Over the past few weeks, I’ve been following Esther Perel, author of Mating In Captivity around NYC. Born and raised in Belgium, Esther is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private psychotherapy practice in New York. People come to see her when they have an issue in their relationship. Often, they miss the feeling of connection, playfulness, and renewal that sex allows them.
In her talks, Esther invites her audience to join her in very frank conversations. She is interested in sexuality as a lens into a person’s needs and wants. Her bold, provocative new take on intimacy grapples with some of the obstacles that can arise when our need for secure love conflicts with our pursuit of passion. This tension of “opposites” forms the basis of her book and her therapeutic practice. For most of us, love is about security, consistency and stability. Passion, on the other hand, is often about risk, danger and transgression. Love is often about caretaking. But erotic desire is selfish – it doesn’t want anything to do with caretaking. Love is about certainty and trust. But passion is connected to the amount of uncertainty you can tolerate. Loving another without losing the very essence of ourselves – this is the central dilemma of intimacy. Is it even possible to have both love and passion?
Well, according to Esther, it is. But, she cautions, we are the sole owners of our desires. And as such, we are often contributors to our own boredom. If we feel flat inside, empty, disconnected from our passion, then we can’t respond to a partner who wants us. So rather than blaming your partner for the passion that may be missing from your relationship, try to ask yourself the following questions:
I turn myself off when? (Be careful not to phrase it as, “You turn me off when?)
I turn myself on when? (Not “You turn me on when?)
Ask yourself, “When am I most drawn to my partner?” You will probably come up with many answers. For example, when he is talking about something he passionately believes in, when I see her doing something competently, when he is talking with others who are charmed, when she plays the piano, coming back from the gym, when she is laughing at something silly, etc.
All of these descriptions point to you looking at your partner from a certain distance – one that allows you to see him/her as a separate person. Most of Esther’s clients remarked that they found themselves most drawn to their partner in instances where they were looking at them from afar, and there was space between the self and the other. In this space between you and the other lies erotic tension. Watching a confident, independent, vibrant person across from us – that is hot!
The French newspaper Le Monde published an interview with Barack and Michelle Obama from 1996 in which the two spoke at length about their marriage. Describing Michelle, Barack states, “She is very familiar to me and so I can be myself around her. She knows me well, I completely trust her, but at the same time in certain respects she remains a mystery to me. Even if one builds a life together based on trust, attentiveness and mutual support, I think that’s it’s important that a partner continues to surprise.”
Esther aspires to engage her audience in an honest, enlightened, and provocative discussion. Mating In Captivity encourages you to question yourself, to speak the unspoken, and to be unafraid to challenge sexual and emotional correctness. This is a book without solutions. Instead, as Rilke says, “The point is to… Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”