10 things I learned about sex, desire, and relationships from Esther Perel’s ‘Mating in Captivity’

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I picked up Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity after watching her poignant TED talk about how to sustain desire in long-term relationships. (If you want a Cliff’s Notes version of the book, watch the talk below).

Perel is a psychotherapist with more than 20 years of experience with couples, particularly that of the much-maligned sexless marriage.

As someone who has been told repeatedly about the dreaded “lesbian bed death” that befalls lady-lovin’ ladies, it was refreshing to be like, SEE? WE ALL HAVE BED DEATH.

Aside from this vindication, here are 10 other useful and interesting tidbits I gleaned from Perel’s book.

1. Humans are contradictory

We crave both the stability and familiarity of a long-term relationship AND we also crave novelty, thrill, and excitement.

“We find the same polarities in every system: stability and change, passion and reason, personal interest and collective well-being, action and reflection (to name but a few). These tensions exist in individuals, in couples, and in large organizations. They express dynamics that are part of the very nature of reality…. You can’t choose one over the other; the system needs both to survive.”

Knowing this, can we have our proverbial cake and eat it, too?

2. Yes! But to do that we must avoid having too much intimacy with our partners

Meaning that we should strive to be separate, independent people. (We should be doing this anyway, but it’s very easy to lose oneself in a relationship, to MERGE, to be enmeshed, and so on.) Broadly, this can translate to “have a life.” It’s a basic but powerful premise, and one that we are prone to forgetting.

“Where there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek.”

Also: “Fire needs air.”

3. Seduction and eroticism rely on mystery and the unknown

To that effect, we should never forget that we don’t “own” our partners. Even after years or decades together, we can never entirely know all there is to know about our partners, how they will react, what they think or want.

As Proust writes: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Our partners are most desirable to us when we can see them in new lights. How charming they are at parties. How entranced they seem when they do something they love. How alluring when they are in their element. To stoke the fires of desire we should strive to see them with “new eyes” whenever possible.

4. Fantasies are like dreams — not to be taken at face value and certainly not to be judged

How many hours I’ve wasted analyzing my fantasies, wondering what they MEANT, and questioning my identity when they didn’t align with my belief systems or (god forbid) my politics.

So, it was refreshing to hear Perel’s interpretation.

“Like dreams and works of art, fantasies are far more than what they appear to be on the surface. They’re complex psychic creations whose symbolic content mustn’t be translated to literal intent.”

An erotic fantasy isn’t like a daydream. Perel uses the example of wanting to go on a vacation to Tahiti. There’s a pretty good chance you actually want to go to Tahiti if you’re daydreaming about it.

With sexual fantasies, though, it’s best to not judge them literally. For one, because judgment and criticism are huge boner killers. And for two, what we fantasize about doesn’t necessarily translate to what we actually want.

Just because you get off while thinking about being hogtied by a bunch of cowboys doesn’t mean you want to act that out in reality. It might mean that you get off on submission, on losing control (while still being in control), or on vulnerability. The cowboys are just a prop in the theater of your mind.

5. The myth of spontaneity

Culturally, we talk a lot about how good sex is spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment, an “it just happened!” kind of deal. But Perel argues that sex in long-term relationships must be intentional.

This doesn’t mean putting 8==D ({*}) in your Google calendar on Thursdays at 10pm each week (necessarily), but that you DO need to have a plan.

Otherwise life gets in the way.

In other words, if sex is a priority, then make it a priority!

6. Good sex requires selfishness

“Erotic intimacy is an act of generosity and self-centeredness, of giving and taking. We need to be able to enter the body or the erotic space of another, without the terror that we will be swallowed and lose ourselves. At the same time we need to be able to enter inside ourselves, to surrender to self-absorption while in the other’s presence, believing that the other will still be there when we return, that he or she won’t feel rejected by our momentary absence.”

A lot of women (myself included) feel burdened by the need to be GIVERS, to focus not on our own pleasure but the pleasure of our lovers. Sometimes to the extent that we often don’t even know WHAT gives us pleasure in the first place.

And yet, it’s hard to ask for what you want, let alone take it. It’s important to remember that a little selfishness can go a long way.

7. Define the nature of your relationship on your own terms

This kind of blew my mind.

Brazilian therapist Michele Scheinkeman, on monogamy: “American culture has great tolerance for divorce—where there is a total breakdown of the loyalty bond and painful effects for the whole family—but it is a culture with no tolerance for sexual infidelity.”

Perel adds: “We would rather kill a relationship than question its structure.”

I think about this A LOT in my own open-ish relationship. What beliefs do I have about relationships that aren’t necessarily true? Am I just blindly following the dominant sexual or social model because that’s the norm? What does an ideal relationship look like?

The book doesn’t have answers to these questions, but sometimes it’s startling to think about how much we do because other people have told us that’s just how things are done.

8. Stay curious

“When we resist the urge to control, when we keep ourselves open, we preserve the possibility of discovery. Eroticism resides in the ambiguous space between anxiety and fascination.”

Jeanette Winterson says something similar about passion in (unsurprisingly) The Passion:

“Somewhere between fear and sex, passion is.”

I like the idea that of desire existing in the liminal spaces between negative emotions and positive ones.

9. Eroticism is a kind of intelligence

“It is an intelligence that celebrates ritual and play, the power of the imagination, and our infinite fascination with what is hidden, illicit, and suggestive.”

And like a muscle, it needs to be cultivated and tended to.

When was the last time you allowed yourself to be truly playful? In sex, in life? I took this as a reminder that life is an adventure, not a burden.

10. What couples who want to maintain desire for each other should aim for

“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 their romance, it’s 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.”

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