Mating in Captivity – Esther Perel
Esther Perel begins her 2006 best-seller by sharing her experiences as a psychotherapist. Did you ever go to a party and ask people about their sex lives? She did. In “Mating in Captivity”, she popularizes the concept of Erotic Intelligence. She also tries to convince couples that they are not the only ones not having sex, if they had a child recently. The first stage of solving a problem is acknowledging it, having a dead bedroom isn’t the death of eroticism. The book is as much about erotic intelligence, as it is about sexual honesty and conflict resolution.
“Mating in captivity” is also about love, as much as it is about eroticism. Specifically, it’s about maintaining desire, or lust, in a long-term relationship. The first step is understanding how desire works, the author explains there are two attributes that need to exist at the same time – surrendering and being independent.
The author rests these two concepts on two terms: togetherness and separateness. Too much of either means the bonds in a relationship will break. Togetherness, merging of two individual so much that their sexual attraction for each other dwindles, makes them feel like there are no more worlds to conquer. Understandably, it quickly makes both participants miserable.
Separateness, on the other hand, is a precondition for connection. If you are still interested in the other, it means you both have inner worlds that you share or discover. Thus, you can build bridges and become connected. And here lies the problem that leads to so many unhappy relations and unfulfilling sex lives: both our need for distance and connection are the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.
The trick in understanding intimacy is viewing it through different lenses. Intimacy is a very new concept in its relation with love.
In a way it is very interesting that modern relationships are a by-product of the economic model, not the other way. We had a suffragette movement, a civil rights movement, anti-war movement and so on. We are used to thinking we can shape the world we live in based on action and determination. With intimacy, we only recently realized we need it, as we lost sight of the way people have been co-existing with each other. In some ways, experts like Esther Perel are working to normalize our relation with the need to be wanted, or loved.
“The advent of industrialization and the subsequent rise of urban living touched off a major shift in social structure. Work and family were separated, and so were we: we became more disconnected, more lonely, and more in need of meaningful contact. In contrast, when people live in close social networks, they are more likely to seek space than intimate dialogue.” p. 40
The book shares the stories of many couples that have passed through Esther Perel’s practice. One of the recurring characteristic of the situations she encounters is that couples with kids hit a roadblock in maintaining the same interest in their love life after pregnancy. A lot of focus is put on couples with children and how that impacts their love life. Love, in this situation, becomes rewarding on an emotional level, but confining on a sexual level.
As it turns out, much of our sexual life is defined by our childhood and our relation with our parents. Or more specifically, on where we grew up, countries having very different experiences and expectations from married couples too.
I enjoying trying to see the big picture, connecting the dots in a way that I can pitch the book to someone in two minutes. I found three over-arching themes throughout the book that explain why things break down in relations. The erotic impasse many couples go through can be viewed in three ways, each a complex concept that explains both the roadblock it leads to and also the way out.
- Otherness – don’t assume because you are in a relationship the other person has to do anything for you. The other person is never yours, don’t take it for granted. The beauty with this concept is that it frames both partners as existing in their own world (the separateness and togetherness concepts). It is also defined as having fantasies that exist because it allows a sandbox where your mind can explore scenarios that may or not happen. The step from acting on them is from the maturity of understanding your own desires. Otherness is also the fidelity part, even though the author doesn’t advice having affairs, she tries to break down the processes that lead to it and explore why it happens. Otherness is healthy, as it can lead to curiosity, embracing the mysteries the other has to offer.
- The boundary between oneself and the other. Eroticism needs freedom and spontaneity, a monogamous relationship, by our very own cultural definition, removes both from it. “Intimacy comes with a growing concern for the well-being of the other person, which includes a fear of hurting the other”, so much that we start amplifying the other persons emotional needs to the detriment of the erotic life. “Sexual excitement requires the capacity not to worry, and the pursuit of pleasure demands a degree of selfishness.” Basically, emotional over-investment to the point that it leads to sexual inertia.
- Objectification. One example of a couple where he was restrained, seeing in his partner only the mother of his children. At this point, the author recommends anything that can introduce a little healthy objectification. Surprisingly, the wife came up with the idea that worked. She told her husband that if he wanted sex, he had to pay for it. For fun, but it turned their sexual lives into a role-playing game that allowed him to see past her caring nature and her role as a mother. A great advice from the book, in regards to solving problems of not being able to address sexual issues with your partners is using separate email accounts for flirting and erotic conversations. Not as a space to work out problems, but a space with limitless boundaries where they can compartmentalize their sex life in order to regain the lust for each other.
“Animals have sex; eroticism is exclusively human. It is sexuality transformed by the imagination. In fact, you don’t even need the act of sex to have a full erotic experience, though sex is often hinted at, envisioned. Eroticism is the cultivation of excitement, a purposeful quest for pleasure.” p. 217