Unlocking Erotic Intelligence: Advice from Esther Perel
Esther Perel is a triple threat. Visionary, beautiful, and ferociously intelligent, the Belgian-born psychotherapist and author best known for Mating In Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, a landmark book that introduced millions of couples to the conflict between intimacy and sex, and how to be married and hot at the same time. Perel’s TED talk in February attracted more than a million hits in the first month.
In a nutshell, her thesis is this: intimacy in relationships is frequently—and inexplicably—the enemy of sex. The intimacy Perel’s referring to is the romantic ideal of semi-conjoined couples who believe that love means quashing mystery in favor of sweet companionship. In order for couples to remain interested in one another, they require distance, transgression, surprise, and play. We must be able to stand back from our partners, to view them as separate, mysterious people—for them to remain objects of our desire.
“Desire is fueled by the unknown,” Perel insists when we meet in her high-rise New York City office. She’s formidable, intense; when she looks at you—or rather through you—the experience is unnerving (Perel’s jungle cat eyes don’t help).
Mark Matousek: I want to start off by talking about the the relationship between erotic life and survival.
Esther Perel: I have always been interested in the story of survival and revival. But I did not originally connect it to eroticism. I made the connection one day when I was talking to my husband, Jack Saul, who is the director of International Trauma Studies Program at Drexel. He was one of the cofounders of the Center for Victims of Torture. I said to him, "When do you know that a torture victim comes back to life? When do you know that they are once again in the world? What does it take for a person to reconnect?"
It turns out that people (come back to life when they) are able to reconnect with creativity, vitality, and with the opposite of vigilance. You can’t play when you’re vigilant. You can’t play when you’re anxious. You can’t play when you’re fearful. You can’t play when you don’t trust. That’s when I made the connection. There were two groups in the community of Holocaust survivors that I grew up with in Antwerp. There were the houses that just had survived, but you felt deadness in them: from the curtains being down, to the heaviness, anti-hedonism, and the inability to experience pleasure of being alive. And then you had the houses of people who had really experienced eroticism as an antidote to death and knew how to keep themselves alive; to stay connected to vitality and vibrancy and exuberance and joy and force.
That’s when I looked at the couples who complain about the listlessness of their sex lives and realized there were two groups of couples: couples who are not dead and couples who are alive. I see couples who want more sex (certainly) but mainly want to connect with the quality of renewal and liveness and playfulness that sex used to afford them. When I work with sexuality in couples, I rarely work on helping them having more sex. You can have sex and feel nothing. Women have done this for centuries. I work on the poetics of sex. I work on how they connect to their own erotic self. Basically I work at how they beat back deadness, which I think is the prime reason for affairs.
MM: To come back to life?
EP: Yes. That is the one thing that everyone worldwide tells me they feel when they have an affair. That they feel alive. Many times it isn’t so much that you want to leave your partner, as you want to leave who you have become. And it isn’t so much that you’re looking for another person as that you’re looking for another self. (You want) to reconnect with lost parts of you or to discover new parts of you.
MM: You mention that curiosity is an important aspect of erotic happiness in couples.
EP: Yes. You want to make (your partner) someone that you’re curious about... I actually believe that people never fully know the other if they stay curious. I have too many people in this office who realize that they didn’t know their partner when they discovered that they cheated. Why wait until then to find out that you don’t really know your partner? It’s not that you create mystery. It’s that it’s right there, if you can tolerate it in your midst. Some of us get anxious and want to close it down, and some of us remain open and curious about the persistent mystery of the person next to us.
MM: We need to see our partner as a completely separate entity?
EP: I took this question worldwide: When are you most drawn to your partner? When I see my partner passionate about something, when I see my partner in his element, when I see my partner on stage, when I see my partner talking to other people, when I see other people attracted to her or to him, when he plays with the kids... when she makes me laugh, when he surprises me, when he’s vulnerable, or when she’s vulnerable. [It’s when] you see their wholeness. You see them as not needy and you see them radiating. So they are emanating something—generosity, kindness, joy, force, influence, persuasion—whatever it is. But you emanate something, you put something out there into the world when you radiate.
MM: But aren’t they also illuminated because of your shift in awareness? I mean you’re seeing them differently.
EP: Yes. It’s when you look at them as a separate unit. [One that is] already so familiar and so known but that is momentarily illusive and mysterious... So there’s still something to discover, so that you remain fundamentally interested in the other person. To want to have sex with them over the long haul, to want to enter them, is to also remain interested in them.
MM: Let me ask you, I love what you say about some of America’s best features resulted in boring sex. Can you elaborate a little bit? What about America specifically?
EP: I think that some of the most powerful aspects of American culture that bode amazingly well in some areas don’t necessarily bode as well in others. One of them is American pragmatism. So pragmatism—organization skills, efficiency, to the point, don’t beat around the bush, blatant directness—it doesn’t really go that well with the suggestiveness, the mystery, the playfulness, the seductiveness and the delayed gratification, the connection between frustration and excitement [in sex].
MM: Americans want it now, right?
EP: Yes. Americans don’t flirt—they score. Flirting is playing with the tip of the sword. It comes from the French word meaning teasing. It’s about playing with possibility. It’s not about making it happen. It’s not achievement. Americans are achievement oriented, not dream oriented. Or they want to achieve the dream, but the achievement is the piece. Much of the complexities of love and desire are a lot more murky and ambiguous. It isn’t black and white. Black and white helps you get a lot of things done, and this society likes to get things done.
MM: What you’re describing sounds patriarchal. You feel that women—that American woman—are as goal-oriented, as pragmatic?
EP: Yes, I think the culture is bigger here than gender. I mean, I work with people from all over the world. And it’s remarkable how... they will all say the same things about American women. And the women about American men. You begin to see that if all foreign people see the same thing, even though they may come from multiple different cultures, then they are seeing something that is unique to this culture. You know, I think America likes transparency. Americans really believe that honesty is a confessional cure, and intimacy means wholesale sharing. But maybe intimacy is the actual ability to keep things for yourself. Many other cultures do not necessarily equate intimacy with transparency.
MM: Why do we?
EP: I think it has to do with the level of individualism and isolation [in this culture]. There are not many other places in the world where people are as alone as they are in this country.
MM: And that’s why we require inmediate connection?
EP: Yes. In a culture where people are so alone, [there’s] the need for (quick) connection, the need for transparency, the need for this blatant wholesale sharing—no holding back because you only have one person you talk to so you have to tell everything to this one person. A lot of people here don’t have anyone else besides their partner.
MM: When you talk about "neutralizing each other's complexity"—is that a survival tactic in long-term relationships?
EP: I think that sometimes for the purposes of securing love people want to neutralize the complexities of the other. The whole problem with the intimacy thing is, "Tell me everything, but don’t tell me anything that I can’t handle." Really reckoning with the otherness of this partner and to fundamentally accept them with all of what is frustrating about them and all the loss that you have to incur. The mourning for what you will never have by virtue of being with that particular person.
MM: And they wonder where their sex lives go.
EP: For me there is a connection between remaining curious and... having a certain kind of sexuality. It doesn’t mean having sex. It’s about having a certain sexualization in the relationship. It’s about a certain gaze. People can have sex once a month—who cares? It’s how they look at each other, it’s how they feel in the presence of each other, it’s how connected they feel to that part of themselves.
MM: You talk about the poetics of sexuality—it’s not just about the mechanics.
EP: The question I ask is not: Do you have sex? It’s: What does sex mean for you? Where do you go? What parts of you do you connect with there? What parts of you get expressed there?
MM: And that brings up a lot of shame I would imagine for some people.
EP: For some people, yeah.
MM: So... let’s say the partner disapproves of what the other person is into—is that a workable situation?
EP: I’m going to give you [an] example. So, you don’t like it when your partner sits on the floor when they watch TV. So, what you’re asking is what to do when the other person doesn’t particularly care for what you want. You can’t judge it... That’s the first thing. The second thing is that sometimes people might not even ask for it. If you’re going to accept me, I want you to accept me. If you’re going to know me, I want you to know me with that part of me. If you are grossed out by that part of me, or judgmental about it or shut it down or make fun of it—then it’s just going to go underground. I’m just going to disappear. I’m just never going to tell you. Our desires are going to have a perfectly good censorship around it, if need be. You don’t want to hear about it, I will never tell you about it. And I will find other outlets. [Because] it doesn’t die.
MM: You have written that when we trade passion for security, are we trading one fantasy for another? What did you mean?
EP: I mean that in the search for permanence, we have a storyboard in terms of romantic relationships that says passion is in the beginning. Passion is a temporary state of insanity that is bound to be replaced by something more tame and more long-lasting, called mature love. Mature love comes from knowing your partner and all of these things. And if you want to still find passion you are often not willing to grow up or settle down or mature... There are very few comments about passion being something good. Except in art. Everybody sucks it up in novels and movies looking at people who are destroying themselves in passion, but who wants to live like that in real life? There is no permanence. And what is truth, or reality, is the fact that everything changes. There is no real knowledge of something that is static. [So] if reality is one fiction... now passion is another. And if you’re trading passion for reality, you’re trading one fiction for another. Neither is more real. Or more true. Or more permanent.
MM: I wasn’t sure what you meant by passion being a fantasy.
EP: Passion is a fantasy. But I think reality is often a fantasy too. Or a fiction anyway. It’s a story. I don’t think reality is anymore real. I think once you love, you have to deal with the fact that you can lose that love. It’s the unbearable truth—you can lose the person to death, to illness, and to them loving someone else. I think that is the fundamental piece.
MM: The unbearable anticipation of being replaced.
EP: That you’re replaceable, that you’re disposable, that you’re not unique. That somebody else can take your place.
MM: But it’s the discomfort of that that keeps the desire going, isn’t it?
EP: It’s the discomfort of knowing that reality. If you know that reality, you are often more likely to try to continue to present yourself at your best. Whereas in many couples, people do not necessarily present themselves at their best. Quite the contrary.
MM: I'd like to ask you about the men and aggression in erotic life. This is a slippery slope and confusing for some of us.
EP: This is a huge topic. When a woman wants a man to ravish her, what she is actually after is two things that are crucial to experiencing excitement and pleasure. One is her narcissistic affirmation that she is irresistible—and his persistence is a proof of that. His force with which he wants to grab her has nothing to do with his aggression—it has to do with how irresistible she is. That’s the turn-on. The turn-on is how it makes her feel. That’s the narcissistic affirmation.
Second is that it makes [men] not be needy. If you are aggressive that means you are confident... In erotic terms. It means you know what you want. And you’re going after it and it is me. Therefore, you are not fragile. You are not needy... which means you don’t require caretaking. Caretaking is the most powerful anti-aphrodisiac for women. If I am in care-aking mode, I am in mothering mode, not lovemaking mode. I am in taking-care-of-others mode. If care-taking is the biggest impediment in women, the predatory fear is the biggest fear in men.
EP: That [his] aggression is hurtful. That [his] aggression is predatory. That I am dirty, that I want too much, that there is something wrong with what I want. What does every woman in porn convey to him? [She] wants it too. More so. I like it. You don’t have to worry. I am not going to reject you. You are not going to feel inadequate. You don’t have to worry about pleasing me. The three most important relational factors in male sexuality are the fear of rejection, the fear of performance incompetence, and the fear [of] whether she likes it or not. That you can never really know. You’re always left with a doubt on that—even when you’re not... The more sexualized the woman, the more safe his predatory urges are. This is definitely true between two men as well, but between two men it is much more easy. He conveys to you that he likes it. And on top of that men don’t lie [about that].
MM: Women lie more?... You mean faking it?
EP: Yes. You will never know if she is truly liking it or not. Men don’t have the capacity to lie.
MM: That can be difficult at times. (laughs)
EP: For many men it’s a very reassuring thing. I think it’s a thing that gay men don’t have to live with. They know if the partner is into it or not. They can trust it... I think your question is a question of Western men. And Western men are in a more politically correct environment in which male aggression has been seen as really negative, because of the abuses of power that come with male aggression that are rampant in much of the world. But you can’t take aggression out of sex... you just don’t want it to be hurtful aggression... And that’s how it becomes [the woman wanting] both. She wants him tender and soft one moment, and she wants him lustful, aggressive, and ruthless the next.
MM: Men find this very confusing.
EP: Some do. But on the other hand... men [could] see it as an invitation, that they can have multiple parts of themselves in a relationship too—that they don’t have to choose one or the other. They are the nice guy or they are the bad boy. That actually gives men the possibility to inhabit many different roles in the relationship and in one person. So instead of seeing it as a bind, they can see it as an invitation to multiplicity.
MM: So the trick is to somehow bring it to the same person?
EP: If you can. Not every relationship can and not every man can. But we have a model where we think we should. We don’t necessarily conceive of a more segmented view of relationships at this point. Even the polyamorous don’t think that one relationship should be sexual and the other should be love. Typically, I think there are multiples of love and relationships.
MM: And different qualities
EP: I think that in that sense, gay couples have the most to teach. A lot of gay couples, especially when you have an older person and a younger person, it’s very clear that the older person says to the younger, "You go on." I receive your presence, your loyalty, your friendship, your companionship. And in return for that, you get the possibility of being with other sexual partners. And I think we have everything to learn from gay couples on that front.
MM: That’s not a pain-free model either.
EP: I don’t know a single one that is pain-free. (laughs) We're talking about real life!
This interview between Mark Matousek and Esther Perel was originally published on Psychology Today.