot be purged from human interactions, especially not among those who love each other. Aggression is the shadow side of love. It is also an intrinsic component of sexuality, and it can never be entirely removed from sexual relationships. In contrast, domesticated sex is meant to be fair, equal, and safe. This is not true passion and will leave couples bored of their sexual interactions.
Traditional gender norms of women being creatures of love and men being creatures of sex have changed. Now, both types of traits are accepted in both genders. However, love and sex speak different languages. Traditionally, relationship therapists would recommend couples should improve their relationship to improve their sex life. Perel argues that this is incorrect. Both dynamics can be sources of conflict, but they are not directly related. For example, power, control, dependency, and vulnerability are often sources of conflict with love. However, within the bedroom, these are desirable and allow the body to be eroticized. Sex should be playful and not abide by the same rules as your loving relationship.
Sex is Dirty, so Save It for Someone You Love
Sex can be very messy. During college, coupling becomes very common. However, what people were searching for was an opportunity to discover themselves through exciting experiences. Sex should be responsible and integrated. Perel explains that pleasure flourishes in the context of relatedness. Therefore, as well as providing a deep love, you also need to provide basic care and appreciation for the other person you are having sex with. Because of the added requirements of good sex, it is better to save it for people you love.
How You Were Loved Shows How You Make Love
How you were loved as a child has a significant impact on making love as an adult. However, you do not have to be controlled by your past. Perel suggests that understanding your past can help you change your present for the better. She describes erotic intimacy as the adult version of hide and seek. There is a thrill of hiding, which is then followed by the relief of being found. However, as your connection grows stronger with your partner, you can then become braver at stretching the time before you are found. In secure relationships, you will learn that you know you will eventually be found, no matter how long it takes. Additionally, in a loving relationship, we also understand that our partner will be waiting on our return and will not punish our selfish pursuits. This analogy outlines how important it is to maintain our sense of self. Being unavailable to our partners provides a protective limit. It prevents you from becoming so close to your partner that you fear entrapment or a loss of self. If your partner loves you, they will allow you to have this space.
Perel applies this to our childhoods. Children want to explore the world from a young age. Children who know they have their parents’ security when they return will often explore more and for longer. When the child feels they need to return to security, they return to a sense of emotional safety. If your primary caregivers abandoned you as a child, you might anxiously attach due to a fear of further abandonment. Suppose your primary caregivers criticized you or placed a lot of responsibility on you as a child. In that case, you might avoidantly attach due to a fear of further entrapment.
These behaviors of discovery and safety-seeking fluctuate throughout our entire lives. Therefore, there will be times when you are more willing to take risks. Plus, other times where you feel you need the security of your loved ones. To be happy as individuals and as a romantic partnership, these oscillations must be allowed. If your partner suggests they want to move away for a few months to explore the world, then you should not stop them. They are just being true to themselves. Providing them with this freedom will allow your relationship to flourish when they return.
Perel outlines that for a lucky few couples, this integration of responsibility and adventure is effortless. They can buy a home and be naughty in it too; they’ve got coziness and a little edge. But for most couples, seeking both safety and excitement is a tall order and takes effort.
The dynamics we had with our caregivers build our unique, personal framework of intimacy. These early bonds determine how much we can love, how much love we want, how we receive love, how we express love, our fears, and our expectations. This subconscious bundle of “me” is what we wrap up and exchange with our partner and hope that as these mysterious little packages unravel, things work out. Sometimes they don’t, and that is fine. As long as you learn more about yourself and grow from the experience, then it is positive.
Parenthood Can Threaten Desire
Adding children to your relationship comes with obvious complexities and new dynamics. The love we show for our children is unconditional and powerful. This can mean that our relationship with our children becomes an all-consuming affair. When a child arrives in a couple’s life, a redistribution of resources is required. More often than not, this redistribution will involve there being fewer resources for the couple. Specifically, less time, communication, sleep, money, freedom, intimacy, and privacy.
Parenting books tend to focus on routine, predictability, and regularity as integral to being a good parent. Children need a secure base to start exploring the world around them. Subsequently, parents have to become steady and dependable. This steadiness is at-odds with everything eroticism relies upon. Perel explains that sex and eroticism rely on vibrant creative energy. This energy is being used elsewhere to help raise a child, leaving little for your sexual relationship.
Although having a child can make eroticism difficult, there are some ways you can minimize the impact of parenthood on your sex life. Firstly, Perel recommends that couples cordon off an erotic territory for themselves. Additionally, being in a habit or pattern can lead to seeing your partner as your children’s caretaker rather than your lover. To overcome this, Perel recommends using safe objectification to encourage eroticism. Parents are often worried that their adult sexuality will damage their kids or that it is inappropriate. However, curbing your desires can lead to them disappearing altogether. Plus, if we are inhibited around our partner, our children will leave a life of inhibition.
The Erotic Mind Provides a Direct Route to Pleasure
The erotic mind is full of sexual fantasies. Perel describes sexual fantasies as any mental activity that generates desire and intensifies enthusiasm. To generate sufficient desire, your thoughts should be graphic and well-defined. Additionally, these sexual fantasies do not necessarily need to reflect reality. This is not the real thing, but instead a simulation. You do not even need to hope that this thing will happen in real life, and they should not be translated into literal intent. Perel describes these fantasies as poetry rather than prose.
Fantasies, just like pornography, can involve overly simplified versions of people. Emotions, opinions, and personalities are generally significantly simplified during these fantasies. This allows the fantasy to highlight what turns a person on. We should avoid inviting other people into our erotic mind, though. If your partner does not receive your fantasies well, this can have a devastating effect on your relationship. On the flip side, another person recognizing and accepting your fantasies can be powerfully affirming. The most crucial purpose of sexual fantasies is to understand better what we are seeking sexually and emotionally.
Recognizing a potential third in a relationship can ensure that each partner does not take the other for granted. Understanding that our partner will be attracted to other people adds spice to relationships. It reminds you that you do not own your partner. Additionally, accepting your partner’s freedom within a relationship means they will be less inclined to seek it out. Specifically, talking about this potential attraction to other people can contain these desires’ volatility and appeal. We are less inclined to keep secrets if we can tell the truth safely.
Perel describes acknowledging the third as validating the erotic separateness of our partner. We do not own our partner, and this psychological distance can allow us to see our partner’s beauty through the eyes of a stranger. On the other hand, if you do not allow your partner freedom, it will be harder to produce desire within your relationship.
Fidelity, as a mainstay of patriarchal society, was about lineage and property. It had nothing to do with love. Today, particularly in the west, it has everything to do with love. When marriage shifted from a contractual arrangement to a matter of the heart, faithfulness became a mutual expression of love and commitment. The focus is always on the object of love, not on our capacity to love. We think it’s easy to love but hard to find the right person. Once we’ve found the one, we will need no one else. Some affairs are acts of resistance. Others happen when we offer no resistance at all.
Bring the Erotic Home
Esther also explains how there’s a spectrum of sexual expression that should be embraced. There is dominant and submissive, selfish and generous, ruthless and civil, objectifying and worshipping, fast and slow. Investigating each of these will inject a sense of unpredictability and adventure into your intimacy.
“For [erotically intelligent couples], love is a vessel that contains both security and adventure, and commitment offers one of the great luxuries of life: time. Marriage is not the end of romance, it is the beginning. They know that they have years in which to deepen their connection, to experiment, to regress, and even to fail. They see their relationship as something alive and ongoing, not a fait accompli. It’s a story that they are writing together, one with many chapters, and neither partner knows how it will end. There’s always a place they haven’t gone yet, always something about the other still to be discovered.”– Esther Perel
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