Esther Perel is a couples and family therapist and author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. Her book has become an international bestseller (translated into 25 languages in the first year of publication) and she has traveled the world several times over, giving talks and countless interviews about her book and it’s compelling thesis: That our culture’s demands for intimacy in long term committed relationships may be leading to the disappearance of desire from those relationships.
As a speaker and thinker, Perel is passionate, compelling and entertaining. She’s also the kind of person who will never use one adjective when three will do. But this has more to do with her unwillingness to simplify a point than it does with a desire to hear herself speak. Indeed it’s her passion for getting to the bottom of why we are the way we are, which as a therapist is rooted in her work helping people find their own answers and happiness, that lies at the heart of her books success.
Despite a packed schedule, Perel spoke with me from her office in New York about the death of passion, the shaky foundations of monogamy, and America’s obsession with marriage.
Your book delves into the heart of what the New Yorker called “one of the most time-honored institutions in human history: the sexless marriage.” But as I read your book I wondered, is this a universal phenomenon, or a uniquely American one?
When I set out to write the book I wrote it as a foreign therapist exploring American sexuality. I was intrigued by why American society is so intransigent about infidelity and much more tolerant about divorce; when more traditional societies have opted the other way. But when the book got translated, and not just in Western countries, now its China and Japan and Turkey, then I began to think that I did not describe an American phenomenon; I’ve described a Western phenomenon. A phenomenon that entered every society where the romantic ideal has appeared.
These dilemmas of desire and the breakdown of desire in the modern couple is worldwide. It is the prime presenting issue to sex therapists and it is the most intriguing sexual predicament to a generation that has experienced the sexual revolution, that has contraception in their hands, that had pre-marital sex, that has the permission to do what they want, but has no desire to do it, at least not at home, and doesn’t know why.
This generation has sexualized love more than any other, and has put sexuality at the center of marriage and committed relationships. For the first time in history, sexuality in long-term relationships is rooted in desire. It’s no longer a matter of reproduction and it’s no longer a matter of female marital duty. So we’ve switched from duty to sexual desire and we find ourselves with a real crisis of desire. And that’s the worldwide story. There are American specificities, but the dilemma itself is not.
Can you explain what you mean by “dilemmas of desire”?
Well, what is desire about? Desire is about wanting. It’s a drive, it’s a force, it’s an energy. Desire requires a sense of entitlement. That you deserve wanting, that you feel that you are worthy of being wanted. Desire is about self-knowledge, that you know what you want, or what you like, or what pleases you or what makes you feel good.
Desire goes with a sense of freedom. It’s an essential sense of sovereignty. Desire is par excellence, an expression of our individual freedom. You cannot force desire. You can force people to have sex, but you can never force desire. It is a unique expression of our individuality and our freedom. It requires a sense of autonomy.
The book addresses itself to the core issue of what is it like to sustain desire in the long haul. What does it mean when today we have piled up on the romantic relationship an inordinate amount of sometimes contradictory needs? What does it mean to negotiate with the same person our needs for safety and predictability and our wish for the mysterious and the awe inspiring and the exciting? What does it mean to ask one person to give us what once an entire village used to provide? To say I want from the same person grounding, continuity, a sense of belonging and I also want with that same person to experience transcendence and excitement and passion?
It’s not that we’re more insecure than we were before, but now we bring all those insecurities to one person. I want everything I want from committed relationships before, companionship, economic support, respectability, children, and on top of it I want you to be my best friend and my trusted confidant, and my passionate lover to boot.
I find that idea that America is more tolerant of divorce than infidelity fascinating. Of course it seems so true, but why?
I think it has to do with the level of individualism. The more you go to collective societies the more people still understand the concept of multiple attachments and they don’t necessarily think that their partner needs to be the person with whom they share everything, tell everything, they don’t live in a model of transparency that only has on the other side secrecy. You know if you go to the Middle East people will tell you “I don’t talk to my husband, I talk to my girlfriends.”
It’s not that France or other countries promote infidelity. They have the same ideal. But they don’t deal with reality in the way that we deal with it here. I think that the French attitude generally is that if it’s totally discreet and if you protect the family and the honor of your partner then it is conceivable that certain things may happen. And the concept of protecting the family comes before protecting the individual.