From Cage to Erotic Den: Esther Perel’s ‘Mating in Captivity’

Sex is a state of grace.
In a cage it can’t take place.
Break the cage, then start in and try.
-D.H. Lawrence 

Esther Perel, a licensed psychotherapist  specializing in intercultural relationships, delves into the question of maintaining passion in long-term relationships. She sees the challenge here as one of fostering the closeness that intimacy and domesticity require, while maintaining some distance, a space in which the spark of eroticism can thrive. It’s hard to ‘tolerate this void” that’s so necessary to an erotic relationship because space brings uncertainty and love and desire for safety really struggle with the uncertainties that distance brings to light.  Paradoxically, welcoming mystery and unknowing is more honest  than attempts to support a relationship by creating certainty through knowledge – “when we trade passion for stability, are we not merely swapping one fantasy for another?” The “fantasy of permanence” and the “fantasy of passion” are both products of our imaginations.

Mating in Captivity blows the lid off of the thought  prevailing  amongst relationship therapists, advice professionals, and probably even your friends. Some ideas that raised my eyebrows and make me think:

Sex and relationship quality are separate things, even if they interact sometimes

  • “Sexuality is more than a metaphor for the relationship – it stands on its own as a parallel narrative.” Both narratives have their ebbs and flows and the changes that happen in one area, don’t necessarily correspond with those that happen in another.
  • when they do interact, they often do so differently  than expected: closeness does not always lead to better sex – sometimes you find the opposite
  • You can ‘fix’ your relationship and still have unfulfilling sex.

Sex and love are often at odds

  • attachment and love want to create safety and safety kills eroticism. We need to unselfconsciously objectify our partners in order to create desire and the “caring, protective elements that foster love” block our ability to do this.
  • “There is no such thing as ‘safe sex,'” she writes. Sex requires mystery, excitement, uncertainty. Which means not knowing everything about your partner.
  • one way to combat this is through what she calls ‘dynamic safety’ – the kind of safety that occurs amongst lovers brave enough to fight and make up and to allow their relationship to be characterized and strengthened by the experience of varying levels of closeness as well as multiple breaches and repairs.

Talking ≠ Intimacy

  • importance of body language – “the body often contains emotional truths that words can too easily gloss over”
  • making talk and intimacy through talk the most important part of a sexual relationship actually restricts the ways in which people can express themselves sexually – it reinforces the idea that women should only experience sexual desire in the context of relatedness, rather than as something purely carnal and for its own sake. This also leaves physical ways of voicing tenderness, longing and connection underdeveloped.
  • constant sharing doesn’t leave an opportunity for curiosity,inquiry and discovery. You can self-disclose without really being intimate.

A pervasive theme in Mating in Captivity is digging deeper into our experiences of sex than conventional wisdom encourages us to do. Perel sees little value in the oft-posed question of ‘how often,’ and is even disinterested in sex per se. Rather, she focuses on eroticism, which she defines as “sexuality transformed by the imagination.” “This book” she writes “speaks to the poetics of sex, the nature of erotic desire and its attendant dilemmas.” Creating a fulfilling sex life here is really about each person in the relationship developing themselves as erotic beings.

One area in which Perel seems to agree with other relationship/sex manuals is the necessity for busy couples to schedule sex. But she goes deeper than that, questioning whether most people’s insistence that spontaneous sex is better sex is really about shame and not owning up to the profound and large presence that sex has in the lives of most adults.
Whether or not the specific examples or solutions she presents are applicable to you, Perel explains the principle behind these solutions so that everyone can gain insight from her clients’ experiences.This is not a how-to book of ridiculous exercises you can practice to rekindle the passion you once knew. The major piece of advice is for each person to figure out what sex means to them and what they want in their sexual lives, then negotiate that with their partners.
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For those interested indiscussiong Mating in Captivity on December 8th at Foam (check the calendar for details), the following collection of   quotes might be helpful for stimulating thought and discussion. Hope to see you there!

“Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?” (xiv)
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“The very dynamics that are a source of conflict in a relationship-particularly those pertaining to power, control, dependency, and vulnerability-often become desireable when experienced through the body and eroticized. Sex becomes both a way to illuminate conflicts and confusion around intimacy and desire and a way to begin to heal these destructive splits” (xvi)
*
“I suggest that maybe the waning of romance is less about the bounds of familiarity and the weight of reality than it is about fear. Eroticism is reisky. People are afraid to allow themselves theses moments of idealization and yearning for the person they  live with. It introduces  a recognition of the other’s sovereignty that can feel destabilizing. When our partner stands alone, with his own will and freedom, the delicateness of our bond is magnified.” (12)
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“Neutralizing each other’s complexity affords us a kind of manageable otherness” (13)
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“Faced with the irrefutable otherness of our partner, we can respond with fear or with curiosity. we can try to reduce the other to a knowable entity, or we can embrace her persistent mystery.” (18)
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“If love is an act of imagination, then intimacy is an act of fruition. It waits for the hight to subside so it can patiently insert itself into the relationship. The seeds of intimacy are time and repetition. We choose each other again and again, and so create a community of two.” (21)
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“When people become fused – when two become one – connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex” (25)
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“Reason, understanding, compassion, and camaraderie are the handmaidens of a close, harmonious relationship. But sex often evokes unreasoning obsession rather than thoughtful judgment, and selfish desire rather than altruistic consideration. Aggression, objectification, and power all exist in the shadow of desire, components of passion that do not necessarily nurture intimacy. Desire operates along its own trajectory.” (31)
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“Love is about having; desire is about wnating.” (37)
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” . . . intimacy isn’t monolithic; nor is it always consistent. It is intermittent, meant to wax and wne even inthe best relationships” (51)
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“Withouth denigrationg those historically significant achievements, I do believe that the emphasis on egalitarian and respectful sex –  purged of any expressions of power, aggression, and transgression – is antithetical to erotic desire for men and women alike” (58)
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“But the fact is, is that negotiating power is part and parcel of all human relationships.” (62)
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“I am keenly aware of the disparities of power that pervade our society, and not a day goes by when I am not witness to the real fallout of intimate violence. But I also know that aggression, as a human emotion, cannot be pured from human interactions, especially not among those who love each other. Aggression is the shadow side of love. It is also an intrinsic component of sexuality, and it can never be entirely excised from sexual relationships” (69)
*
On hook-up culture and anonymous sex:
“Far  from being the last word on free love, all this bravado belies an underlying unease. I wonder to what extent this kind of hit-and-run sex is actually a defense against sexual discomfort, in much the same way that taboo-ridden avoidance is a defense.” (96)
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“The body is our mother tongue – our mediator with the world long before we speak our first words.” (112)
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“It takes two people to create a pattern, but only one to change it.” (120)
” . . . the absence of sexual desire, when it is mutual, is not necessarily an indicator of dissatisfaction. There are lots of ways to be happily committed, and not all of them include sex.” (135)
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“In order to feel safe, kids need to know that there are limits to their power, and to what is surreptitiously asked of them. They need us to have our own loving relationships, in whatever form they take. When we are emotionally and sexually satisfied (at least reasonably so; let’s not get carried away here), we allow our children to experience their own independence with freedom and support.” (142)
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“In my own practice, I’ve come to view fantasy as a valuable imaginative resource, whether it is cultivated by individuals or jointly by couples. The ability to go anywere in our imagination is a pure expression of individual freedom. It is a creative force that can help us transcend reality. By giving us an occasional escape from a relationship, it serves as a powerful antidote to loss of libido within the relationship. Simply put, love and tenderness are enriched by the spice of imagination” (155)
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“I question the widespread view that infidelity is always a symptom of  deeper problems in a relationship. Affairs are motivated by myriad forces; not all of them are directly related to flaws in the  marraige. As it hapens, plenty of adulterers are reasonably content in their relationships.” (184)
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“Armed with an ideology of love that advocates togetherness, we are awkward about pursuing autonomy. This is expecially true of the individuality of our desire. . . I’m talking about a sexual self that is discrete, that generates its own images, responds to others, and is delighted when it gets turned on unexpectedly.” (191)
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“Marriage has become a matter of love; love is a matter of choice; and choice implies renouncing others. But that doesn’t mean the others are dead. Nor does it mean that we need to deaden our senses so as to protect ourselves from their allure.” (198)
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“I’d like to suggest that we view monogamy not as a given but as a chooice. As such, it becomes a negotiated decision. More to the point, if we’re planning to spend fifty years with one soul – and we want a happy jubilee – it may be wiser to review our contract at various junctures” (199)
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“Eroticism, intertwined as it is with imagination, is another form of play. I think of play as an alternative reality midway between the actual and the fictitious, a safe space where we experiment, reinvent ourselves, and take chances. Through play we suspend disbelief – we pretend something is real even when we damn well know it is not. Earnestness has no place here.” (217)

 

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