on 24 February 2007
There is a huge and perplexing quantity of literature out there crammed with
advice on how we may tackle the blandness of sex in a long term relationship and thus improve our sex lives; if only we were to follow those authors clearly laid out instruction manuals. Whilst this may be effective for many people, hoards are left asking themselves why they feel so much in a rut and unable to relate to the proposed steps forward. The trouble is, as Esther Perel puts it, “eroticism simply doesn’t lend itself to the rigors of scorekeeping” but “is an imaginative act” and “cannot be measured”. Furthermore, “no amount of will or reason can dictate our love dreams”. How can we desire what we already have? How do we liberate ourselves and re-discover excitement in a sexual relationship that has gone stale? In our long term relationships, how do we manage “the tension between security and adventure”, between commitment and eroticism, or put “the ‘X’ back in sex”? Answers can never be simple and Perel does not pretend otherwise. But what she does do, through case studies and discussion, is explore the paradox between separateness and closeness, as it is acted out in sex, in a way that is plucky, inspired, imaginative, intelligent and entertaining. It is extremely well written and does not hide behind a lot of psychoanalytic jargon, thus making it accessible to the lay as well as the specialist reader. As a professional in the field, I found it to be a first class piece of writing that I can highly recommend.
on 29 March 2011
Esther Perel asks how do we bring lust home? We all need security, love and commitment but eroticism can be lost with repetition and familiarity. Desire is about wanting. Can we - and our partner - want what we have? This is what she says...
Erotic intelligence is about bringing the space between two people to life. Desire needs a degree of distance, elusiveness, excitement, fun, fascination, adventure, discovery, novelty, change, uncertainty, mystery, anxiety of the unknown and anticipation.
We advocate togetherness but we also need autonomy, freedom and personal fulfilment and therefore we should allow a little space in our relationships. If we lose our separateness then connection can no longer occur. For example we shouldn't feel we have to talk about everything - women especially can share too much such that doing so becomes obligatory with nothing left to seek. We are two different people and have a sexual self which is individual, generates its own images and is aware when it gets turned on unexpectedly.
Esther believes fantasy is important, since it allows us to break rules and to have some freedom and excitement, escaping the constraints of life. We shouldn't worry that the erotic imagination is fuelled by a host of improper feelings- lust, aggression, power, neediness. In fact fantasy can be a reaction to unconscious pressures. What turns us on often goes against our preferred self image and our moral convictions, but there's no need to feel ashamed or guilty about our fantasies. Acknowledging one's eroticism is healthy but we should be wary of detailed sharing of our fantasies with our partners.
Esther talks about the '3rd person' in other words someone else, real or imagined, whom we or our partner desires. The 3rd is the forbidden- what lies outside the fence, who's presence is a fact of life. To refuse to acknowledge anyone else, even in fantasy, as a result of insisting on perfect love, implies a fragile relationship where monogamy is enforced compliance rather than a free expression of loyalty. We choose to renounce others- but we don't need to deaden our senses to protect our relationship. Acknowledging the 3rd reinforces the erotic separateness of our partner. We shouldn't choke freedom of thought if we want desire to breathe within marriage.
Temptation is normal, as are injunctions against temptation and infidelity. Knowing that it is possible for our partner to be unfaithful keeps us sexually interested and reminds us that we shouldn't take them for granted. Pretending that there are no attractive people out there doesn't make the relationship more safe and certainly not more honest. This other person, the 3rd person, shouldn't be a threat or a shadow but something to add spice, make our partner a little mysterious, make us slightly unnerved, and increase our desire for them. Renouncing others reaffirms our choice. We admit our roving desires and reject them. There's no need for fear or moral outrage.
So can we always want what we have?... We don't actually own our partner. Separateness is undeniable. We should have erotic intelligence and revere the erotic, embrace our fantasies and the existence of 'the 3rd'- someone else who catches our eye or that of our parner. Esther Perel says desire resists confinement, we should be both separate and together, cultivating intimacy that respects privacy, and bring lust home.
Great book. The monogamist's essential read!
on 12 May 2011
Have you ever wondered why affairs are so common? Have you ever actually questioned why the whole -"meet someone you fancy, fall in love, live happily ever after" kinda doesn't really happen and noticed that adult relationships are actually way loads more complicated than this - then this book is for you and will help you address much of your resultant confusion. Its an exceptionally well written book - it is clear it has been well researched, considered and thought about, and the author clearly has considerable expertise in this area.
As a therapist and clinician I found myself nodding in agreement with so much of what was written - I noticed how much of my own knowledge and experience mapped exactly with her findings and many of her observations resonated powerfully for me: speaking truths and realities so seldom mentioned in our society and so often specifically avoided in our education about relationships.
The primary focus of the book is exploring and seeking to understand how sex, sexuality and erotic desire exist within an intimate relationship and how sexual desire and emotional intimacy are not necessarily compatible. In clear and straight forward language she both illustrates and explains the mechanisms by which sexual desire and passion are ignited or indeed damped (or potentially extinguished) and goes on to show how many of our thoughts about emotional closeness and emotional intimacy fly in the face of raw sex desire.
She makes the point that monogamy was historically a patriarchal mechanism to control the fertility and reproductive capacity of women: yet in the 21st century we need to wake up to new ideas around male and female sexuality and indeed on the value or purpose of monogamy against other models of sexual relationship. This book can help people re-evaluate their understandings on the significance of sexual enactment both within and outside of committed intimate relationships and it also offers less pejorative conceptualisations on modern challenges on such things as cybersex.
I was particularly impressed by the fact that she has included same sex relationships quite naturally within the text and also takes a balanced and healthy view of how Kink/BDSM enact within healthy erotic desire. She makes the point that healthy BDSM and Kink are about consensual power-play and fantasy exploration, and very much not about abuse as is so often misunderstood.
In exploring and explaining the dynamics of sex within a marriage she of course has needed to consider the basis of marriage and how this has dramatically changed in recent history. She makes the point that whilst previously marriage acted as a "pragmatic institution" based on the financial dependency of women on men, modern marriage is a contract of choice not compulsion and implicit in that is that a marriage must meet the needs of both parties for it to work. When needs go unmet there is the potential for either legitimate or indeed illegitimate outsourcing. In that regard, I'd say this book is particularity poignant for mature couples to read - my clinical work has consistently shown that there is a vulnerability in longer established relationships especially around later middle age when affairs seem extraordinarily common - understanding that any combination of mid-life reflection and regret; concerns over failing health of parents; dealing with bereavements; stress-ors around work and career; and the challenge of offspring leaving home; can all place heavy burdens on a marriage that can see passion and sex go out the bedroom door and lead the unwitting to fall vulnerable to the flattering attentions of a friend or work colleague.
The book ultimately presents an optimistic message that encourages people to take a more adult view of how sex and marriage work and offers insight into how intimacy disquiets might be worked around within a committed intimate relationship. I would recommend this book without hesitation - it will provide answers to individuals facing the challenge of declining or lost desire within their relationship and is particularly useful for therapists working with clients who present with relationship issues - both as a clinical source book and self-help resource.
Also recommended Arousal: The Secret Logic Of Sexual Fantasies
on 27 March 2013
I don't find it easy to give books a five star rating - I know how much I myself am influenced by reader reviews, though only the ones that are written well of course. In this case, I was not 'looking' for this book but the TED talk that Esther Perel gave displayed a very very sharp mind at work. It did not take long to find the book from which much of that wisdom came. There is presumably a chapter for everyone, (and that includes most persuasions) in this book. What is outstanding is the liberal philosophy the book espouses. The case studies are very much unique individuals under Perel's eye and the world which Perel inhabits so comfortably, is depicted as almost endless in its possibility, nothing that is here is formulaic and as a consequence, the book celebrates its subject matter rather than taking a diagnostic approach per se.
The book is a kind of ero-political guide to help navigate and reframe the complicated landscape of contemporary relationships and it is very truthful in its evaluations. Perel is obviously a brilliant therapist cum counsellor and clearly is a pioneer in a field often given a bad press. A field which often over simplifies the area over which it claims expertise. I learnt a lot about myself reading it and I am urging my wife to read it too. What I love about what Perel has done here is she has acknowledged the need for this discussion irrespective of whether you feel you have problems or not - you go to the gym to keep healthy after all. I think that books like these are all part of adding value to that idea of social capital that is gradually gaining currency in all aspects of our lives and work. I absolutely champion the movement that this is part of. I would like to see more by this author, she has an important voice.
on 11 March 2015
Esther Perel writes really well - an easy read for anyone. The book is really interesting and informative, and ditches all the usual cliches and taboos associated with the subject matter. It's like a year's worth of therapy!
on 4 October 2014
It’s been well said that sex is ten per cent of a good relationship and one hundred per cent of a bad one. Like water, it’s missed only when it’s not there. It’s the spiritual equivalent of Vitamin C: many people fall apart without a regular supply (though not every sailor fell to scurvy).
Which should make it really odd that our culture is riven through with stories, proverbs and advice about dealing with the fairly rapid decline of sexual desire in a long-term relationship. Most couples are not enjoying marital intimacy even remotely regularly and everyone thinks it’s regrettable but normal. Grow up and embrace the chastity, says the culture. Some of those who don’t want to, if they live in New York and have a lot of money, go see Esther Perel for counselling.
Perel's thesis is that eroticism - which word she prefers to "sex” - and regular, responsible married life "just butt heads”. A couple who want to keep the spark alive must deliberately and wilfully create a space in which they are not Mom and Dad, not taxpayers, not employees, not school board members or any other darn thing except consenting adults who enjoy each other. This is about the details: she has one story about how the husband has to pay the baby-sitter when they get back, because if his wife does, she drops back into Mother mode and turns right off sex. This gives you the idea. Perel is especially scathing about the Myth of Spontaneity. The blame is laid squarely on modern working, the nuclear family and the idea of romantic marriage.
Well, that’s one place to lay it. Most of her clients would be instantly familiar to any regular visitor to Chateau Heartiste: the women are carousel riders or Strong Independent Women, while their men are exactly the decent Beta Providers, alcoholics, addicts, Mother’s Boys, ACoA’s and other damaged goods that those women just don’t want to get down and dirty with. Her clients are playing out a standard dynamic: Bad Boys and Good Men. The Bad Boys get the sex, and the Good Men get the domesticity and child-raising. Hence the ease (all it takes is paying the baby-sitter?) with which our wife from the previous paragraph can lose her desire. Heartiste sees this as evo-psycho malice, Perel thinks it’s a dysfunction in American and more widely Anglo and Northern European cultures, and both could be right.
Both Perel and Heartiste agree that long-term relationships are doomed unless the husband Games Up. Perel doesn’t use those words, but Chateau visitors will recognise her advice. Using the threat or possibility of infidelity can keep interest and passion alive - that’s called "Dread Game”. She suggests that partners can’t just assume a continued sexual interest in each other, but it needs to be maintained and kept alive - that's known as “Gaming Your Wife”. While Heartiste assumes that the man has to do all the gaming, because women don’t need to, Perel has some nice stories about women who disguise themselves as blondes and show up at the construction site lunchtime to take their husbands to lunch. Unicorns, it seems, do exist.
Perel disguises her message behind some dazzling language, and there’s a TED talk where the audience are clearly applauding the mood music that language creates. They can’t be applauding the message, because it’s deeply at odds with the prevailing liberal culture, and TED audiences are deeply at one with the prevailing liberal culture. She’s saying that if you don’t put a ton of effort and attention into keeping your married erotic life going - if he doesn’t Game The Wife and she doesn’t Excite The Husband - then you deserve the exact awfulness of the sexual wasteland that you will inhabit for the rest of your lives. She doesn’t use those words, but it sometimes peeks through her tone.
This is an interesting book. I found it surprising to read so much Chateau Heartiste wisdom translated into a highfalutin’ literary language. It's worth reading whether you're married or single, though there’s no guarantee you will like the message or that you will take away the lesson Perel intends. If you’re single, you may just decide that marriage sounds like as much work as being single but with less privacy, less security and higher costs, and that focussing on your career and/or dead-lift may be more rewarding.
on 22 August 2012
Read this book. In it Esther Perel delves into the world of relationship theory, exposing myths of what makes a relationship work and asking some interesting questions. It's highly readable; it's exceptionally fun but has a serious intent. What makes the author's book strong is her approach of a well defined theory: that emotional intimacy and lust can cancel each other out backed up with her case studies and practice. Esther goes out not to shake up the existing world too much, advocating unusual relationship styles such as "open" and "polyamorous" across the board, but she shows how such relationships are not about mere boredom or shallowness, but authenticity. It's most powerful idea of all: honesty is not the be all and end all of the modern relationship.
on 11 March 2015
A fantastic book for anyone in a longterm relationship who feels like they've "tried everything" but are still hitting the same walls. Some wonderful insights that - if you let them - can spark fantastically enlightening conversations. Wonderfully accessible and readable.
Really like this book. I'm a therapists and often see couples for whom the 'spark' has gone, sexually speaking, from their relationship. Love each other, good friends, but not 'turned on' by each other any more. This book helps to think about why that might me and what, potentially, you might do about it. To be honest, I'm not that optimistic about rekindling fires that have gone out completely, but there's no harm trying and you never know - learning to see your partner in a new light, learning to that 'good communication' might actually be putting the kibosh on your sex-life, could be a way forward! Good book - recommend it - and search for her talks on TED via YouTube.
on 30 January 2013
I've always been a bit skeptical of the concept of marriage counselling, for at least two main reasons. One is that the problems that couples have derive from two individuals who themselves have problems. While work on oneself may certainly help to see relationship issues in a new light, it was, and I guess still is, less obvious to me that there is anything specific to work on in the space between the individuals, the relationship itself. Symptomatic of this lack of real material to work on, marriage counselors have always seemed to me to come at their task with entirely unquestioning devotion to the inherited narrative of monogamy. Their task has seemed to me primarily to consist in assigning blame and soliciting repentance, with the blame invariably assigned to whomever it might be who has stepped outside the bounds of sexual fidelity. This sounds like an insane exercise in self-flagellation of the kind that powerful American men (yes, it's always men) predictably resort to when their sexual dalliances enter the public record.
I have no idea if this is a fair characterization of the profession or if attitudes are changing, but I nonetheless found myself spellbound by the wisdom and compassion on almost every page of this book - and this notwithstanding that, while not judgmental, the author remains to my taste disappointingly coy on non-monogamy. On page after page, Perel brilliantly deconstructs the meaning underlying how partners behave in relationships. Particularly refreshing to generations of men accustomed to being portrayed by feminists as untrustworthy sexual predators is her real insight into how men think and feel about relationships, which is expressed with a rare lucidity and a genuine compassion. Not only women should read it for this reason - men should too, for we are just as much a victim of the social stereotypes which, even if we do not entirely believe them, cloud us to an understanding of and pride in our real nature.
Particularly poignant and illuminating is her observation that, for many men, sex is a privileged language of intimacy. She notes that women expect men to share with them in ways which many men simply are not equipped to do, whilst at the same time failing to observe the messages of affection and commitment contained in the language which men do master, or at least where they feel freer, the sexual language of the body. She notes also that many women take refuge in words as a way of purifying their carnal impulses, an idea she finds disturbing.
Another point she makes strongly echoes something I wrote recently about patriarchal biases in the evaluation of sexual practices. She puts it like this: "Taboo-ridden sexuality and excess-driven sexuality converge in a troubling way. Both lead us to want to dissociate psychically from the physical act of sex... What is missing is a sexuality that is integrated, in which pleasure flourishes in a context of relatedness. I'm not talking only about deep love; I'm also talking about basic care and appreciation for another person." Referring to compulsive casual sex within the college hook-up scene she describes it as "less an expression of liberation than an acting out of underlying insecurity"; for my money, exactly the same conclusion could be drawn in relation to much that goes on within the swinger community. Unless you have this kind of obsessive sexuality, it's decidedly unsexy, and over time deadening for the erotic imagination.
At the end of the book, I still don't know how enthusiastically I would recommend counselling to sexually estranged couples; I doubt there are many therapists exercising this profession with the wisdom and compassion of Ms Perel. But to all couples, regardless of how happy they are with their relationship and their sex life, the book is certain to be an enriching read.