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Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence

A Review of Esther Perel's Mating in Captivity

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Updated May 26, 2008

Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence

Cover image: Harper Paperbacks

Reviewed: Perel, E. Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2007.



As adults trying to navigate our way through our sexual lives, we often make the mistake of confusing the abstract and the concrete: We cling to the belief that our complicated sexual dilemmas are really just concrete problems that can be solved with permanent solutions to be found in the newest pill, or pithy words of wisdom flowing from our TVs.

Mating in Captivity, the international best seller by couples therapist Esther Perel, manages to simultaneously knock this belief on its ass and offer readers a new way of thinking through what one reviewer called “the most time-honored institutions in human history: the sexless marriage.”

In Mating in Captivity Perel sets out to understand what happens to lust (or in her formulation, eroticism) in long-term relationships. Where does it go, and can it be found again? The result is not only an engaging rumination on love, sex, and commitment, it’s a thoroughly practical book that belongs in the hands of anyone in a long-term committed relationship who is wondering about how to keep lust alive. It’s a book not of short-term fixes, but of tools for the long term, with insight as subtle as the problem is complicated.

The book succeeds on many levels. It hones in on a specific problem so many can identify with: How come great intimacy doesn’t always lead to great sex? and uses that problem to plumb the depths of the human psyche and the breadth of existential angst. But as interesting as the content of the book is, it’s Perel’s style that engages the reader and makes this something other than a treatise on marital dissatisfaction.

Arguably the most powerful aspect of Perel’s style is her ability to convey non-judgment. Whether it’s her therapeutic training or her disposition (I suspect it’s a bit of both) Perel writes from a place of deep respect for her reader, and from this flows empathy and a lack of judgment that one feels on every page. This safety is felt by the reader and returned with a kind of emotional engagement unusual for books of this genre.

Perel also leads by example. She outlines what she sees as some of the problems with modern relationships. One in particular is our belief that we fully know our partner and that there is nothing new, no mystery, left to discover. She explains that while this may satisfy our need for security (a known lover is one that will never surprise us by leaving) it completely stifles the erotic spark that comes from the mystery of the unknown. She encourages us to talk with our partners as if they were still people we don’t fully know, not as a way of pretending, but in order to genuinely acknowledge the distance between us. This sense of mystery and unknown is exactly how Perel treats her reader and their relationships. At no point does this book pretend to have all the answers or know all there is to know about our relationships. Instead it celebrates the mystery of each relationship and engages in a passionate detective game, trying to understand what we bring to our relationships and how we make them tick. In many ways it is the author’s enthusiasm that keeps the reader moving through the book.

About the Book:

Mating in Captivity is definitely not a typical self-help book. There are no quizzes, no workbook exercises, and no twelve steps. Instead each chapter considers a different aspect of modern committed relationships and how it both frustrates and stimulates eroticism in our relationships. Some issues covered include:

  • Why good intimacy doesn’t always lead to good sex
  • The challenge of balancing security and adventure
  • How we rely on some kinds of communication and ignore others
  • The problem with goal-oriented relationships
  • Our conflicted values about sex
  • How our upbringings impact our adult relationships
  • Sexual fantasy
  • Fidelity and monogamy
  • Sexual experimentation inside a relationship

Perel works carefully to make sure the reader is with her every step of the way, offering relevant examples from her work with clients who are all struggling to maintain eroticism and intimacy.

The book also serves as a useful reality check on modern relationships. Instead of offering us the moon, Perel reminds us that it’s unrealistic to think we will be happy with every aspect of our relationships every moment of our lives. She reminds us that desire naturally ebbs and flows, and that just as we grow, so do our relationships, sometimes in unexpected ways.

I recommend using the book first as inspiration for your own introspection. Keep a notepad with you while you read it. Pay attention to the parts that seem to grab you the most (and those parts that you want to skip over but you don’t know why). It can also be a great way to start a conversation with your partner about some aspect of your relationship.

For all its strengths and potential, Mating in Captivity will not satisfy all readers. I believe the book will speak best to readers currently in relationships. And though the dilemma of the sexless marriage is construed as universal, it feels more like an issue for people of a certain age and a certain class. Finally by demanding much of its reader Mating in Captivity is not a book for anyone hoping for easy answers and it may be a few steps ahead of readers who lack the ability to self-reflect.

The Bottom Line on Mating in Captivity

Mating in Captivity is highly recommended both for people who are struggling to find great sex and intimacy in their long-term committed relationships and for anyone interested in re-imagining the possibilities and meanings of long-term relationships.

By not only acknowledging but embracing the contradictory nature of modern intimate relationships, Esther Perel offers readers something far more important than a temporary distraction or quick fix solution. She shows us that, though they may not give us everything we desire, long-term relationships still have a lot to offer us in terms of knowing ourselves and those we love.

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