Unlocking Erotic Intelligence – How to Keep Desire and Passion Alive in Long-Term Relationships
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Esther Perel’s Perspective
Esther Perel is a Belgian-born psychotherapist who specializes in couple therapy in New York City. Perel is fluent in nine languages and serves as an organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies. Perel’s TED talks have more than 20 million views. She’s a New York Times bestselling author and is also an executive producer and host of the popular podcast “Where Should We Begin?”.
StoryShot #1: The Quest for Security Undermines 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, Mating in Captivity
Humans naturally seek security. As a result, most humans commit to long-term monogamous relationships. We often make this decision 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 impossible.
It is easy to see that desire often fades as security increases in a relationship. Hence, desire typically fades as relationships lengthen. Perel describes two viewpoints 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 both desire and security.
Perel believes that love and desire are not mutually exclusive. Still, they generally do not take place simultaneously. The reasoning is that security and passions are different human needs that are underpinned by different motives.
Perel says intimate friction is unsurprising, given the recent evolution of modern social support systems. For many of us, the idea of an extended family and a close-knit community has 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 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 needs and desires. However, nobody will 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 breathe and grow organically.
StoryShot #2: 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, Mating in Captivity
Intimacy and sex are often associated with being physically close to somebody. However, Perel explains that separateness is what encourages connection. This includes emotional separation. For example, we generally choose partners whose strengths match our vulnerabilities. Later, we may associate intimacy with a concern for the other person’s well-being. This leads to safe sex. Genuine sexual excitement relies on a degree of selfishness, rather than focusing all your efforts on your loved one’s wellbeing. You need to re-create the distance that initially led to your passionate and intense sexual encounters to start bringing lust home. Perel describes erotic intelligence as creating distance and bringing that space to life with excitement and adventure.
The distance between two people energizes desire. Intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, but repetition numbs eroticism. Eroticism thrives on the novel, the mysterious, and the unexpected. Love is about having. Desire is about wanting. Desire requires ongoing elusiveness.
StoryShot #3: Communication 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 strain a relationship. If you continually demand entry into your partner’s thoughts, you will turn intimacy into intrusion rather than closeness. Perel compares this to coercion. Hence, she recommends that you should 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 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 chooses 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.
StoryShot #4: Democracy Doesn’t Belong Between the Sheets
We often associate desire with feelings that are not generally associated with love, such as aggression and jealousy. The capacity to contain aggression is a prerequisite 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 we can never entirely remove it 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 with 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 strengthen 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, these are desirable and allow the body to be eroticized in the bedroom. Sex should be playful and not abide by the same rules as your loving relationship.
StoryShot #5: Sex is Dirty, so Save It for Someone You Love
Sex can be very messy. During college, casual sex becomes common. Still, what people search for is an opportunity to discover themselves through exciting experiences. Sex should be responsible and integrated. Perel explains that pleasure flourishes in the context of relatedness. So, on top of deep love, you also need to show basic care and appreciation to the person you’re having sex with. Because of the added requirements of good sex, it is better to save it for people you love.
Some people are critical of Perel’s argument that mating in captivity can be healthy. They don’t find the argument to be coherent, and they believe it is an excuse for bad parenting. It can even be argued that Perel’s acceptance of aggression in the bedroom may lead to domestic violence in some cases.
We rate Mating in Captivity 4.2/5.
How would you rate Esther Perel’s book?
EDITORIAL NOTE: The content was first published in 2020. It was updated in December 2021.
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the book is very interesting and encouraging. It gives out the plain facts in a sexual relationship.
will need a copy
We can’t agree more. Thanks for your comment, Kenneth! Feel free to let us know what your favorite insights are.