Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel

Mating in Captivity

RATING: 8/10…READ: February 20, 2013

Mating in Captivity explores one sexual relationship to themselves and within a relationship. Explores sex as separate from intimacy and covers erotic intelligence. A very provocative book with the changing attitudes about sexuality.

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Passion in a relationship is commensurate with the amount of uncertainty you can tolerate.  -Tony Robbins

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”  -Proust

We see what we want to see, what we can tolerate seeing, and our partner does the same. Neutralizing each other’s complexity affords us a kind of manageable otherness. We narrow down our partner, ignoring or rejecting essential parts when they threaten the established order of our coupledom. We also reduce ourselves, jettisoning large chunks of our personalities in the name of love.

When we resist the urge to control, when we keep ourselves open, we preserve the possibility of discovery. Eroticism resides in the ambiguous space between anxiety and fascination. We remain interested in our partners; they delight us, and we’re drawn to them. But, for many of us, renouncing the illusion of safety, and accepting the reality of our fundamental insecurity, proves to be a difficult step.

If love is an act of imagination, then intimacy is an act of fruition. It waits for the high to subside so it can patiently insert itself into the relationship. The seeds of intimacy are time and repetition. We choose each other again and again, and so create a community of two.

Rather than looking at sex as an exclusive outgrowth of the emotional relationship, I’ve come to see it as a separate entity. Sexuality is more than a metaphor for the relationship— it stands on its own as a parallel narrative.

When people become fused— when two become one— connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.

It’s hard to feel attracted to someone who has abandoned her sense of autonomy. Maybe he can love her, but it’s clearly much harder for him to desire her. There’s no tension.

Erotic intelligence is about creating distance, then bringing that space to life.

Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected. Love is about having; desire is about wanting. An expression of longing, desire requires ongoing elusiveness. It is less concerned with where it has already been than passionate about where it can still go.

I no longer look at relationships as being either intimate or not. Instead, I track each couple’s ability to engage in a series of intimate bids tendered over time. Sometimes the emotional weaving is done through talk; often, it is not. Building a bookshelf for your lover, changing the snow tires on your wife’s car, and learning to make his mom’s chicken soup all carry the promise of connection. Golde in Fiddler on the Roof reminds us that even ordinary daily activities will, over time, weave themselves into a rich tapestry of connection. Eddie and Noriko, masters of nonverbal communication, can teach us all a lesson in alternative ways to express our love. When we value only what is disclosed through words, we do ourselves a disservice.

We are no longer talking about the art of sex; rather, we are talking about the mechanics of sex. Science has replaced religion as the authority; and science is a more formidable arbiter. Medicine knows how to scare even those who scoff at religion. Compared with a diagnosis, what’s a mere sin? We used to moralize; today we normalize, and performance anxiety is the secular version of our old religious guilt.

Ben is in perpetual search for the ideal woman. Of course, he’s been looking for a long time: even the most idealized creature ultimately turns out to be merely human, and therefore flawed.

Ratu and her friends seem to find more security in an MBA than in the power of a sustaining, loving bond.

“If you add love to sex you make yourself extremely vulnerable,” she tells me. “I think that might be the heart of the issue for my whole generation, this lack of trust. We were taught to rely on ourselves, not to depend on others.” It’s an unromantic attitude, but perhaps a wise one, given the precariousness of modern marriage. Gender equality is made manifest in all its irony: both men and women now have the right to be terrified of commitment. Better to engage in risky sex than to succumb to the risks of the heart.

I may never meet Ratu again, but many of the people who come to see me remind me of her. They have found that their history of sexual nomadism is no help in meeting the challenge of sustaining sexual vitality with one person over time. They view sex before marriage and sex after marriage as entirely different realities. Single sex isn’t supposed to prepare you for committed sex. If anything, it’s seen as the last hurrah before a lifetime of sexual decline.

But for Nico slowness inspires a different kind of anxiety, a fear of inadequacy that he won’t perform well enough.

I have always been interested in the people who are able to achieve balance between self and other on an emotional level but who repeatedly fail to achieve it physically. The threat of merging in the physical act of sex, and the ensuing loss of self, is so intense for these people that they defend against it either by shutting down sexually or by taking their desire elsewhere.

-The guilt he felt as a child about being selfish has been transformed into sexual inhibition. Perhaps this is why James experiences his wife’s desire as a demand rather than an invitation, it is an obligation, not a seduction. Eroticism has shifted into the realm of duty, and is weighted down with pressure, guilt, and worry— all proven antiaphrodisiacs.

Being with an unavailable partner provides a protective limit— if you can’t get too close to a person, you need not fear entrapment or loss of self.

Childhood has been sanctified so that it no longer seems ridiculous for one adult to sacrifice herself entirely in order to foster the flawless and painless development of her offspring— a one-person, round-the-clock child rearing factory. This is a far cry from the days (not so long ago in America and still present in many parts of the world) when children were considered principally as collective economic assets, and women gave birth to many children in hope of keeping just a few. We no longer get work out of our children; today we get meaning.

The point about sexual fantasy is that it involves pretending. It’s a simulation, a performance— not the real thing, and not necessarily a desire for the real thing. Like dreams and works of art, fantasies are far more than what they appear to be on the surface. They’re complex psychic creations whose symbolic content mustn’t be translated into literal intent. “Think poetry, not prose.”

I’d like to suggest that we view monogamy not as a given but as a choice. As such, it becomes a negotiated decision. More to the point, if we’re planning to spend fifty years with one soul— and we want a happy jubilee— it may be wiser to review our contract at various junctures. Just how accommodating each couple may be to the third varies. But at least a nod is more apt to sustain desire with our one and only over the long haul— and perhaps even to create a new “art of loving” for the twenty-first century couple.

For [married] sex to be “meaningful,” it must always be an expression of love— preferably of lifelong, abiding love— every time we climb into bed with one another. And what an incredible burden that is! It eliminates sex stimulated by a whole array of other emotions and sensations: playful sex and angry sex, quick, “mindless” sex and “naughty” sex. It eliminates, in fact, just about every occasion for having sex there is. After all, who can feel “lifelong, abiding love” that regularly— especially at eleven o’clock at night?

We segregate lust for psychological as well as cultural reasons. Any experience of love holds within it a dimension of dependence. In fact, dependence is an essential ingredient of connection. But it’s a producer of terrific anxiety, because it implies that the one we love wields power over us. This is the power to love us, but also to abandon us. Fear— of judgment, of rejection, of loss— is embedded in romantic love. Sexual rejection at the hands of the one we love is particularly hurtful. We are therefore less inclined to be erotically adventurous with the person we depend on for so much and whose opinion is paramount. We’d rather edit ourselves, maintaining a tightly negotiated, acceptable, even boring erotic script, than risk injury.

There’s nothing like the fear of loss to make those old shoes look new again.

The counterargument to the law of diminishing returns is the principle that consistent investment leads to increased satisfaction. The more you do something, and the better you get at it, the more you’re going to enjoy it. The weekly tennis player who continues to improve his game would argue for the positive effects of frequency. For her, Paris just keeps getting better. The more she practices, the stronger her skills. The stronger her skills, the deeper her confidence. The more confident she feels, the more risks she takes. The more risks she takes, the more exciting the game. Of course, all this practice takes effort and discipline. It is not just a matter of being in the mood; it requires patience and sustained attention. The tennis player knows intuitively that growth is rarely linear; she may experience some plateaus and some slowdowns, but the reward is worth the effort.

The idea that sex must be spontaneous keeps us one step removed from having to will sex, to own our desire, and to express it with intent. As long as sex is something that just happens, you don’t have to claim it. It’s ironic that in such a willful society, willfully conjuring up sex seems obvious and crass. It embarrasses us, as if we’ve been caught doing something inappropriate.

Dominick is a gourmet. On Saturday, he cooked Raoul a classic Italian stew. It started as a thought— that he’d like to do something nice. He played around with various ideas until he settled on the veal. Then he went to Little Italy for the finest meat, to a bakery in the Village for his favorite semolina bread, and to a specialty shop in SoHo for the chocolate cannoli. Finally, he schlepped all the way uptown for the perfect bottle of Montepulciano. The meal took most of the day, but in the end it was an epicurean delight, even an erotic experience. It was all planned for pleasure.

-“Yeah, it’s a lot of work,” Dominick admits, “but I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like drudgery.” “How is it that sex has come to feel like work to you? You seem reluctant to bring the same intent to your erotic life that you do to your cooking,” I point out.

-“Just because you live with someone doesn’t necessarily mean he’s readily available. If anything, he requires more attention, not less. If you want sex to remain humid, this is the kind of attention you have to bring to it. No, not every day, but once in a while can you make a meal of Raoul?”

Anticipation implies that we are looking forward to something. It is an important ingredient of desire, and planning for sex helps to generate it.

-Great sex generally demands more than fifteen minutes right after the eleven o’clock news.

Animals have sex; eroticism is exclusively human. It is sexuality transformed by the imagination. In fact, you don’t even need the act of sex to have a full erotic experience, though sex is often hinted at, envisioned. Eroticism is the cultivation of excitement, a purposeful quest for pleasure. Octavio Paz likens eroticism to the poetry of the body, the testimony of the senses. Like a poem, it is not linear; it meanders and twists back on itself. It shows us what we see not with our eyes but with the eyes of our spirit. Eroticism reveals to us another world inside this world. The senses become servants of the imagination, letting us see the invisible and hear the inaudible.