Sex & Relationships

Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic

Could more distance be the key to keeping the passion in long-term relationships?
In Esther Perel's insightful, beautifully written book Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, out in paperback this month, she argues that we have lost sight of the critical balance that makes a relationship great -- intimacy and distance. In her private psychotherapy practice in New York, she's seen too many couples wrapped up in our workaholic, kid-focused culture; the true loss, she argues, is sensuality and pleasure -- vital ingredients to a life well-lived.

Her seemingly paradoxical argument -- that less togetherness can lead to more intimacy -- has been a global hit. Mating in Captivity has been published in the United States, Spain, Italy, Germany, Canada, France, Norway, Sweden, Taiwan, Brazil, Israel, Australia, the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands, and it will soon be available in Greece, Japan, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Turkey. AlterNet caught up with this global traveler long enough to ask a few questions about her vision for more satisfying partnerships. Her answers are telling, but perhaps even more refreshing is that she embodies her message. Esther is playful, thoughtful, sexy and thoroughly independent. See for yourself ...

Courtney Martin: Tell us about a defining moment that led to the writing of this book.

Esther Perel: At the time of the Clinton affair, I was intrigued at how adultery could become a matter of national political agenda in the U.S. Why was it, I wondered, that this country seemed quite tolerant of divorce, and rather intolerant of infidelity, when the rest of the world had traditionally been more tolerant of infidelity and less so of divorce? Around the same time I was at a national conference on couples therapy and, there too, I was struck by the overemphasis on pathology and the lack of any mention of the words pleasure or eroticism when addressing a couple's sexual life. The claim that sexual problems were always the result of relational problems, and that one should fix the relation and the sex would follow, did not bear true for me. I saw loving, caring couples whose desire was flatlined, not resulting from a breakdown in intimacy. So I began to question a host of assumptions pertaining to sexuality and intimacy in long-term relations that were spoken as truths; they seemed unexamined to me.

Martin: You argue, brilliantly I might add, that the conditions that create intimacy -- closeness, familiarity, constancy -- are actually diametrically opposed to those that create desire -- distance, novelty, spontaneity. Why does such a fundamental point seem like such a shocker to us in the 21st century? Have other theorists argued this, and we've just missed it?

Perel: I think the confusion stems from the tenacious hold that the romantic ideal holds for us. It states that there is one person with whom we can have it all. We will experience a state of completion where we lack nothing. That myth of oneness then leads us into contracting a host of contradictory feelings and human needs into one mold. The ever-so-thoughtful psychoanalyst Steven Mitchell, in his book Can Love Last, argues this point as well. So does Roland Barthes and others.

Martin: What is a peer marriage, and why might it not be as ideal as one might first assume?

Perel: A peer relationship is one where the partners experience an affectionate, companionate coupledom. They are friends. They are the product of the egalitarian model; they are good life partners, but are often less sexual. For many people this alone is quite an achievement, so I would never put it down. But I also think that there is another dimension of life we seek and that goes beyond the management of our everyday life. People want to experience transcendence, mystery, awe, the passionate side of life, the erotic, that which inspires a feeling of aliveness, of vibrancy, of vitality, and that is another dimension of life altogether.

Martin: There is an assumption -- fueled by Dr. Phil and other talk show gurus -- that talking about our problems with our partners is key to healthy relationships. You're arguing for a more nuanced approach to problem solving and communication. Can you elucidate?

Perel: I am a therapist, so I obviously value talk, but what I challenge is our insistence of the verbal as the superior way to communicate. We speak with our bodies, with actions, with a gaze. The body as a matter of fact is our mother tongue; we express so much in the physical language long before we can utter one word. I also challenge the unvarnished directness of language in this country -- get to the point! It is a style that is less equipped to ponder ambiguity and the imponderables. And finally, while I think that talking is important for couples, we are facing a situation where sharing is not a choice but a mandate. If you don't share, talk, etc., you are not close. That is a false assumption and one that put a lot of pressure on men in particular.

Martin: You also write about our tendency to see marriage as work. Explain why this framing of our most intimate relationships may be hazardous to their health.

Perel: I do think that there is a lot of work in a marriage, but there are different kinds of work. Here, when we think of work, it goes with drudge, practicality, planning, duty, obligation.

I see that and then add the creative aspects of work -- work that is uplifting and not a constant struggle, work that inspires a sense of pleasure and fulfillment, not only duty and obligation. These values, while very important in society at large, are no longer what keeps people in a relationship. Connection, satisfaction, mutuality, reciprocity -- these are the values that keep people in relationships.

Martin: What role does porn play in all of this?

Perel: Porn is the amalgamation of key trends in today's world with age-old sexual fantasies; it comprises a potent blend of technology, high intensity, low emotion, consumerism, constant stimulation and sensations, marketing of images, and deep-seeded personal needs, fears, longings and vulnerabilities. Porn can free people by adding a sense of freedom. It can also trample desire in a couple because the effort to relate to a living other with needs and feelings has become more and more difficult and is easily replaced with quick, fast, unencumbered autoerotic sex. It is all a question of balance, as always.

Martin: Do you see the helicopter parenting phenomenon (overinvolved moms and dads) as a cause of bad sex or an activity that distracts from dealing with already subpar sex lives?

Perel: Look, it is ironic that sex makes babies and then children spell erotic disaster for couples. The unprecedented child centrality we see today all over the West has sanctified childhood like never before. We no longer get work out of our kids, today we get meaning. So we have adults who become a round-the-clock child-rearing factory in order to foster the flawless and painless development of their offspring. Interestingly, this generation of kids that is being raised in a way where they never have to feel any frustration, nor boredom, is turning out to be the one with the greatest difficulties with sustaining desire. If you have never wanted something, longed for it, you cannot know desire. Where there is no frustration there is no desire. So, on one hand, we vest our children with sentimental idealization, and not only do we want to be perfect parents, and give our children everything, we also want our marital relations to be happy, fulfilled, sexually exciting and emotionally intimate. In our culture, the survival of the family depends on the happiness of the couple, so we must bring the focus back, at least in part, on the relationship and not imagine it will go on living as if it were a cactus.

Martin: What can parents do to avoid replacing their need for adult intimacy and passion with play dates and car pools?

Perel: When I say "sex" to people with children, they say, "You must be kidding." Then I say, "OK, let's not talk about sex in the narrow sense; let's look at the erotic ingredients."

Playfulness! I see you play with the kids, so imaginative, but with your partner it is the usual routines where you are locked in the same character. With the kids you are constantly looking for new things to do, to discover; with your partner, it is the same old, same old. Comfortable, perhaps, but also predictable.

Your kids are dressed in the latest fashion even to go to bed; you are walking around the house in sweatpants. Your kids are blessed with languorous hugs while you, the adults, are living on a diet of quick pecks. The erotic energy seems to be alive and well, it's just that it is Eros redirected. At some point, some of that erotic energy needs to be brought back to the couple. You need to cordon off an erotic space where you can meet as adults, for the sake of being together, not as responsible citizens who join to go over their to-do lists. It is a space where you can experience pleasure for its own sake and where sex can happen, but it does not have to.

Meet your partner for lunch when you are actually awake and dressed. Close the bedroom door once in awhile. No need to feel guilty. When kids play, they have fun; when they can be slightly naughty on top of it, they are gleeful. Adults, too, experience freedom when they break rules. For example, the rules that mature, marital sex must be serious, that moms and pops don't do these sorts of things. Any small incursion into the illicit and the transgressive with your partner can be really enlivening. That means skipping a soccer game once in a while as well.

Martin: Why, when some studies estimate that over half of marriages have endured infidelity, do we continue to frame cheating as an anomalous crime in popular culture? Why not admit how common it is and talk more about surviving it?

Perel: I think that figure may be inflated. In any event, in your question is the idea that the norm is fidelity and infidelity, the deviance. Yes, that is still the way most people conceive of relationships -- emotional commitment, intimacy, and fidelity as defined by sexual exclusivity are mainstay ideas for today's couples. These ideas are part and parcel of the romantic ideal. If we are everything for each other, there is no need for anyone else.

At this time in the U.S., the main focus in the professional literature is on the trauma of infidelity. The focus is most always on the injured partner, on the betrayal, as if it is the worst offense and breach in the attachment. That is all there, no doubt; infidelity is painful, very much so, but there are other issues at hand too: existential dilemmas, attempts to preserve the marriage through an affair, all kinds of complicated twists and turns that extend far beyond good and evil. I got a flier recently for a workshop addressed for clinicians, and it featured as its title, "Affairs: Weapons of Mass Destruction, and How to Fight Them." That is how far we have gotten.

Martin: Talk about the difference between emotional and physical infidelity? Which do you see as more damaging in your practice?

Perel: The way I see it is that I meet many couples in my practice who may be sexually faithful and are betraying each other in so many other ways. Neglect, indifference, contempt, lack of respect, stonewalling, disqualifying, devaluing, ridiculing, lying, deceit and so on. There are so many ways that people let each other down, betray each other, tear the trust, demean each other, all the while they are sexually faithful. So why is it that we think sexual betrayal is the mother of them all? It is not my place to rank them, but I think things are a bit more complicated.

Martin: Do you believe in soul mates? Why or why not?

Perel: Yes, I think some people share a deep mutual sense of recognition, identification, complicity, partnership, muse, shared vision, shared gaze onto the world, shared humor. All these are features of what I guess one would attribute to a soul mate. It is a word that I don't connect with, however, even though I share many of these features with my life partner. I guess I like to include in a relational description elements that attest to the individuality, the freedom, the separateness, the otherness, and these are usually not included in the image of soul mate, which is more fusional, and thrives on oneness.

Martin: If readers could do one thing today to increase the healthy distance in their relationship, what should it be?

Perel: Bring something to the relationship that is different about yourself; break the static roles you tend to operate from. Ask your partner a question as if you were talking and being inquisitive with a friend. Ask them something about themselves without immediately wondering, "And what does this mean for me?"

Martin: What's next for you?

Perel: First a rest. I have traveled to 16 countries this year. It has been a fantastic experience, but now I need some nesting time at home and with my family. I will also be continuing my practice, because I learn from the people I treat, and doing therapy keeps me grounded in reality. Then perhaps TV?! Or a book on infidelity ...
Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body. You can read more about her work at