An exclusive interview I did with Esther Perel for Positive Life magazine.
Psychologist Esther Perel is recognised as one of the world’s most original and insightful voices on couples and sexuality across cultures. Her best-selling and award-winning book, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, has been translated into 24 languages. Here’s what she had to say to us:
100 years ago, intimacy was simply living together, sharing the companionship and vicissitudes of life. Today, “into me see” is about transcending your existential aloneness by sharing your inner life with another. My experience of closeness with you is my ability to share my feelings, fears, aspirations and dreams with you, and for you to be reflective, to validate me, to make me feel like I matter, because I’m sharing my most precious property – my inner life – with you.
Attraction is how much we are drawn in by a person, by their looks, their energy, their radiance, their intelligence; how much they elicit (in us) a sense of wonder, curiosity and aesthetics.
Desire likes meeting with the unknown, mystery, and surprise. It needs space, otherness and difference to thrive. It needs a bridge to cross and somebody to visit on the other side.
Love likes to know the beloved, to narrow the gap, to neutralise the threat, to minimise the distance. Love wants mutuality, reciprocity, care and responsibility.
Desire versus Love
Those ingredients that are central to Love can often stifle Desire, because if you feel too responsible for someone, worry too much about them, if they make you anxious, then you cannot retreat into your own playful, imaginative, exploratory world in order to experience pleasure and excitement, to play sexually, and then experience the pleasure of being with another.
Possessiveness does not have much to do with Love. It’s really about Patriarchy. It’s about a power structure in society. Real love is the ability to let the other person go, rather than to want to own them. At most, your partner is on loan with an option to renew, but they never belong to you.
Freedom versus Control
On some level, possessiveness and control are reactions to a profound anxiety that you may lose the other person. We hope to diminish our fear of losing the other by trying to own them, to possess them, to control them; but people are more likely to stay and to come back voluntarily when they feel free than when they feel controlled.
In the western world today, consumerism is seeping into relationship thinking.
Is this the best choice? Is this the best I can find? Is this the right time? Will I lose my freedom? We have been so conditioned to develop our choices and autonomy that there is a greater fear for people to partner.
Usually, in a couple, one person is more afraid to lose the other (fear of abandonment), and the other is more afraid to lose themselves (fear of suffocation). We all need both connection and separateness, but some of us come out of our childhood needing more space, and some of us come out of our childhood needing more protection and connection; and we tend to partner with the person on the other side.
Some people are afraid to come too close because they are afraid of losing someone they’ve grown to love, and so they avoid the chance of being hurt. Then there are those who expected a relationship to make everything in their life perfect, and when it only changes one part of their life, they become disillusioned and then avoid any chance of being disappointed again.
New Model of Commitment
Some people who are afraid of commitment in a romantic relationship can be lifelong loyal friends, and be deeply committed to their family or their work. A fear of commitment doesn’t necessarily stretch across all areas of your life. It may be that the model of commitment you are being asked to adhere to doesn’t work for you. Some people may make a better partnership by not moving in together, for example.
Erotic couples respect each other’s erotic privacy. They understand that there are thoughts, drives, desires and fantasies that belong to the other and that are a part of their own intimacy with themselves. We need an intimacy with ourselves and an intimacy with our partner, and they live side by side.
Turn Yourself On
Knowing how to turn yourself on is essential. Instead of saying: “He/she turns me off/on when…,” I ask my clients to use the phrase: “I turn myself off/on when…” And what I hear from them is basically: “I turn myself off when I don’t take care of myself and I feel dead inside,” and, “I turn myself on when I feel alive, when my senses and curiosity are awakened, when I’m open.” What do you do to awaken your aliveness, your senses, your sexuality? If you don’t do that first, your partner may jump through hoops but you won’t necessarily respond.
Tantra is about the connection between consciousness, energy and breath, which a lot of lovers do not know about. They are very focused on genital orgasm, and have everything to learn from a tradition that talks about the whole body, and understands that breath can awaken you in very different ways than just manual stimulation.
I don’t see sex as something we do. I see sex as a place we go. Sexuality is a space you enter with yourself and with others. Many people can do sex but feel nothing. No one ever complains because they want more sex where they feel nothing; it’s always about better sex. “Better” means they want to reconnect with the quality of aliveness, vibrancy, vitality, renewal, playfulness and connection that they used to experience, or that they hoped they one day would.
Self-expression in sex has to do with where you go in yourself, what parts of yourself you connect to, what gets expressed in sex. Is it the part of you that’s more infantile, that wants to be taken care of, that likes to be more powerful, dominant and in control, that likes to be naughty and rebellious, that seeks to transcend the borders of your physicality in a spiritual union? “Where do you want to go in sex?” is the question you want to ask.
Contraception allows us, for the first time, to socialise sexuality, to think of it not as a property of biology and nature but as a property of oneself; so, we get to make decisions about it. With contraception, we get to decide when we want to have children. That is a revolutionary historic change.
Child centrality has never been so acute as it is today. We want our children to have our attention and our availability 24/7. So, it takes collaboration and creativity to be able to marry a romantic model that wants time, intimacy, sexuality and communication for the adult couple with this child centrality we are embracing. Both partners need to be able to set boundaries in which they agree: “Now, it’s our time.”
It’s very important that you create a space for the adults, including an erotic space, which means you can relax, be playful, not be part of Management Inc., and be in the zone of pleasure, which may or may not include sex.
If we preserve the couple, we preserve the family.