Mating in Captivity
Mating in Captivity
By Esther Perele
There is nothing mysterious when two people in a couple cannot stand one another, and are not having sex. But what about the couples I meet in my practice every day? The ones who claim to love each other as much as ever, who describe relationships that are caring and loving, but they are not having sex — at least not with each other?
After more than twenty years as a couple therapist in New York City, I found myself asking the same questions over and over. Why does great sex so often fade for these couples? Why does good intimacy not guarantee good sex? Can we want what we already have?
In writing Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, my point of view was that of a foreign therapist, observing American sexuality. I grew up in Belgium and Israel and even though I’ve practiced in the United States for twenty years, I remain an outsider in some ways and am able to shed a cross-cultural perspective on American mores. And yet these issues are not purely American. Since my book hit the stands fourteen months ago, I’ve traveled to over fifteen countries. In each new locale, I have been met with packed auditoriums, vibrant with the energy of the unspoken. The buzz has been almost electric, palpable, as time and time again people have jumped at the chance to engage in a dialogue about an unspoken pervasive problem: the sexlessness of the modern couple.
For centuries marriage was a financial and social arrangement, a matter of reason. Marital sex was either a “wifely duty” or it was sex for reproduction. We did away with the loveless marriage and replaced it with the marriage of love and desire. Gone are the old rules, but now we face a new predicament: gone is the sex, full stop.
As I continued to investigate the essence of eroticism in long-term committed relationships, I was surprised to discover that in every corner of the globe, the romantic ideology of modern love and coupledom has left citizens of the world wondering about, and preoccupied with, the dilemmas of desire.
This lack of desire that plagues many couples isn’t picky — it affects everyone. How it is experienced is unique, as is the context in which it occurs. Still, at every turn, couples around the world are chasing the desire dragon. We, the beneficiaries of the sexual revolution, have contraception in hand, egalitarian ideals in our head, and the permission to do what we want. Yet, we don’t feel like doing it — or at least not at home.
Amidst the different landscapes, the similarities among us were magnified. I began to see more and more couples that cultivate closeness, with the expectation that more intimacy will bring better sex. The message is the same; we all got the memo: the more you know the more intimate you become (and you become intimate by revealing every little detail about yourself), and the better the sex will be.
Or will it? My belief is that in order to better the sex, we must first recognize that reconciling the erotic and the domestic is not a problem we can solve; it is a paradox we manage. Reconciling love and desire is about bringing together two fundamental, but opposing human needs. For some people, love and desire are inseparable. The safety, security and trust experienced in love works to unleash their desire. For others, they are more disconnected.
While on the one hand we seek predictability, and stability — these are the promises of the much sought-after committed relationship — our other hand is reaching for more, for mystery, excitement, discovery. Time and time again, it is coming up empty. To sustain desire toward the other, there must be an element of separateness.
Love makes little room for such charged concepts. Whenever I ask people, “What do you think of when you hear the word love?” I am met with countless variations on the same theme: warmth, intimacy, kindness, tenderness, support, care, safety, protection, calm, trust. The answers are quite different when I ask about desire: hardness, heat, power, excitement, a sense of being alive, feeling sexy, hungry, sweaty, tingly, full, energized, driven, abandon, free — and these are the attributes missing from the most loving and closest of relationships. Like fire, desire needs air. Many couples fail to leave each other enough air, confusing intimacy with fusion; this is a bad omen for sex.
Love and desire, they relate, but they also conflict. Love flourishes in an atmosphere of reciprocity, mutuality, protection. Desire is more selfish — and we come with a whole list of injunctions against selfishness in love. Sometimes the very elements that nurture love block desire. The familiarity inherent in intimacy, the comfort we so desperately crave, can extinguish the flame of desire. My work with couples is to elicit strivings, longing, and novelty — to make interesting what is sufficiently available.
And so I ask, “When are you most drawn to your partner?” The answers are never without an element of distance:
When I see him play sports… When she’s unaware I’m watching her… When he is talking with friends… When she’s confidently speaking with a colleague… When she’s standing on the other side of a crowded room, and she smiles just for me… When he’s playing with the kids… When he’s sneaky… When I watch him paint…
These elements we seek, the ones that combined, light the flame of eroticism, exist and thrive in a space I think of as otherness. The best intimacy is the one that respects this otherness. Individuality and difference are accentuated, and you actually see the other person as a separate being. As expressed by the great narrator, Proust, “The true voyage of discovery is not about discovering new landscapes but in seeing with new eyes.” In those moments we stand on opposite ends of this space we see each other with new eyes. Our separateness is what allows for risk, vulnerability, and erotic charge of the unknown.
When we do manage to create space for desire, with it comes an inherent anxiety. In the face of this anxiety we can respond with fear and as a result, close ourselves off from the very thing we crave. We can reduce our partner to a completely knowable entity, and then spend years complaining of boredom.
Or we can respond with curiosity and embrace our partners’ mystery. It is our willingness to engage that mystery that keeps desire alive. Far too often, people sacrifice playfulness and discovery for the illusion of certainty. Instead, why not exchange illusion for fantasy in this mysterious space? Sure, on some level we trade passion for security; we are trading one illusion for another. But it is a matter of degree. We can’t live in constant fear, but we can feel dead without any.
Like the child who jumps off a mother’s comfortable lap, running off to discover and explore, before returning to the safety of home base, we adults continuously seek to balance our contradictory needs for connection and freedom, comfort and fear, the grown-up version of hide and seek.
And so what should we do? How do we go about sustaining love and desire, and both with the same person? While igniting that flame of desire is not simple, it is definitely doable. It requires active engagement and planning — and I’m not talking about the kind of planning we do with our blackberries.
First, we would be wise to give up the idea that sex needs to be spontaneous or not at all. When you want to cook a nice meal, you choose the ingredients carefully, taking pride in every nuance of flavor. When there’s a room to be painted, you laboriously pore over swatches, before finally choosing a color. Why would you make love without thinking about it beforehand? Without anticipation? Without imagination? Without careful attention to detail?
Desire has an imperious need for attention. To sustain desire is to actively engage with the erotic. It’s not just sex — animals have sex; as humans, we are blessed with the capacity for fantasy and wonder. And the sex has to be worth wanting: sex that does not reveal its ending right away; sex that is fun, playful, naughty, rebellious — and accepted.
But acceptance is not synonymous with predictability. It is not about acceptance in a way that means you are settling, and then complaining to your friends about how dull it is. Complaining of sexual ennui is conventional — everybody’s doing it. Bringing lust home is an act of open defiance. And yes, desire has a rebellious spirit.