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 may have 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.
That’s the reason why I think America is more tolerant of divorce than of infidelity. Because divorce basically says, you hurt me, I am wounded, and therefore I will dissolve our relationship. And the relationship is seen primarily as one between two individuals. The more traditional you go, the more people’s sense of self is embedded within a larger network of connections. And therefore to dissolve the marriage isn’t something that you are just doing to the two of you, you’re doing it to your children, to your parents, to your larger network. And it’s in the name of that network that sometimes you will keep things together.
I think America sometimes has a romanticized or overly vilified view of how other societies deal with infidelity. I was in Argentina recently and one of the strong markers of social change at this point is female sexual infidelity. Because it is the challenge to traditional male privilege and status quo. It’s happening en masse, it’s a social phenomenon. It’s a way to do away with the double standard. As women gain economic independence and no longer want to just suffer through, basically they cheat as a marker of emancipation and autonomy and power. But it is seen as a social phenomenon, not as a private, individual, or couples matter only. And that’s what’s interesting. Infidelity has many meanings and in this particular context, infidelity has a social change meaning.
America is the only country where infidelity really can become a matter of national political agenda. It really has another meaning, it’s very interesting. Why more than other topics this is the one that gets the blood boiling? More than other forms of betrayal. After all, people betray each other in multiple ways.
So is putting sexuality or desire at the center of relationships a bad thing? Would we be better off tying relationships to property dealings, or something else external and concrete?
The problem is not just that we put sexuality at the center of our committed relationships, we put it at the center with tremendous ambivalence. America has a very ambivalent attitude about sexuality. It goes back and forth between repression and excess. Between abstinence campaigns and gluttonous over-sexualization. It tells us that sex is dirty, keep it to the one you love. It’s makes sexuality important in ways that are not necessarily positive.
This is a complex question and I don’t know that I have one or any definitive answers, it’s something I’ve really pondered. Laura Kipnis in her book Against Love talks about this a great deal and very thoughtfully.
I do think it has something to do with the importance of marriage. America is the western country where people marry the most at this point. Americans marry. They divorce and then they remarry. And most Americans at this point will have two or three marriages in their adult life. And some of them will do it with the same person.
And then I wonder if it has something to do with the idealization. In one way you could think that people who divorce are the disillusioned. But in a way you can think that they are the true idealists. They’re the ones that think, I chose the wrong person, next time I’ll choose better and really find someone with whom I can have everything.
The concept that you can have everything with somebody, and that if you don’t it’s because you didn’t work hard enough, that it’s a matter of will and hard work, set your mind to it. That pragmatic view defies the fact that maybe some things are not achievable or they are intermittently achievable. There’s a real idealism here about marriage and relationships.
Can I ask you a bit about your training. I was interested to see that you have a background working with traumatized populations. Are there things you bring from your trauma training to couples sex therapy?
When I work with traumatized populations, and in the community that I grew up in, which was a refugee community, I always thought in some way there were two groups of people: those that didn’t die, and those that came back to life.
Those who didn’t die were those who often lived tethered to the ground, with all their energies invested in seeking security and safety and not being able to trust and often not being able to enjoy or to experience pleasure and certainly their children often struggle to experience pleasure without guilt.
Those who came back to life were those who had been able to reconnect with a sense of vibrancy, of aliveness, of creativity, of playfulness. Those who were able to once again leave the base, like the child who jumps off your lap to run into the world to explore and to discover and to experience their freedom. And those people had an ability to show me how you maintain a sense of aliveness and vitality and erotic energy.
When couples complain about the listlessness of their sex life, they sometimes want more sex, but they always want better sex. And the better sex that they long for is to reconnect with that quality of aliveness and vibrancy and exuberance. With the sense of renewal and connection and playfulness that sex used to afford them. I see couples who have sex, the act, but what people want is to reconnect with the eroticism of sex, with the poetics of sex, and that’s very different and that’s why I’m much more interested in looking at eroticism than at sexuality per se.
Eroticism as an antidote to death. As a way that people fight deadness inside themselves and inside their relationships, in their life. And how they maintain that sense of aliveness and how sexuality plays into that. And when you work with traumatized people that distinction is very clear.
I’m really interesting in that re-living, that reconnecting with aliveness because I think that that’s what people long for in their lives and their relationships. If you want to link it to infidelity, I think that’s one of the prime reasons people go to experience relationships outside of their own. It’s to beat back that sense of deadness that has creeped in on them.
Because when you have an affair, by god you feel alive. Not that it’s the right thing to do, but it is definitely a moment when you feel in touch with life. I don’t think it’s the only way to get there, but it’s that connection to sexuality to the erotic energy that I’m more interested in.
The way that people cultivate pleasure for its own sake, the way that people can step out of their roles as mom and dad and husband and wife and responsible citizen and maintain a connection with this other more transcendent dimensions of life. And that you find in the erotic. And the erotic is not just in sex, you can find it in nature and in art, but not much of it tops sexuality.
So the obvious question is, how can you cultivate desire in relationships? How can you keep that sense of aliveness?
When people ask “how do you get that” the image that comes to mind for me is of the little child who sits on your lap, cozy, nested and secure and at some point, if all goes well, they get up, and they run to see what else is out there in the world to discover, to experience their freedom. And at some point they will turn around and look at you and they’ll see how you respond. They experience at the same time closeness and separateness, connection and freedom.
What happens in adult relationships is that often people end up sapping the freedom and the separateness in the name of a kind of connection and safety that is illusory at best. And they sap the very erotic vitality out of their relationships. At first they welcome the unknown. That’s how they met. But then they start to find the same dimensions at home, threatening. Now they don’t want surprise. And they slowly start to create something that is more fixed and flat, more safe, more secure, but also more boring. And they complain of marital boredom.
All couples couple struggle with intermittent disappearance of desire. But those who have the spark are those who know how to resuscitate it. It’s about surprising the other person, maintaining an interest. Ask your lover questions that your friends would be asking, questions that make them interesting rather than just chit chatting about the nitty gritty of the everyday all the time. It’s about relating to them as a person that you don’t yet know. And not because you’re pretending you don’t know them, but because you actually welcome the unknown, the persistent mystery of your partner, and that you don’t pretend like you actually know them like the inside of your pocket.
I think a lot of people assume it’s inevitable that intimacy or great sex is going to fade in long-term relationships.
Yes, the question is, why doesn’t good intimacy guarantee great sex, contrary to what we’re being told. For one thing, maybe it’s not lack of closeness that stifles desire, but too much closeness and the familiarity that is inherent in intimacy. Maybe the caring and protective elements that nurture love and the way that love flourishes in an atmosphere of mutuality and reciprocity are the very ingredients that block the unselfconsciousness and freedom that is needed to experience desire with the one you love.
It would not have been difficult for me to write a book about people who can’t stand each other, don’t communicate, and therefore don’t have sex. What was interesting was that I have all these couples come to see me saying, we have a great relationship, we love each other very much, we have no sex. They say, I know he loves me but it’s been years since I’ve felt wanted. And they know the difference. These are good relationships with caring, loving, and good intimacy, and they don’t experience desire. And it’s not because the lack of desire is a consequence of a breakdown in the relationship. Actually it’s paradoxically an unanticipated consequence of this wonderful intimacy they created.
Can you talk about some of the other things that you think lead to a breakdown of desire?
I was reading a study that looked at why people in the U.S. don’t flirt. You know how we don’t look at each other (which by the way is a comment that every foreigner who arrives here asks). And it’s a few different things. On the one hand there’s a notion that if you look at people you are intrusive; you don’t respect their privacy. On the other hand it’s this notion that in this pragmatic, goal-oriented environment, people don’t feel comfortable with the imponderables and the ambiguities of attraction and desire. They think you flirt when you want to start something. You don’t just play for play's sake. In this country you don’t play very often without a goal -- to win, to improve your health, to improve your taste buds.
Doing something that doesn’t have a goal or result attached to it is not highly valued in the American context. I’m talking about pleasure for its own sake, playfulness for its own sake. And flirting is playing with possibilities. It’s teasing. It’s playing with the tip of the sword to use the etymological meaning of the word. It’s never about scoring. It’s just about playing with what could be, what won’t be, what you don’t even know if you’d want to be, but that you’d love to think about could happen.
That’s the erotic; sexuality transformed by our imagination.
We’re the only ones that can make love to someone in our head for four hours, have a wonderful time, and touch nobody. Because we have the imagination. And a central agent of the erotic act, of eroticism, is the imagination. And that’s what goes away, and that’s when a breakdown of desire often occurs.
Are you talking about sexual fantasy?
It isn’t necessarily sexual fantasy. It means circumventing reality. When you think of sexual imagination people instantly think of sexual fantasy. And when they think of fantasy they often have a narrow definition of the word, it is scripts, roles, costumes. Every talk I give I’ll have someone say to me “I never fantasize” and then proceed to give me a whole description that’s pure fantasy.
Can you talk a bit about the role you see communication playing in both nurturing and dampening desire in long term relationships?
Talking has become the definition of intimacy. And it’s a certain kind of talking that is very Western, in which I talk to you about myself and you are going to be an empathic, validating listener who is going to reflect back to me and in that moment I will feel that I matter and I will transcend my existential aloneness. In this way love becomes this panacea against a life of increasing isolation and a bulwark against the vicissitudes of everyday. That is a very Western way of talking about intimacy and it’s also a definition where people are more alone. They may be more free, but they’re also more alone.
Communication is crucial but people communicate in multiple ways that don’t always have to do with talking. And when we come to the realm of intimacy or sexuality maybe we could say that the first mother tongue we have is our bodies; our touch, our gestures, our eyes. In the domain of intimacy we can say that we, at least, have to be bilingual, if not multi-lingual. If the definition and need for intimacy has become paramount in our relationships, the way we conceive of it has drastically narrowed. No I think we must communicate, but we can communicate in many ways, and when it comes to sexuality the body is a prime language for communicating love, tenderness, connection, dependency, infantile wishes, sexuality, all of it.
We must communicate, that’s a given. But there’s this notion that talking is no longer an option, it’s a mandate. It’s a mandate to share. And the notion that that kind of sharing will actually lead you to desire is an assumption, it sometimes does. But sometimes there’s so many other ways that people feel close or turned on or interested or intrigued or excited.
As you’re talking I’m thinking about the women like Betty Dodson who situated sex in the body, but also made it political, saying that orgasms can set you free. From your perspective we’ve gone far off those rails. What do you think happened?
I think there were two movements in feminism. There was a movement that focused primarily on abuses of power when it came to sexuality. It focused on male privilege and double standards and sought to rectify these abuses and inequalities. But it didn’t focus much on sexual pleasure, it focused on sexual power. And the movement that focused on sexual pleasure, in some way became the secondary one. Ultimately women focusing on sexual pleasure still yielded a certain amount of suspicion and fear that has always been there. Which is why female sexuality has been controlled so often, and in every civilization.
I wonder when people say women want security and men want lust. If women were so secure and homebound why has every culture sought to control their sexuality so much? Nothing has scared people more than the unleashing of female pleasure and female desire. But when it came to the American context, a few things happened. First, that a focus on pleasure took a second role, and also the emphasis was on similarity with the men. It wasn’t a model of complementary, it was a model of equality and similarity. Quite different from the European model. And in that it became a consciousness raising movement, but one that brought women together to discuss matters of women but it didn’t necessarily lay the institutional foundation so that women could have equal chances while being different.
The European countries made less of a consciousness raising movement, but they created a whole host of institutions and social structures that allowed for maternity leave, that allowed for affordable childcare, stuff that would allow women to be women, to be mothers, to be different and to have equal chances. And once you have that complimentarily model then you don’t have women going to work in suits, or women who are trying to neutralize their sexuality when they are at work. The way that it takes place in the American context. You can be smart and pretty and not experience it as a contradiction and you don’t experience a compliment someone would give you as a way of trying to lessen your intelligence. You think it’s part of what you are.
I want to go back to a topic you’ve touched on and comes up often in your book, and that is monogamy.
It’s interesting because my book was about desire not about monogamy. But often that’s the subject people want to lead me to.
There are times when it seems like you’re pretty pessimistic about it.
People always ask me, are you promoting [non-monogamy], because I don’t condemn it flat out. Because I tried to say lets look at this more thoughtfully, let’s try to understand it. We can have a whole conversation about monogamy, but it’s another subject and then we’d have to really go into the layers of it, not simply is it good or bad, am I for or against it.
I don’t think that’s the right way to approach this. Either we really try to understand, why do people cheat, why do people breach, why do they act against their own convictions sometimes. What’s the lure, the vulnerability, what are the complexities. Or we take a categorical stance and we let many sound families, good, caring, loving families, fall to pieces.
So you don’t think monogamy is untenable?
No, not at all. But I think it’s a choice and it needs to be negotiated. You know for most of history monogamy had nothing to do with love. Once it became a matter of love it switched from an imposition on women to a dual gender conviction. And once it becomes a conviction and an expression of commitment, loyalty, emotional engagement and sexual exclusivity it becomes a matter of negotiation rather than an assumption.
Most people in heterosexual relationships assume monogamy and they negotiate it with themselves privately. But all couples need to negotiate boundaries. Any kind of boundaries, and monogamy is the mother of all boundaries. I am not the person who is going to recommend to people what they need to do. Nobody needs a therapist to tell them what to do.
But I do think that when you see what is being done around monogamy you wonder if it doesn’t behoove people to at least think that maybe in the course of a long-term relationship their relationship will have more than one structure. That’s all. And that sometimes very good marriages end that didn’t necessarily need to end.
I don’t mean to sound dense here, but are good relationships the ones that last, or the ones that end?
When I start a couple’s workshop I ask people to show with their hands a model of what they consider is a good relationship. Without words, just with hand motions. And we all have a certain model in our head. We come with a certain template. I have them as a person and as a therapist. And that template will probably influence how I evaluate certain relationships. What I think is a good relationship or a good couple, one that I admire or that inspires me. But that’s totally personal. As a therapist I don’t need to be inspired by people, I need them to connect with their own inspiration. So what inspires me is their desire to change.
And change doesn’t mean they stay together. I respect people’s quest for passion, I respect people’s quest for meaning, and I respect their quest to not suffer in vain. I respect people’s generosity, desire to care for others, need to connect with others. And I think sometimes you connect well with someone for a period in your life and then sometimes you move on.
I used to think you move on because what you had wasn’t good. Now I think of it more in terms of life stages. Some people will accompany you through certain stages and not necessarily into the next one. That doesn’t mean you have to trample everything that you had. What you had was probably good for the time you had it. And there’s going to be a lot of relationships where couples raise kids together and may not necessarily stay together afterwards. We tend to look at that as empty nesters who are unable to reconnect. But maybe they actually were couples who knew that a long time ago but they decided they were good as a family and that this was the thing they would do together for the next twenty years.
And that is what I think is going to happen more and more, that people will have more than one marriage in their lifetime. And they will have periods in their life where they feel passionate or erotic or sexual and periods in their life where that can be very dormant.
So while we’ve been busy trying to increase intimacy in our relationships, intimacy may be one of the things leading to their demise. Does this mean we should stop making intimacy the measure of a good relationship?
First of all, it’s a very western, romantic idea of measuring relationships. And it looks at intimacy as if there’s a thing called an “intimate relationship” or a “non-intimate relationship.” I think there are relationships, and there are moments that are deeply intimate and moments that are not.
Intimacy is not a quality or an attribute, it’s an experience that you have with other people. And you can have it sometimes with people that you aren’t close with for that matter. You can have deep intimate moments with strangers. But I don’t use it as a sole measurement. I think what you want to know is do you have moments where you are intimate. Do you connect? Do you feel seen by each other? Do you feel respected by your partner? Do you feel admired, appreciated by your partner? Do you feel your partner cares about you in a special way? Do you raise your children well with your partner? Do you play well with your partner? Do you work well with your partner?
We have to let people define the state of their union and what they long for. And the fact is that they may long for something now, but what they had before may have worked very well before. In partnerships that split, they often had a good relationship for the time that they were together, there’s no need to erase everything.
What do you think about the notion of sexual compatibility? How does it play into keeping desire alive in a long term committed relationship?
Yes, I think that people find partners that have greater or lesser compatibility with and that may happen in the sexual arena. Of course the person you have greater sexual compatibility with may not be the same person you have emotional compatibility with. The two sometimes exist separately.
I liken it a lot with musicians who can enter a groove together. You may have people who play music together and just click, they have a similar way of playing, they are attuned to each other, they appreciate each others style, they respond to the sensitivity of the other. They like each others fingers and touch, they have a good sense of how the other person moves that speaks to them and moves them.
But it’s not something that is static. You can start off playing with somebody and after a while you can realize, we have really gotten to know each other and anticipate the other better and have a sense of where the other one likes to go, and that becomes a further compatibility. It’s always something that grows, so it can grow from a lot to more, or from less to more. But I do think there are people who don’t have it. I have worked with couples who are wonderful, and great together, but not sexually. They really do not have a good fit. They want very different things, they’re drawn to very different things, and the choice that they made to be together was not a sexual choice, it was a relational or emotional choice, a life partner choice. And they find themselves in a complicated predicament because they realize that they are with the person with whom they can really make a life together but it’s not necessarily the person with whom they are going to have a good erotic connection with. And they have often had much better partners with whom they’ve had a great erotic connection, but they didn’t see themselves making a life with that person.