Unleashing Your Erotic Intelligence

A few years ago, I attended a presentation at a national conference, demonstrating work with a couple who had come to therapy in part because of a sharp decline in their sexual activity. Previously, the couple had engaged in light sado-masochism; now, following the birth of their second child, the wife wanted more conventional sex. But the husband was attached to their old style of lovemaking, so they were stuck.

The presenter took the approach that resolving the couple's sexual difficulty first required working through the emotional dynamics of their marriage and new status as parents. But the discussion afterward indicated that the audience was far less interested in the couple's overall relationship than in the issue of sado-masochistic sex. What pathology, several questioners wanted to know, might underlie the man's need to sexually objectify his wife and her desire for bondage in the first place?

After two hours of talking about sex, the group had not once mentioned the words pleasure or eroticism, so I finally spoke up. As an outsider to American society -- I grew up in Europe and have lived and worked in many countries -- I wondered if the attitudes I saw in this meeting reflected deep cultural differences. I couldn't help wondering whether the clinicians in the room believed that the couple's sexual preferences -- even though consensual and completely nonviolent -- were too wild and "kinky," therefore inappropriate and irresponsible, for the ponderously serious business of maintaining a marriage and raising a family.

After the conference, I engaged in many intense conversations with other European friends and therapists, as well as Brazilian and Israeli colleagues who had been at the meeting. What struck most of the non-Americans I talked with was that America, in matters of sex as in much else, was a goal-oriented society that preferred explicit meanings, candor, and "plain speech" to ambiguity and allusion: "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 with my clients: "There's so much direct talk already in the everyday conversations couples have with each other," I tell them. "If you want to create more passion in your relationship, why don't you play a little more with the natural ambiguity of gesture 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. The writer Daphne Merkin writes: "No bill of sexual rights can hold its own against the lawless, untamable landscape of the erotic imagination."

The Lure of Fantasy

Many in our field assume that the intense fantasy life that shapes the early stages of erotically charged romantic love is a form of temporary insanity, destined to fade under the rigors of marriage. Clinicians often interpret the lust for sexual adventure and the desire to cross traditional sexual boundaries -- ranging from simple flirting to infatuation, from maintaining contact with previous lovers to cross-dressing, threesomes, and fetishes -- as fears of commitment and infantile fantasies.

Our therapeutic culture "solves" the conflict between the drabness of the familiar and the excitement of the unknown by advising patients to renounce their fantasies in favor of more rational and "adult" sexual agendas. Therapists typically encourage patients to "really get to know" their partners. But I often tell my patients that "knowing isn't everything." Eroticism can draw its powerful pleasure from fascination with the hidden, the mysterious, the suggestive.

Terry had been in therapy for a year, trying to come to terms with the shock he'd experienced in the transition from being one half of a couple involved erotically to being one quarter of a family with two children and no eroticism at all. He began one session by announcing his infatuation with their young German au pair: "You know how I've been talking about this feeling of deadness, my energy dropping, my body getting heavier? Well, her energy has wakened me up. I want to sleep with her and I wonder why I don't. I'm scared to do it and scared not to. I feel foolish, guilty, and I can't stop thinking about her."

I didn't discourage Terry from his "immature" wishes or lecture him. I marveled with him at the allure and beauty of the fantasy, while also calling it by its true name: a fantasy. The question was how could he relish this experience without allowing the momentary and exhilarating intoxication to endanger his marriage?

"It's great to know you still can come to life like that. And you know that you can never compare this state of inebriation with life at home, because home is about something else. Home is safe. Here, you're trembling, you're on shaky ground," I said. "You like it, but you're also afraid that it can take you too far away from home. I think that you probably don't let your wife evoke such tremors in you." As he left, I told him to keep that thought in mind over the next week.

A few days later, Terry was having lunch in a restaurant with his wife and she was telling him of her previous boyfriend. He told me, "Normally, I don't like hearing these stories of hers -- they make me jealous and irritated. But this time, I just let myself listen and found myself getting very turned on. So did she. In fact, we were so excited we had to look for a bathroom where we could be alone."

He was viewing his familiar wife from a new distance. I invited Terry to permit himself the erotic intensity of the illicit with his wife: "This could be a beginning of bringing lust home," I said. "These small transgressions are acceptable; they offer you the latitude to experience new desire without having to throw everything away."

Reviving Sexual Imagination

It always amazes me how much people are willing to experiment sexually outside their relationships, yet how tame and puritanical they are at home with their partners. Many of my patients have, by their own account, domestic sex lives devoid of excitement and eroticism, yet are consumed and aroused by a richly imaginative sexual life beyond domesticity -- affairs, pornography, prostitutes, cybersex, or feverish daydreams. Having denied themselves freedom and freedom of imagination in their relationships, they go outside, to reimagine themselves with dangerous strangers.

Yet the commodification of sex -- the enormous sex industry -- actually hinders our potentially infinite capacity for fantasy, restraining and contaminating our sexual imagination. The explicitness of sexual products undermines the power of mystery, the voyeuristic pleasures of the hidden. Where nothing is forbidden, nothing is erotic. Furthermore, pornography and cybersex are ultimately isolating, disconnected from relations with a real, live, other person.

A fundamental conundrum in marriage, it seems to me, is that we seek a steady, reliable anchor in our partner, and a transcendent experience that allows us to soar beyond the boundaries and limitations of our ordinary lives. The challenge, then, for couples and therapists, is to reconcile the need for what's safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what's exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring. That challenge is further complicated when the partners are on opposite sides of this divide.

When Mitch complains about the sexual boredom in his marriage, he points at Laura's lack of imagination. "She always does the same thing. It's so predictable, it doesn't even really arouse me. She doesn't kiss me, she has so little imagination. She doesn't know that the mind is the most important sexual organ."

"So what do you do with your mind?" I ask. "Do you go off into the imaginary when you're with your wife?" Mitch seemed surprised. "You mean think about other women?" he asked. "No," he declared, "that would be accepting that she's not enough and that I need to compensate."

"You complain that she's passive, but you're passive, too," I pointed out. "You can be wherever you want in your own head, your wife is whoever you perceive her to be. The preservation of autonomy and mystery allows both of you to be apart in your fantasies, and together in your bodily experiences." What I was saying to Mitch is that separateness is a precondition for connection. Sex is vulnerable and risky; in this sense, there's no "safe sex."

There's a powerful tendency in long-term relationships to favor the predictable over the unpredictable. Erotic passion is defiant and unpredictable, unruly and undependable -- which leaves many people feeling separate and vulnerable. As Stephen Mitchell, a New York analyst, used to say, "It is not that romance fades over time. It becomes riskier."

Challenging the idea that security is inside the relationship and adventure outside means pointing out that the familiarity we seek to impose on the other kills desire. What would happen if we allowed ourselves to see our partner from a distance, with a wide-angle lens instead of a zoom? Of course, that distance isn't without risk: It also means stepping back from the comfort of our partner and being more alone. Maybe the real paradox is that this fundamental insecurity is a precondition for maintaining interest, desire, and intimacy in a relationship -- bringing adventure home.

The irony is that even the predictability in the marriages of the dullest couples is an illusion. As Mitchell says, "Safety is presumed, not a given, but a construction." The conviction that one's partner is both safe and dull is an invention that both have tacitly agreed to and that give a false sense of security. People often end up in affairs to break from what they imagine is predictable boredom. Often, when the "dull partner" ends up having an affair, the other is surprised. This is because the supposedly familiar partner is in fact mysterious and unknown.

It's often assumed that intimacy and trust must exist before sex can be enjoyed, but for many men and, yes, even women, intimacy actually sabotages sexual desire. When the loved one is invested with the fruits of intimacy, such as security and stability, he/she can become desexualized, no longer evoking the desire to pursue the fruits of passion.

A Second Language

Physical pleasure offers a unique haven for many men and women; the soothing powers of the body make it the place for freedom of expression. It's only during sex that they're able to escape their anxieties and obsessive ruminations. The physical pleasure tunes out the numbing stress of the everyday. It provides solace and self-revelation, along with a sense of connection.

Returning to Mitch and Laura and their sexual boredom, I see all the drawbacks of their timid sexual imagination. Both describe their own and each other's sexual selves in stereotypical language. Mitch sees himself, and is seen by Laura, as the classic sex-obsessed man, demanding his rights regardless of how she feels. Laura, who is strong-willed and sometimes domineering in their everyday interactions, sees herself, and is seen by Mitch, as a sexually shy, inhibited woman, repeatedly rejecting his advances from some unfathomable feelings of disgust or contempt.

For Laura, sex is the sum of all the personal, cultural, and familial taboos, restrictions, and inhibitions she absorbed as a child. As an adult, she wears concealing clothes, including turtlenecks in the summer. Compliments or comments on her sensuality feel demeaning. Sexuality evokes fear in her; she's never been able to enjoy the pleasures of her body. For Mitch, on the other hand, sex was always the place where he could feel utterly free, uninhibited, at peace. But in his marriage, he's come to feel awful about something he'd always experienced with confidence and pleasure. Meanwhile, Laura has come to feel completely deficient, ungenerous, and guilty.

In couples therapy, Mitch understands for the first time that her alienation from her own body, her own pleasure, has nothing to do with him. For her part, Laura learns that Mitch needs physicality to voice his vulnerability and delight, his yearning to connect; only in sex can he feel emotionally safe. Laura had always felt that Mitch's desire for sex had little to do with her; it was just crude physical release for him. For instance, when I ask him to say what he'd like and he says, "I want to sit on the edge of a hot tub and have Laura suck me," she recoils. "It's too raw, too coarse," she says. "It has nothing to do with me." I remind her that it's her he wants to do it with -- only her -- and it's, for him, a very intimate act. "He's never gone anywhere else; it's you he wants."

By permitting him to speak only in her nonphysical language, rather than in his sensual language, Laura has blocked not only his ability to really "speak" to her, but her own view of her husband as he really is. She can see only the bully, not the yearning lover. And every time he opens his mouth, that bully reinforces her fears. He's reduced to his second, far less fluent, language of words. Meanwhile, her experience has robbed her of the capacity to speak and understand the body's language. For every person, the physical language is the original mother tongue.

As Laura tries to grasp Mitch's erotic fantasies, I try to steer her attention to herself. Like many women, Laura battles the age-old repressions of female sexuality that have trapped a woman into passivity and dependence on men to seduce and initiate her into sexuality, to intuit what she likes and to bring her to fulfillment. Economic and professional independence not withstanding, Laura remains sexually dependent.

Laura's challenge -- and that of many women -- is to be able to eroticize and desire a man who's present, reliable, and needs her. The vulnerability and dependency that she accepts in her children have a desexualizing effect for her in Mitch. She associates potency and sexuality with the strong, aloof, unavailable man/father. Paradoxically, the erotic realm offers Mitch -- and many men -- a restorative experience of his softer, more dependent, side.

For Mitch and Laura, the issues that generate conflict in their relationship -- control, power, dependency, and vulnerability -- can yield sexual desire and mutual pleasure when eroticized. Mitch often resents Laura's overpowering personality in daily life, but would like very much to see its erotic expression. Laura, angered by Mitch's apparent "insensitivity," his power ploys, can find this sexuality erotically appealing when she realizes that sex is a language he wants to speak only with her -- that it's she who touches him most deeply and personally.

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.

Esther Perel, M.A., is on the faculties of the New York Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry, and the International Trauma Studies Program, New York University. She is visiting faculty at the Minuchin Center for the Family and is in private practice in New York.

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