Esther Perel on Mating in Captivity

Esther Perel on Mating in Captivity

by Lori Schwanbeck
An unorthodox couples therapist discusses her multicultural, questioning approach to Western notions of romance, the enshrinement of the emotionally exclusive marital relationship, and how sex relates to intimacy and freedom.


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Lori Schwanbeck: You are widely known around the world for your unique and thought-provoking stance on what makes marriage work. Can you tell us a little bit about your perspective and what makes it unique?
Esther Perel: I was originally trained in psychodynamic psychotherapy, but my real home for many years has been in family systems theory—I trained with Salvador Minuchin, and then in psychodrama, expressive arts therapies, and bioenergetics. And for many years, I worked extensively as a cross-cultural psychologist with couples and families in cultural transition, primarily refugees, internationals, and mixed marriages—interracial, interreligious, and intercultural couples.
LS: So you saw a lot of different people's lives.
EP: Yes, I'm interested in difference. I'm interested in the relationship between the individual and the larger context, looking specifically at gender relations and childbearing practices. I then added my interest in sexuality, so that I'm now working at the intersection between culture, couples, and sexuality.

I also like to work with clinicians, be they physicians or mental health professionals, to promote the integration of sexuality within the couples therapy world, and to integrate relational thinking within the sexuality world.
LS: What do you think is missing in most clinicians' approaches to working with sexuality and intimacy in the Western world?
EP: I just read a whole review article by Eli Coleman about sexuality training in medical schools, and it has undergone yet another major decline since 2010. We would have thought we were finally creating comprehensive training in sexuality for physicians, but we are not. So what is missing? First and foremost, for mental health professionals as well as for all health professionals, is training: the acknowledgment of sexual health as an integrated part of general mental and physical health. The vast majority of couples therapists have had no training in sexuality whatsoever—maybe an hour here and there. Couples therapy has become, over the years, a desexualized practice. Sex is the elephant in the room.
Couples therapy has become a desexualized practice. Sex is the elephant in the room.
Most therapists do not talk about it, don't know how to talk about it, and often wait for a couple to bring it up. And the couple themselves are often uncomfortable talking about it, so it remains the unaddressed subject, though it's often hardly insignificant.

A Better Sexual Relation

LS: You see our sexuality, our erotic life, as vital in the health of a couple.
EP: I see a couple's erotic life as an important dimension of their relationship because it is an integral part of the romantic ideal that is the dominant model of modern love. We took love and brought it to marriage or committed relationships. We then sexualized love. Then with the democratization of contraception, we liberated women from the mortal dangers that were associated with sex, and sex got separated from its sole reproduction function—as Anthony Giddens says, it became a reflexive project of the self, an ongoing process of self-definition. We have, for the first time in history, a sexuality within long-term relationships that isn't about having ten kids or a woman's marital duty, but that is rooted in desire, i.e., in the sovereign free will of individuals to engage sexually with their partners. And in the process, we have linked sexual satisfaction with marital happiness; that is what has made sexuality an important element of modern marriages.

I realized in writing Mating in Captivity that I was not interested only in sexuality, per se. And I certainly was not so interested in, "Are people having sex? How often? How hard? How many? How long? Are you a sexless couple because you have less than 11 sexual interactions a year?" and so forth. My interests lie not in the statistics of sex or the perfect performance industry that pervade our society.

Instead, I found I was really interested in what makes a couple feel a sense of aliveness, vibrancy, vitality—of Eros as a life force. When couples complain about the listlessness of their sex lives, they sometimes may want to have more sex, but they will always want a better sexual relation. And they will invoke the experience of renewal, of connectedness, of playfulness, of mystery, of regeneration, of power.

My distinction between sex and eroticism actually came out of my work in trauma. My husband directs the International Trauma Studies Program at Columbia, and he works a lot with torture survivors. I would wonder, "When do you know that you have reconnected with life after a traumatic experience?" It's when people are once again able to be creative and playful, to go back into the world and into the parts of them that invite discovery, exploration, and expansiveness—when they're once again able to claim the free elements of themselves and not only the security-oriented parts of themselves.

In the community of Holocaust concentration camp survivors in Antwerp, Belgium where I grew up, there were two groups: those who didn't die, and those who came back to life. And those who didn't die were people who lived tethered to the ground, afraid, untrusting. The world was dangerous, and pleasure was not an option. You cannot play, take risks, or be creative when you don't have a minimum of safety, because you need a level of unself-consciousness to be able to experience excitement and pleasure. Those who came back to life were those who understood eroticism as an antidote to death.
LS: That's a very powerful statement. Do you find many couples that come to you dead in their relationships?
EP: Yes, but it's not always in their relationships. Sometimes they feel deadened inside of themselves as individuals.
I think that one of the prime motives for transgression is trying to beat back a feeling of deadness.
I think that one of the prime motives for transgression is trying to beat back a feeling of deadness. And the deadness isn't the fault of the other person at all. It may be a slow progression of an atrophy that has taken place inside themselves. I think that when people miss a sexual connection, there's often one partner who misses it more than the other. That longing, that yearning for that feeling of aliveness, of connection, of transcendence, of vitality, of energy, of rush is what people talk about. And on the other side of that, they will talk about feeling flat, feeling numb, feeling shut down, feeling dead.
LS: It sounds like you're really talking about eroticism as an expression of libido, of life energy. How do you support couples in reinvigorating the passion in their lives?
EP: There's a little exercise that I like to do, which I borrowed from the work of Gina Ogden. I ask the each partner in the couple to complete the statement, "I shut myself down when... I turn myself off when..."

We tend to talk about "what shuts me off" and "what turns me off"; we say, "You turn me off," but we don't often ask the question, "When do I turn myself off?" "I turn myself off when I look at an email just before going to bed. I turn myself off when I am disinterested in what you're talking about. I turn myself off when I worry about the kids. I turn myself off when I remember my childhood." What do I do to shut myself down? "I turn myself off when I don't take time for myself."
LS: It's really about personal responsibility.
EP: That's exactly it. So the partners go back and forth, and they can come up with a list of 10 or 15 each. And then we come to, "I turn myself on when...I become alive when..."—not just sexually. Because if you're feeling dead, the other person can wear the nicest Victoria's Secret lingerie (and there is no Victor's Secret, you know), and it's not going to do anything because there's nobody at the reception desk.

Most of the time, in response to the "I turn myself on" question, people will say things like, "When I am with friends. When I go out dancing. When I take time in nature. When I take time for myself. When I've accomplished something that I'm proud of"—things that have to do with our sense of self-worth, our connection to meaning, and our sense of pleasure—things that make us feel alive.

Then you ask a person, "You tell me you like to dance. When's the last time you went to dance?" And if they tell you, "It's been months," or, "It's been years," then, before you start to work on anything connected to sexuality, you say to them, "I think it's high time you went dancing, since it seems to be something you really love to do."
LS: When you say that modern couples therapy has become a desexualized profession, it really sounds like you're talking about more than just sex, but really about tracking and supporting aliveness in people.
EP: I think that there are a few forces that desexualize couples therapy today. One is the notion that sexual problems are the consequence of relational problems. Then it follows that, if you fix the relationship, the sex will follow. Therefore, if all sexual problems are relational problems of complicity, of intimacy, of communication, of trust, and all of that, then there are no sexual problems. So we don't talk about sex because sex is just a consequence of something else.
LS: And you're saying it stands alone as a phenomenon in a relationship.
EP: I don't think that sexuality is only a metaphor: "Tell me about the state of the union and I know by extension what happens in the bedroom." I think that sexuality is a parallel narrative. I think, in fact, that when you change a couple's sexual relationship, it has an effect on every other part of their lives.
When you change people's relationships to their own sexual selves and their ability to connect with others, you have touched them at the core.
When you change people's relationships to their own sexual selves and their ability to connect with others, you have touched them at the core, because it's everything: mind, body, spirit, breath.

Love and desire both relate and conflict. Looking at the way people connect and their emotional history is very important, but it gets translated into the physicality of self, and then it inhabits its own narrative. They are parallel stories and they need to be looked at as such. So that's one.

Another element of the desexualization, which is, I would say, stronger here in the United States, is related to the fact that the focus over the last decades has been on security, attachment theory, the need for safety, and much less on the need for freedom, sovereignty, and self-determination. This is because we are working within a context that is among the more egalitarian contexts of the West, and one where people are often so individual and so alone that all the theories that have proliferated have been theories of connection. In the few decades before, they were all theories of individuation. It's like in art: you have one wave succeeding another. This is not a time when, in this country, people are very interested in investigating the need for freedom. That happens in environments where people are a lot more oppressed, and where they are overly connected in layers of extended family. That is not the dominant concern here, existentially or socially. And sexuality plays itself in both realms. You need a certain security for sex, for some people—not for everybody. But you certainly need a lot of freedom for sex.

Balancing Security and Freedom

LS: Tell us more about how that need for security and need for freedom can coexist.
EP: For me, the reference person is Stephen Mitchell, who in his work in Can Love Last? looked at how modern love and romanticism have brought us to try to reconcile within one relationship, within one person, fundamentally sets of opposing human needs.

In every epic story—in The Odyssey, for example—there is the home and the journey, the travel and the base. Today we want our needs for security, predictability, stability, reliability, dependability—all the anchoring, grounding elements of our lives—to be met in the same relationship with the person from whom we also expect adventure, novelty, mystery, and all of that. We still want what marriage always gave us, which was about economic support, companionship, family life, and social respectability, and on top of it, we want our partner to want us, to cherish us, to be our trusted confidant and our best friend. In effect, we are asking one person to give us what once an entire community used to provide.
LS: It's a lot to ask for.
EP: We've never tried to experience both like that at that level in the history of human relationships. We also live twice as long—a hundred years ago, we died seven years after we were done raising children. So the longevity of what we expect from a monogamous, committed relationship is also unprecedented.

There is something about the enshrinement of the modern couple that has basically made it this hermetic unit where we have get all our needs met, rather than understand that there are certain things you're going to get from your sister, your aunt, your grandmother, your best friend, your colleague. I think that we can have multiple intimacies that are friendships and deep relationships with other people.

The model for me is really seeing the movement between freedom and security, which are the two pillars of development—connection and autonomy, independence and dependence. I think they are the two main pillars of growing up. And it is the same as any system. Every system needs to balance homeostasis and growth. It isn't just on an individual level. And every system regulates change and stability. So do individuals regulate connection and separateness.

The image that I often use in my work with couples is little kids: if everything is nice and going accordingly, you will have your child sit on your lap very cozy, nested, at ease, comfortable. And at some point, the child needs to jump out and go into the world to meet what are called the exploratory needs: freedom, independence, separateness, autonomy, all of that. If the little kid turns around, which kids always do, and looks to see what's going on with the adult, and the adult says, "Kiddo, the world's a beautiful place. Go for it. Enjoy it. I'm here," often the child will turn around and go further, and experience at the same time connection and independence, freedom and security. At some point, she has enough, and comes back to base and plops herself into your lap again, happily returning as an act of freedom to a place where she feels welcome because it offers security as well as the respect for freedom.

But if, on the other hand, the little child turns around and the adult says, "I need you. I'm alone. I miss you. I'm depressed. I'm anxious. I'm worried. What is so great out there? Why don't you want to be with me? My partner hasn't paid any attention to me"—any of the messages that basically say to the child, without ever saying it in words, "Come back"—then there are a number of dominant responses. One common one is that the child comes back, because we'll do anything not to lose the connection, since that's the primary need.

But we will sometimes lose a part of ourselves in order not to lose the other. We will forgo our need for freedom and space and separateness in order not to lose the other and the connection. And we will learn a way of loving that will have a certain excess emotional burden, responsibility, worry, that is beyond the normal elements of love that have to do with mutuality, reciprocity, care, and responsibility—so much so that once I love you, I can no longer leave you enough to be able to experience the freedom and the unself-consciousness that are necessary for sexual excitement and sexual pleasure. The adult makes that motion into sex: the ability to be inside myself while I am with another. If, when I am with another, I have to leave myself, stay outside of myself, basically, I can't even culminate. Physiologically, we cannot come if we don't have a moment where we can be completely with ourselves and inside ourselves in the presence of another.
LS: So it's really holding that dialectic of being both within yourself while also connected.
EP: Yes. But when you talk about intimacy, you need attachment as a precondition for connection. In the realm of desire, separateness is a precondition for connection.
Love needs closeness. Desire needs space.
Love needs closeness. Desire needs space.
LS: Could you give us a practical example from a couple that you've worked with of how someone can have both connection and separateness? And what does separateness mean within a relationship?
EP: Imagine the person says, "I turn myself on when I go to the movies alone." Not sexually, right? "I come to life. I connect to my desires in the realm of pleasure"—that broad sense of the word "sex."
Sex isn't something you do. It's a place you go, inside yourself and with another or others. It's a space you enter.
Sex isn't something you do. It's a place you go, inside yourself and with another or others. It's a space you enter. I work in the erotic space, if you want. It's not an act. People have had sex for generations and felt nothing. I am not into promoting people having sex, but having a certain relationship with a certain dimension of your life.

So, if they say, "I like to go to the movies," then the next question will be, "Do you go?" And you will listen to the degree to which they tell you, "It's hard for me to leave," or, "It's hard for my partner when I leave," or, "No, it's just a matter of circumstances. Lately, I haven't had a chance to go, but it's never been an issue for me," or, "When I come back, I'm always worried." The third child I didn't describe is the one who does go, but is constantly looking over his shoulder, making sure that the adult here isn't going to punish him, reject him, become depressed, or collapse on him when he returns.

So the person says, "I don't go often to the movies alone, or listen to music, or play my music for that matter"—or whatever it is—"because when I come home, I experience that anxiety, that knot in my stomach that I'm not going to be told, 'How was it? How wonderful,' or I'm not going to be told, 'Stay out as long as you want. Everything's fine. Enjoy yourself.' I'm going to be told when I leave, 'Again you have to go? When are you coming back? Why are you staying out so late? Why do you not want to go with me?' I'm going to hear comments that basically say, 'Give up your freedom so that I can feel secure.'"

That is a classic transaction in the couple, versus, "I'm happy for whatever it is that you are experiencing elsewhere, even when it has nothing to do with me, because you bring this back, and that makes you a more interesting and alive person that maintains a certain vitality between us."
LS: If we use attachment language, it sounds like you're trying to cultivate secure attachment.
EP: Yes, and a secure attachment for me isn't a singular experience: there is not always just one person to whom we turn. And I think it's a difference in culture. There are loads of places in the world that are more likely to think that your partner is the person with whom you experience parts of your life, while friends and family provide the existence of multiple safe harbors.
LS: So secure attachment for you is about feeling securely attached in the world, in your life, but not exclusively attached to one person. That's a big difference.
EP: Right. The enshrinement of the modern couple is connected to the exclusiveness. I don't think we are more insecure today than we were before, but I think
We bring all our security needs to one person, and then we blame them for whatever is missing in our lives.
we bring all our security needs to one person, and then we blame them for whatever is missing in our lives. God forbid you have conversations with others that you should be having with your partner, because that becomes an emotional infidelity. The system is rigged with injunctions against leaving the relationship in any way possible—not just in sexual terms.

A Vibrant Field Has Multiple Voices

LS: How are you finding your ideas are holding up in our Western culture? Are other therapists embracing them, or is there a push back that you're finding when you teach?
EP: I think that a vibrant field is a field that has multiple voices. When I wrote my book, it wasn't written for professionals. I did not think that it was going to become one of those voices—that it would be embraced in the couples and sexuality fields, as it has by some. I'm happy that it is one of the many voices. One of the things that you get when you work cross-culturally, as I do, is that every time you hear a truth in one place, you know that another place is thinking of it completely differently. The pacifier, the baby's bed, the baby's crying don't mean the same thing in every culture. And it's very refreshing to be located in a much more multicultural, nuanced, nonjudgmental, relative way of thinking. It works for me.

I think that there are people who have difficulty with what I talk about, and there are people who find a tremendous sense of affirmation in what I talk about—this is how they have been thinking, and they've been looking for that approach. I'm glad to be part of the conversation, and I'm glad to be a stimulant in the conversation.
LS: You're certainly that, and it is very refreshing. It's almost like you're bringing that multicultural perspective of relationships into a multicultural perspective of how to do therapy, as well—how to hold and look at a relationship and embrace different perspectives
EP: I think that romanticism has appeared in every part of the world, even in very traditional cultures. And wherever romanticism has appeared, people are investing more in love than ever before, and divorcing more in the name of love—or the disillusions of love—than ever before. And
I think that wherever romanticism has appeared, there's a crisis of desire.
I think that wherever romanticism has appeared, there's a crisis of desire.

Originally, I wrote my book from the perspective of a European therapist observing American sexuality. I started the original article during the Clinton and Lewinsky scandal because I was very intrigued as to why this society was so tolerant towards divorce—you can divorce three, four times without much stigma these days—but it was very intransigent towards any transgression or infidelity, whereas the more traditional family-oriented world had always compromised towards infidelity (a burden carried primarily by women, I should add), in the name of preserving the family, and separated the well-being of the couple from the well-being of the family.

I had no idea that I would be going to 20 countries on book tour. In the process, I began to realize that a crisis of desire was nothing unique to this country. It is really part of the romantic model and the changing meanings of sexuality in modern committed relationship.

But there are some unique features to this culture that have to do certainly with its relationship to sexuality. First, it's a society that often relates to sexuality as smut or sanctimony, titillation on the one side, and condemnation on the other side. It vacillates between extremes.

Second, it's a society that has certain views about transparency, and about transparency as essential to intimacy: wholesale sharing, telling it all, being explicit, not beating around the bush. I think that this is a society that looks at honesty from the point of view of a confession. Minimal tolerance for ambiguity and the imponderables is what makes American business great, but it's not necessarily what other cultures bring into the private sphere.

Keeping Secrets

LS: You're saying that the emphasis on complete transparency and honesty actually gets in the way of creating a vital relationship?
EP: I think that one should know that, while it is obvious in some cultures, like here, that if I can tell you everything then we are closer, there are other cultures—sometimes your own neighbors—who actually think that the ability to maintain privacy is what enhances intimacy, and not necessarily transparency.
LS: It's a big difference.
EP: It's a difference. And I think each one evolves in its own context. But it's very refreshing to know that there is a whole other way of looking and thinking out there that totally throws off what you take for granted. Working in New York City, I get people from 15 countries coming into my office. I practice in many languages. I cannot assume that that a couple who came at nine o'clock and wants to tell each other everything is the same as the couple who comes at ten o'clock with a completely different notion of boundaries, individual space, the mandate for sharing, the hegemony of the word as a form of intimacy, gender structures, power dynamics, and so forth.
LS: The policy of not keeping secrets within the couple is also widely held among therapists here. I'm wondering if you have a different perspective. As a therapist, do you have the same policy that many therapists have of not holding secrets?
EP: There is a clear hierarchy of secrets. There is only one particular secret that therapists really grapple with in terms of credibility, ethics, and mode of working. If you tell your therapist that you have had a miserable sexual relationship with your partner for years, that you've been faking it forever, that you can't stand his smell, or her looks, or whatever it is, you rarely will hear a therapist say, "Either you need to tell your spouse, or you have to go to individual therapy." That's also a big sexual secret. I cannot imagine a partner one day after 27 years finding out that their wife or their husband has been lying and faking to them all these years. They'd be no less crushed. But somehow that one doesn't do it. It is really any one of the secrets in the range of the infidelity spectrum. And even if you raided your bank account, a therapist would not usually say, "If you don't tell, I can't start working with you."
LS: So you have more of a subjective stance to the issue of whether or not full transparency between your clients is ultimately serving them.
EP: I think it needs to be examined. Sometimes it's dangerous. In the field of infidelity, I would align myself very much with the work of Janis Spring, Michele Scheinkman, Tammy Nelson, or Stephen Levine, who are examining the concept of keeping a secret. Today, in the first session with any couple, I will say, "I will see you as sometimes together and sometimes apart—I don't know how much of each. When I will meet you apart, it's because I think that there's certain conversations that may be better held alone, because you will be less defensive. You will take more responsibility. You will be more able to examine yourself quietly. You won't be in the reactive stance. And those will be confidential conversations, which means that each of you will probably tell me things that your partner may not know. And you will decide at what point you want to share that."

I'm often asked, "What do I do with the secret of infidelity?" I sit with it, because sometimes the secret is the therapy. Or, as Janis Spring says, "Giving up on the secret is the therapy." Then the question is, is revelation mandatory? It is often seen as mandatory here. The concept that intimacy needs to be rebuilt through transparency and revelation doesn't take into account that for some people, revelation may be more traumatic, which then is answered by other people who say, "But, somehow experiencing the trauma is part of rebuilding the relationship." But that's one view.

So I work with secrets. If I agree to work with the couple, I take the couple as it comes to me. It's not for me to decide what risks people need to take in terms of revealing their secrets. There are major power imbalances in society—major risks involved for women to reveal certain secrets, for instance. I very carefully assess with them what is safe. I've learned that when I go to Cuba, Mexico, and other places, I can't just take transparency as a norm without looking at the political and social implications of gender politics. In that sense, the dominant theories and trends du jour are not as contextual as systemic thinking used to be.
LS: What advice would you give to therapists in looking at their own erotic lives, in terms of how that's going to affect the way they show up with clients?
EP: There are two levels: the professional and the personal. On the professional level, I think you want to continue to learn, renew yourself, grow. I think it's particularly important for experienced therapists to not stop growing, to not stop listening to other people.

Every time I go to a workshop or a conference, I know that I work differently the week that follows. I am filled up. I am renewed. I'm trying out new things, stepping outside of my own comfort zone. Every time I go and I lecture some place, I ask people, "Has my work grown? Has it changed? Have the ideas matured? I hope I'm not repeating the same thing." At this moment in my work, I have made new choices, different choices than the ones I certainly was trained with—or indoctrinated with, we could say, because they were never questioned.

I also think that it's very important for me, anyway, as a therapist, to read anthropology, history, poetry. The arts are a lot more able to deal with the complexities of love, sex, desire, and transgression than psychotherapy is. The greatest novels, movies, and poems capture the complexities and the contradictions of our life. I strive towards the embrace of the contradictions, or the dialectic, and not necessarily towards the dogma. I tend to work more on the side of art than on the side of science. And to work in the realm of art is to work with the unknown, rather than to want to simplify the known and to make it predictable and organized. I don't have a set model in that sense.

Maybe what people have appreciated about my work is the fact that I am questioning our assumptions. I really don't think I have the truth on things, even though I sometimes sound very confident. But I am willing to ask myself, "Is this the only way? And who says? And must it be this way? And for whom?" The people who come to study with me do so because I'm out of the box, not because they're going to get a nicely structured framework. There are a lot of other important elements to couples' lives, but it happens to be that this existential dimension is the one I have become very interested in. So I write about that.

And personally, make sure you stay alive. Make sure you stay in touch with your own experience of pleasure, of receiving, of giving, of sexuality, of your body. Don't disconnect, or you will bring that into your work, and it doesn't benefit anybody.

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Esther Perel Esther Perel, MFT, is recognized as one of the world's most original and insightful voices on couples and sexuality across cultures. Fluent in nine languages, the Belgian native is a celebrated speaker sought around the globe for her expertise in emotional and erotic intelligence, work-life balance, cross-cultural relations, conflict resolution and identity of modern marriage and family. Her best-selling and award-winning book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, has been translated into 24 languages.
Lori Schwanbeck Lori Schwanbeck, MFT, is a mindfulness-based psychotherapist practicing in San Francisco and Marin. She has completed intensive training in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and is certified in Hakomi Body-Oriented Psychotherapy. In addition to her clinical work, Lori has been an adjunct professor at JFK University and is a sought-after speaker and trainer of mindfulness and experiential methods of teaching DBT skills. Lori is co-founder of Mindfulness Therapy Associates.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Discuss the importance of freedom in sexuality, romance, and attachment
  • Describe different perspectives on secrets in couples therapy
  • Apply a multicultural approach to treating relationships

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here