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Esther Perel: Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 18, 2015
Category: Psychology

Esther Perel gave a TED Talk on Valentine’s Day: “The secret to desire in a long-term relationship.”

Two weeks later, 830,000 people had viewed it. Now she’s up to 5 million — and the New York Times has profiled her.

Apparently, she says something people want — maybe need — to know.

Here’s how she began her TED talk:

So why does good sex so often fade, even for couples who continue to love each other as much as ever? And why does good intimacy not guarantee good sex, contrary to popular belief? Can we want what we already have? That’s the million-dollar question, right? And why is the forbidden so erotic? What is it about transgression that makes desire so potent? And why does sex make babies, and babies spell erotic disaster in couples? It’s kind of the fatal erotic blow, isn’t it?) And when you love, how does it feel?

And here’s where she ended:

Whatever is going to just happen in a long-term relationship already has. Committed sex is premeditated sex. It’s willful. It’s intentional. It’s focus and presence.

In between? Fifteen smart minutes….

Erotic Intelligence — that’s like “jumbo shrimp” and “spare change” and “free love,” yes? In reality… well, in reality I think of a joke: Two guys are sitting at the bar of a chic New York restaurant when a woman of astonishing beauty enters. Conversation stops. Jaws drop. Every man there is thinking the same thing — except for one of the men at the bar. “Somewhere,” he whispers to his friend, “there’s a guy who’s sick of fucking her.”

Why do we laugh? (In my survey, many women don’t find that funny at all, even if we reverse the genders.) Because we know: familiarity breeds contempt. Especially if familiarity comes with a wedding ring attached. A book about sex in marriage — now there’s a thin book!

Esther Perel believes that we — men and women alike — have it wrong. Good sex doesn’t have to end when the hormones cool. Lust doesn’t have to devolve into companionship. You can be a mom and a sex kitten. And as for “intimacy”….in the bedroom, a little goes a long way.

Who is this wild woman? A therapist in New York who’s been working with couples and families for three decades. Belgian-born, to Holocaust survivors. Married (to her original husband). A mother. Speaks eight languages — including common sense. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle download, click here.]

Not for Perel a how-to book of ridiculous exercises you can practice to rekindle the passion you once knew. If she had her way, you’d never consult a manual again. You might, however, write a dirty letter about all the hot things you’d like to do to your partner — or that you’d like done to you. Or maybe you should start two e-mail accounts just for the sexual dialogue between you and your mate.

But she’s the mother of your child!

But he’s the guy who only gets his kicks from online porn!

Perel has heard all that. Many times. She’s not fooled — underneath those rationalizations are hearts that still want to believe in hot sex with someone you know. The problem, she says, lie in the unspoken assumptions of most marriages.

Like: To love is to merge. Wrong. Merging is what happens when you see the Other as your security. That’s death to sex. Good sex requires a spark. A spark requires a gap. Cross the gap, feel the sizzle. No gap? The best you can hope for is a cuddle.

“There is no such thing as ‘safe sex,’” she writes. Sex requires mystery, excitement, uncertainty. Which means not knowing everything about your partner. You find that threatening? You’d find it less so if you stopped equating intimacy with sex.

Here’s a radical thought: don’t do everything together. Cultivate your own set of friends. Create differences, not affinities. “Ruthlessness is a way to achieve closeness” — ponder that for a while. Monogamy? Great if you can honor it. But it is, statistics show, “a ship sinking faster than anyone can bail it out.”

Infidelity is a symptom of deeper problems in the relationship? Many believe that. Perel doesn’t. She finds life…complicated. She hates the verb “have” when used in relationships — for her, no one “has” anyone. Relationships are negotiations, not assumptions. You can get crazy with someone you’ve lived with and known well — if your “rules” allow that.

Eroticism, she says, is “sexuality transformed by the imagination.”  So, start dreaming.  There’s a big payoff: “Nurturing eroticism in the house is an act of open defiance.”

I live in a city of therapists and in a neighborhood where they are at their most dense. I have survived couples therapy; socially, I know several sex-and-couples therapists. All are buttoned-up — their sexuality is not just unseen or tamped down, it’s under lock-and-key. In that world, Esther Perel may not be the messiah, but she is, at the very least, a relief.

To read my conversation with Esther Perel, click here.


Esther Perel recently gave a TED talk about infidelity. As in: “The typical assumption is that if someone cheats, either is something wrong in your relationship, or wrong with you. But millions of people cannot be pathological. At the heart of an affair, you will often find a longing, and a yearning, for an emotional connection…”