Book Review: Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel (2004)

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I read Mating in Captivity because I loved Esther Perel’s podcast Where Should We Begin (“Listen to the incomparable therapist Esther Perel counsel real couples as they reveal the most intimate, personal, and complicated details of the conflicts that have brought them to her door”) and was hoping to learn more from her about what undergirds some of the most common neuroses plaguing 21st century sexuality and romance. However, I didn’t end up getting a huge amount of enlightenment out of it.

First of all, the book came out in 2004 and many of its bold statements are by now part of the bread and butter of any marginally sexually enlightened individual (i.e. that sex in a relationship can be kinky, that non-monogamy isn’t perverse and transgressive but rather something that genuinely works wonders for many couples, that mothers of young children are frequently touched out at the end of the day and that this is what can cause reduced libido, that the Madonna-Whore complex many men suffer from is flawed and can be redirected, and that LGBTQ+ couples experience many of the similar relationship dynamics as heterosexual couples do). That’s not really a problem with the book, of course, and I really enjoyed how Esther Perel contextualises and communicates these dynamics, replete with (pseudonymised!) case studies and examples from her practice, wry comments, and enough references to other therapists and clinicians as to inform but not overwhelm her readership.

Secondly, and this is fully on me, while I knew this was a book about sex within relationships, I was nevertheless disappointed to find essentially no discussion at all of what it is like to try to have a sex life when single. Duh, Fiona. So much of the book contained advice I couldn’t apply or dilemmas I couldn’t relate to, and it wasn’t all because I don’t have children either.

Thirdly, the book is obviously aimed at Americans but I didn’t realise quite how much so until I read it. At many points, Esther Perel paints an image of Europeans as entirely different sexual creatures to Americans, an image which is as ridiculous as it is outdated. There’s no way that a suburban Welshman has the same sexuality as a Greek lesbian. As a francophone Belgian, there’s a chance she was using “European” to refer to “stereotypically French”. It’s a minor quibble but as someone who is both German and Scottish/British (two cultures with frankly very different approaches to sex), it made me wonder how I was meant to relate to her words at times.

What I was mainly getting out of the book was a vast quantity of useful quotes, which functioned almost as sexual aphorisms that I will find very useful to think with. I’ve listed a lot of these below for anyone else who is interested to chew on.

By the end of the book, then, I was somewhat disengaged and while I enjoyed her narration (I listened to the audio book, read by the author) I was looking forward to being done with it. So it took me by surprise when at the eleventh hour, something about the book really gripped me. The final chapters address non-monogamy, in ways which I found inspiring and illuminating. Without going into too much detail about what I’m looking for in a relationship – although the phrase “emotionally monogamous, sexually promiscuous” (Ch 11) pretty much sums it up – a lot of what she describes here hit the nail on the head for me. She managed to put into words the appeal and specific different arrangements a couple might come to in order to acknowledge, and even invite in, the “shadow of the third” which she contends makes up the final component of a couple. Regardless of how that is dealt with (everything from allowing yourself to flirt with a waiter, to going on annual swinging retreats with your partner), I thought the storytelling and analysis was pragmatic, exciting and wise in equal measure. And should monogamy remain the couple’s choice, Perel’s emphatic insistence that even monogamy needs to be negotiated is a piece of advice I think every person would do well to hear.

Quotes

Introduction

“We all share a fundamental need for security, which propels us toward committed relationships in the first place; but we have an equally strong need for adventure and excitement. Modern romance promises that it’s possible to meet these two distinct sets of needs in one place. Still, I’m not convinced. Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all? It’s hard to generate excitement, anticipation, and lust with the same person you look to for comfort and stability, but it’s not impossible. I invite you to think about ways you might introduce risk to safety, mystery to the familiar, and novelty to the enduring.”

“Many couples confuse love with merging. This mix-up is a bad omen for sex. To sustain an élan toward the other, there must be a synapse to cross. Eroticism requires separateness. In other words, eroticism thrives in the space between the self and the other. In order to commune with the one we love, we must be able to tolerate this void and its pall of uncertainties.”

“I see lovers who hold so tenaciously to the idea that sex must be spontaneous that they never have it at all. I see couples who view seduction as too much work, something they shouldn’t have to do now that they’re committed. I see others who believe that intimacy means knowing everything about each other. They abdicate any sense of separateness, then are left wondering where the mystery has gone.”

“I see the man who looks at porn online not because he doesn’t find his wife attractive but because her lack of enthusiasm leaves him feeling that there’s something wrong with him for wanting sex. I see people so ashamed of their sexuality that they spare the one they love the ordeal. I see people who know they are loved, but who long to be desired. They all come to see me because they yearn for erotic vitality.”

Ch 1 – From Adventure To Captivity: Why The Quest For Security Saps Erotic Vitality

“Desire is fueled by the unknown, and for that reason it’s inherently anxiety-producing.”

“Yet when we trade passion for stability, are we not merely swapping one fantasy for another? … When we love we always risk the possibility of loss—by criticism, rejection, separation, and ultimately death—regardless of how hard we try to defend against it.”

Ch 2 – More Intimacy, Less Sex: Love Seeks Closeness, But Desire Needs Distance

“When people become fused—when two become one—connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with.”

“In the beginning you can focus on the connection because the psychological distance is already there; it’s a part of the structure. Otherness is a fact. You don’t need to cultivate separateness in the early stages of falling in love; you still are separate. You aim to overcome that separateness.”

“John’s sexual inhibitions are exacerbated as his emotional involvement with his girlfriend deepens. As a matter of fact, the more he cares about her, the less he can freely lust after her. For him, as for many other men in this predicament, erotic shutdown is not subtle. He is at the mercy of a stubborn penis that simply will not respond. But why? What is the erotic block that stops him from pursuing pleasure with Beatrice, the same woman with whom he lay in a languorous paradise not so long ago?”

“Nowhere is the passage from connection to separateness represented more clearly than at the end of a sexual act.”

Ch 3 – The Pitfalls Of Modern Intimacy: Talk Is Not The Only Avenue To Closeness

“We no longer plow the land together; today we talk. We have come to glorify verbal communication. I speak; therefore I am. We naively believe that the essence of who we are is most accurately conveyed through words.”

“The hegemony of the spoken word has veered into a female bias that has, for once, put men in a position of inferiority. Men are socialized to perform, to compete, and to be fearless. The capacity to express feelings is not a prized attribute in the making of American manhood. Dare I say it’s not even considered a desirable one?—at least, not yet. When it comes to loving relationships, “talk intimacy” inevitably leaves many men at a loss.”

“The body is our original mother tongue, and for a lot of men it remains the only language for closeness that hasn’t been spoiled. Through sex, men can recapture the pure pleasure of connection without having to compress their hard-to-articulate needs into the prison of words.”

“Where there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek.”

Ch 4  – Democracy Versus Hot Sex: Desire and Egalitarianism Don’t Play by the Same Rules

“A lot of women find their desire for sexual submission hard to accept. But stepping out of ourselves is exactly what eroticism allows us to do. In eros, we trample on cultural restrictions; the prohibitions we so vigorously uphold in the light are often the ones we enjoy transgressing in the dark. It’s an alternative space where we can safely experience our taboos. The erotic imagination has the force to override reason, convention, and social barriers.”

“It seems to me that rituals of domination and submission are a subversive way to put one over on a society that glorifies control, belittles dependency, and demands equality.”

Ch 5 – Can Do! The Protestant Work Ethic Takes on the Degradation of Desire

“This emphasis on physical achievement rather than desire and pleasure goes hand in hand with an emphasis on genitals, and reinforces the dominant male orientation. The penis is the new patient, having replaced its human owner, and the ability to achieve and maintain a steely erection overshadows any other kind of sexual proficiency.”

“We’ve become exceedingly preoccupied with frequency of sexual activity and number of orgasms.”

Ch 6 – Sex is Dirty; Save it for Someone You Love: When Puritanism and Hedonism Collide

“The sexual culture tells us what is attractive and what we should want (as if we were incapable of finding out for ourselves whom to desire and what turns us on).”

““It seems OK to ask for what you really need,” I explain, “but to ask for something just because you want it or like it is selfish. Pleasure itself, unless you’ve earned it, is dubious. It also raises the question of how much you feel you deserve and are worthy of receiving—just because you’re you.””

Ch 7 – Erotic Blueprints: Tell Me How You Were Loved, and I’ll Tell You How You Make Love

“Bodily sensations dominate our first awareness of our environment and our earliest interactions with our caregivers. The body is a memory bank for the sensual pleasures of the skin. How often do I hear men and women in my office implore each other, “Can you just hold me?” The soothing powers of a hug hold at forty no less than at five.”

“Our ability to step away from our loved ones while trusting their steadfastness is forged in the security of our childhood bonds. The more we trust, the farther we are able to venture.”

Ch 8 – Parenthood: When Three Threatens Two

“There’s an assumption—and you’re not alone—that we need only pursue what we don’t yet possess. The trick is that in order to keep our partner erotically engaged we have to become more seductive, not less.”

Ch 9 – Of Flesh and Fantasy: In the Sanctuary of the Erotic Mind We Find a Direct Route to Pleasure

“If we feel insecure and unattractive, in our fantasies we are irresistible. If we anticipate a withholding woman, in fantasy she’s insatiable. If we fear our own aggression, in our internal reveries we can feel powerful without worrying that we might hurt another. If we don’t dare ask, in our erotic imaginings the other knows our needs even before we do. If we feel we shouldn’t have sex, in our private theater we can surrender to a lustful other without having to bear the responsibility—we did what he wanted, it wasn’t us. Fantasy expresses the problem and provides the solution.”

“Consciously, Joni identifies with the women in her [rape fantasy] stories. But she also created the men, and she has every detail in place. In effect, she plays all the parts. She knows what it means to be a sexual predator: she knows about lust and ruthlessness. Vicariously, through her cowboys, she gets to feel aggression, selfishness, and power—all attributes so wrapped up with masculinity in her mind that they can be expressed only through male characters.”

“For many women, simulations of forced seduction provide a safe outlet for sexual aggression.”

“The widespread sexual abuse of women is a chilling backdrop to the now pedestrian rape fantasy, but in these imaginary plots the assault is not real. Few women incorporate a black eye or a split lip into their erotic reveries.”

“Heterosexual pornography, predominantly produced by and for men, concerns itself almost exclusively with what the sociologist Anthony Giddens calls “low emotion, high intensity sex.” In part, it meets the need of many men to compartmentalize their sexual and emotional lives, and to separate their secure relationships from their rash urges. But it also serves an additional purpose not immediately apparent. While opponents of porn focus primarily on the aggression and violence of male sexuality, Giddens makes the point that the male potency displayed in these stories is a manifest reassurance against male insecurities—sexual and other. The female characters in much pornography (themselves invulnerable) neutralize male vulnerability because they are always fully responsive and fully satisfied. The man never suffers from inadequacy, because the woman is in a state of ecstatic bliss that is entirely his doing. She confirms his virility.”

Ch 10 – The Shadow of the Third: Rethinking Fidelity

“Discussing fidelity implies that it’s open to discussion, no longer an imperative. The prospect of betrayal is too dark, so we avoid the subject with practiced denial. We fear that the smallest chink in our armor will let in Sodom and Gomorrah. Despite a 50 percent divorce rate for first marriages and 65 percent the second time around; despite the staggering frequency of affairs; despite the fact that monogamy is a ship sinking faster than anyone can bail it out, we continue to cling to the wreckage with absolute faith in its structural soundness.”

“Historically, monogamy was an externally imposed system of control over women’s reproduction. “Which child is mine? Who gets the cows when I die?” Fidelity, as a mainstay of patriarchal society, was about lineage and property; it had nothing to do with love. Today, particularly in the West, it has everything to do with love.”

“In our adult love we seek to recapture the primordial oneness we felt with Mom. The baby knows no separateness. Once upon a time, there was one person whose only role was to be there for us. In the ecstatic communion between mother and child, there is no gap. … Those of us who didn’t know this idyllic state—those with mothers who were unavailable, inconsistent, absent, or selfish—are often even more determined to find the perfect partner.”

“The question remains: isn’t the oneness we strive to restore itself a fantasy? For the child, Mom is the be-all and end-all, but the mother has always known other people. She even has a jealous lover, the father. As it turns out, Mom was never totally faithful—not even once upon a time.”

“So the specter of betrayal is there from the beginning. We grow up with it. The isolating conditions of modern life only amplify the rumbling insecurity that hides in the background of our romantic possessiveness. … In a culture where everything is disposable and downsizing confirms just how replaceable we really are, our need to feel secure in our primary relationship is all the greater. … We want to know that we matter, and that, for at least one person, we are irreplaceable. … Perhaps this is why our insistence on sexual exclusivity is absolute. Because adult sexual love momentarily reenacts that most primitive form of early fusion—the merging of bodies, the nipple that fills our entire mouth and leaves us completely satiated—the thought of our beloved with another is cataclysmic. Sex, we feel, is the ultimate betrayal. Monogamy, it follows, is the sacred cow of the romantic ideal, for it is the marker of our specialness: I have been chosen and others renounced. When you turn your back on other loves, you confirm my uniqueness; when your hand or mind wanders, my importance is shattered. Conversely, if I no longer feel special, my own hands and mind tingle with curiosity. The disillusioned are prone to roam. Might someone else restore my significance?”

“People stray for many reasons—tainted love, revenge, unfulfilled longings, plain old lust. At times an affair is a quest for intensity, or a rebellion against the confines of matrimony. Transgression is an aphrodisiac, and sometimes secrets are a source of autonomy, or a backlash against lack of privacy. What could be more titillating than a whispered phone call in the bathroom?”

“I question the widespread view that infidelity is always a symptom of deeper problems in a relationship. Affairs are motivated by myriad forces; not all of them are directly related to flaws in the marriage. As it happens, plenty of adulterers are reasonably content in their relationships.”

“Affairs are risky, dangerous, and labile, all elements that fuel excitement.”

“Then there are barriers to overcome. To see each other, you have to make an effort, sometimes a huge one. There are hoops to jump through, schedules to juggle, locations to secure, excuses to invent. And all that unflagging zeal repeatedly affirms the lovers’ importance to each other.”

“At the boundary of every couple lives the third. He’s the high school sweetheart whose hands you still remember, the pretty cashier, the handsome fourth-grade teacher you flirt with when you pick your son up at school. The smiling stranger on the subway is the third. So, too, are the stripper, the porn star, and the sex worker, whether touched or untouched. He is the one a woman fantasizes about when she makes love to her husband. Increasingly, she can be found on the Internet. Real or imagined, embodied or not, the third is the fulcrum on which a couple balances.”

“When the third is exiled to somewhere, only permitted outside the marriage, that is where he is sought.”

“Inviting the Shadow: Some couples choose not to ignore the lure of the forbidden. Instead, they subvert its power by inviting it in. “I would never want him to be unfaithful, but knowing it’s possible keeps me sexually interested in him.” “Pretending there are no handsome men in the world doesn’t make my relationship safer and certainly doesn’t make it more honest.” “My girlfriend is beautiful. Men are always coming on to her. The way she laughs it off makes me feel great; she keeps picking me.” These couples share fantasies, read erotica together, or reminisce about the past. They admit that, yes, the delivery man was hot.”

“We admit our roving desires, yet push them back. We flirt with them, all the while keeping them at a safe distance. Perhaps this is another way of looking at maturity: not as passionless love, but as love that knows of other passions not chosen.”

“Inviting the Third: For most people, the mention of sexually open relationships sets off the red warning lights. Few subjects having to do with committed love evoke such a visceral response. What if she falls in love with him? What if he never comes back?”

“Eric and Jaxon are also fans of recreational sex, and in the ten years they’ve been together they’ve always made a distinction between emotional loyalty and sexual exclusivity within their commitment. “Right from the start we talked about sex with other men. We’re open about it. For us, the real commitment is the emotional one. Sex outside the relationship isn’t a deal-breaker. I guess you could call us emotionally monogamous, sexually promiscuous.””

“It’s been my experience that couples who negotiate sexual boundaries, like the ones mentioned above, are no less committed than those who keep the gates closed. In fact, it is their desire to make the relationship stronger that leads them to explore other models of long-term love. Rather than expelling the third from the province of matrimony, they grant it a tourist visa.”

“I’d like to suggest that we view monogamy not as a given but as a choice.”

Ch 11 – Putting the X Back in Sex: Bringing the Erotic Home

“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.”

“For this reason, I urge my patients not to be spontaneous about sex. Spontaneity is a fabulous idea, but in an ongoing relationship whatever is going to “just happen” already has. Now they have to make it happen. Committed sex is intentional sex. “I couldn’t resist” has to become “I don’t want to resist.” “We just fell into each other’s arms” has to become “Let me take you in my arms.””

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

“Is it harder to want what you already have? The law of diminishing returns tells us that increased frequency leads to decreased satisfaction. The more you use a product, the less satisfying each subsequent use will be. Paris just isn’t the same on your fifteenth trip as it was on the first. Fortunately, the logic of this argument breaks down when it is applied to love, for it is based on the erroneous assumption that we can own a person in the same way that we can own an iPod or a new pair of Prada heels. When my friend Jane said, “Perhaps I only want what I can’t have,” I responded, “What makes you think you have your husband?” … 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 her 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.”

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