How to Cultivate Desire in Couples

In matters of sex, America seems to be a goal-oriented society that prefers explicit meanings, candor, and “plain speech” to ambiguity and allusion. This predilection for clarity and unvarnished directness, often associated with honesty and openness, is encouraged by many therapists to their clients: “If you want to make love to your wife/husband, why don’t you say it clearly? And tell him/her exactly what you want.”

But I often suggest an alternative to my clients: “There’s already so much direct talk in the daily conversations that couples have with each other. If you want to create more passion in your relationship, why don’t you play with the natural ambiguity of gestures and words, and the rich nuances inherent in communication.”

Ironically, some of America’s best features—the belief in democracy, equality, consensus-building, compromise, fairness, and mutual tolerance—can, when carried too punctiliously into the bedroom, result in very boring sex. Sexual desire doesn’t play by the same rules of good citizenship that maintain peace and contentment in the social relations between partners. Sexual excitement is politically incorrect, often thriving on power plays, role reversals, unfair advantages, imperious demands, seductive manipulations, and subtle cruelties. American couples therapists, shaped by the legacy of egalitarian ideals, often find themselves challenged by these contradictions.

What I’d characterize as a European emphasis on complementarity—the appeal of difference—rather than strict gender equality has made women on the other side of the Atlantic feel less conflicted about being smart and being sexy. In Europe, to sexualize a woman doesn’t mean to denigrate her intelligence, competence, or authority. Therefore, women can enjoy expressing their sexuality, being objects of desire, and having sexual power without feeling like they’re forfeiting their right to be taken seriously as professionals and workers.

Of course, American feminists achieved momentous improvements in all aspects of women’s lives. Yet without denigrating 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.

So many of the couples who come to therapy imagine that they know everything there is to know about their mate. In large part, I see my job as trying to highlight for them how little they’ve seen, urging them to recover their curiosity and catch a glimpse behind the walls that encircle the other. Eroticism is the fuel for that curiosity, the experience of desire transfigured by the imagination.

As Mexican essayist Octavio Paz has written, eroticism is “the poetry of the body, the testimony of the senses. Like a poem, it is not linear, it meanders and twists back on itself, shows us what we do not see with our eyes, but in the eyes of our spirit. Eroticism reveals to us another world, inside this world. The senses become servants of the imagination, and let us see the invisible and hear the inaudible.”

This article was originally published on Esther Perel.

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