03.31.12 Sexuality

Mating in Captivity: The Intricacies of Love and Desire

Mating in Captivity: The Intricacies of Love and Desire

BY Esther Perel

As a couples therapist in New York, I’ve seen young and old, married or not, gay, bi and straight, with passports from all over the world. Plenty has changed in my 20 years of private practice, but not my patients’ opening lines.

They tend to go something like this: “We love each other very much, but we have no sex.”

Next, they’ll move into describing relationships that are open and loving, yet sexually dull. Time and again they tell me that, though they treasure the stability, security and predictability of a committed relationship, they miss the excitement, novelty and mystery that eroticism thrives on.

Sophia’s gripe says it all. She wants the comfort of familiarity, but misses the edge of the unknown. “We get along really well; Jake is warm and reliable, and even though he’s not the type to gush, I feel cozy with him. I know we’re lucky. We have a nice place, enough money, three great kids. So what is it I miss? I want to feel some of the intensity of the beginning, the butterflies in the stomach, the feeling of anticipation. I know that the excitement was bound up with insecurity, with not knowing if he would call or not. I don’t want that insecurity at this time in my life, but I would like to feel something…”

So, there you have it: the human species design flaw. The caring and coddling that nurture love also snuff out the un-self-consciousness of desire. When we love, we worry about our partner and feel responsible. Desire is more wolfish. Selfish. Beast-like.

Funny thing, desire. You’d think you’d need to throw more intimacy at it to keep it in pink health. But you’d be wrong. Withered desire is all too often the unanticipated side effect of a growing intimacy, not one that’s cooled. In fact, the very qualities that nurture intimacy can be sexually deflating. Sophia points to the familiarity between Jeff and her, the protectiveness she feels. She talks about the shared rituals that make their days more predictable, the security of knowing that Jeff checks in with her four times a day. But in their attempts to secure love, Jeff and Sophia have squeezed out the very erotic ingredients that spurred the relationship into being: surprise, novelty, spontaneity, curiosity, uncertainty.

Popular psychology tells us sexual problems come from relationship problems. Poor communication, lack of intimacy and accumulated resentments are some of the boxes checked off to explain this numbing of desire. If troubled relationship = no sex, then it flows that if we improve the relationship, hot sex should follow.

But my practice suggests otherwise. I’ve helped plenty of couples buff up their relationship and it did nothing for the sex. Because the rules of desire are not the same as the rules of good citizenship. It isn’t always the lack of closeness that stifles desire, but too much closeness. And while love seeks closeness, desire needs space to thrive. That’s because love is about having and desire is about wanting.

Here’s the nut of it: Eroticism occurs in the space between self and other.

Now, most of us don’t want that uncertainty in the very place where we seek consistency. We prefer to experience the thrill of the unknown elsewhere. But there’s no way around it. Learn to love the unknown right here with your honey. To want, you’ve got to have a synapse to cross. In short, fire needs air and many couples don’t leave enough air.

image via gliterrosa.tumblr.com

Esther Perel is one of the world’s most respected voices on Erotic Intelligence, and the author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. This bold, provocative new take on Intimacy and sex has become a global phenomenon translated into 25 languages. Fluent in nine languages, Esther Perel is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in New York with a multicultural clientele. She is a master trainer, workshop leader and speaker and an acknowledged international authority on cross-cultural relations, and culture and sexuality. She has been a guest on Oprah, The Today Show and CNN  and interviewed in The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Vogue, The Guardian, The Observer and more. Find out more at estherperel.com


  • amanda

    Hmm looks like I need to go see Ester Perel..

  • Or some leave too much air and then it get’s to the point where there’s no fuel *sigh*

  • Olithee

    Iam french N I bought ur book. Im 27 in a relationship secured and beautiful since 2004. I got badly sick in 2007 and since then sex is dead. Most of my friends told me that buddy is not the one they do not understand how at 27 you can be living without sex for years. I have opportunities outside my couple and kept wondering what I should do. Your dispatch is just definetely what I needed. We’ve been through dark moment together at hospital, now we are two young buddies with great job flat and love for each other, sex will come back, we just need that distance for desire, hard to find in all that closesness of our own. Thank you Thank you Thank you

  • Spencer Soyemi


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