“Mating in Captivity”: Esther Perel’s Views On How We Partner

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, author of Mating In Captivity

Several years ago I attended, along with many more colleagues than I usually see at local conferences, a presentation by Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence (2006). An experienced couples therapist, she brings both insight and humor into her analysis of the challenges of long-term relationships. Now she’s completed a TED talk, which is available at the end of this post.

But first, some of her thoughts from her book and past interviews…

That Too-High Bar for Modern Relationships

In an article from Salon, 9/26/06, Perel expands on one of her main points: “Relationships are crumbling under the weight of our expectations. We want marriage, companionship, economic support, family life — and then on top of that we want our partner to be our best friend, confidant and passionate lover. For a long time the idea that passion and marriage could go together was a contradiction in terms. Marriages were about economic criteria. When you chose your mate, or somebody chose your mate for you, sex did not enter into the equation.”

Sex Enters the Equation

Now, of course, sex does enter the equation—and usually as part of the dating process. It’s also frequently a factor in whether or not to continue the relationship. The following is excerpted from Jesse Kornbluth‘s interview with Perel, reprinted in The Huffington Post:

JK: Bill Maher says that when you’re married, you need a cue to have sex.

EP: There is no sex without a cue. People who date have their cues at home, before they meet. You think about where to go, what to eat, what to do and say. Sometimes the cue is short — just before we reach the bar — but sex is never just spontaneous. Spontaneity is a myth.

JK: The Daters may not know that. The Marrieds do. And I’m sure a great many of them believe that marital sex is a loop, a movie they’ve lived before — and they get nostalgic for the yes, yes, yes of dating.

EP: In dating, if you say no, your lover goes on to the next person. In marriage, if you say no, the person stays. The attraction of dating is that you don’t take yes for granted — you’re fully engaged, there’s seductiveness, tension. In committed sex, in marriage, people don’t feel the need to seduce or to build anticipation — that’s an effort they think they no longer need to do now that they have conquered their partner. If they’re in the mood, their partner should be too.

Loss of Desire: When Couples Come to Therapy

How does Perel treat couples in which waning sex is an issue? From the second chapter of Treating Sexual Desire Disorders: A Clinical Casebook, edited by Sandra R. Leiblum (2010): “‘Love is about having and desire is about wanting.’ This is the major observation that guides Esther Perel’s therapy as she works with couples complaining of loss of desire.”

She observes that lack of desire does not necessarily reflect a disordered relationship and that erotic ruts are part of being a loving, caring couple. She lays out a paradox: the very ingredients that nurture love are often the ones that erode erotic passion. Perel turns the usual therapeutic approach on its head with this suggestion: first improve the sex, an improved relationship will follow.

The New TED Talk: “Mating In Captivity”

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