So, why does good sex so often fade, even for couples who continue to love each other as much as ever? And why does good intimacy not guarantee good sex, contrary to popular belief? Or, the next question would be, can we want what we already have? That's the million-dollar question, right? And why is the forbidden so erotic? What is it about transgression that makes desire so potent? And why does sex make babies, and babies spell erotic disaster in couples?
It's kind of the fatal erotic blow, isn't it? And when you love, how does it feel? And when you desire, how is it different?
These are some of the questions that are at the center of my exploration on the nature of erotic desire and its concomitant dilemmas in modern love. So I travel the globe, and what I'm noticing is that everywhere where romanticism has entered, there seems to be a crisis of desire. A crisis of desire, as in owning the wanting — desire as an expression of our individuality, of our free choice, of our preferences, of our identity — desire that has become a central concept as part of modern love and individualistic societies.
You know, this is the first time in the history of humankind where we are trying to experience sexuality in the long term not because we want 14 children, for which we need to have even more because many of them won't make it, and not because it is exclusively a woman's marital duty. This is the first time that we want sex over time about pleasure and connection that is rooted in desire.
So what sustains desire, and why is it so difficult? And at the heart of sustaining desire in a committed relationship, I think, is the reconciliation of two fundamental human needs. On the one hand, our need for security, for predictability, for safety, for dependability, for reliability, for permanence. All these anchoring, grounding experiences of our lives that we call home. But we also have an equally strong need — men and women — for adventure, for novelty, for mystery, for risk, for danger, for the unknown, for the unexpected, surprise — you get the gist. For journey, for travel.
So reconciling our need for security and our need for adventure into one relationship, or what we today like to call a passionate marriage, used to be a contradiction in terms. Marriage was an economic institution in which you were given a partnership for life in terms of children and social status and succession and companionship. But now we want our partner to still give us all these things, but in addition I want you to be my best friend and my trusted confidant and my passionate lover to boot, and we live twice as long.
So we come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide. Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one. Give me comfort, give me edge. Give me novelty, give me familiarity. Give me predictability, give me surprise. And we think it's a given, and toys and lingerie are going to save us with that.
So now we get to the existential reality of the story, right? Because I think, in some way — and I'll come back to that — but the crisis of desire is often a crisis of the imagination.
So why does good sex so often fade? What is the relationship between love and desire? How do they relate, and how do they conflict? Because therein lies the mystery of eroticism.
So if there is a verb, for me, that comes with love, it's "to have." And if there is a verb that comes with desire, it is "to want." In love, we want to have, we want to know the beloved. We want to minimize the distance. We want to contract that gap. We want to neutralize the tensions. We want closeness. But in desire, we tend to not really want to go back to the places we've already gone. Forgone conclusion does not keep our interest. In desire, we want an Other, somebody on the other side that we can go visit, that we can go spend some time with, that we can go see what goes on in their red-light district. You know? In desire, we want a bridge to cross. Or in other words, I sometimes say, fire needs air. Desire needs space. And when it's said like that, it's often quite abstract.
But then I took a question with me. And I've gone to more than 20 countries in the last few years with "Mating in Captivity," and I asked people, when do you find yourself most drawn to your partner? Not attracted sexually, per Se, but most drawn. And across culture, across religion, and across gender — except for one — there are a few answers that just keep coming back.
So the first group is: I am most drawn to my partner when she is away, when we are apart, when we reunite. Basically, when I get back in touch with my ability to imagine myself with my partner, when my imagination comes back in the picture, and when I can root it in absence and in longing, which is a major component of desire.
But then the second group is even more interesting. I am most drawn to my partner when I see him in the studio, when she is onstage, when he is in his element, when she's doing something she's passionate about, when I see him at a party and other people are really drawn to him, when I see her hold court. Basically, when I look at my partner radiant and confident. Probably the biggest turn-on across the board. Radiant, as in self-sustaining. I look at this person — by the way, in desire people rarely talk about it, when we are blended into one, five centimeters from each other. I don't know in inches how much that is.
But it's also not when the other person is that far apart that you no longer see them. It's when I'm looking at my partner from a comfortable distance, where this person that is already so familiar, so known, is momentarily once again somewhat mysterious, somewhat elusive. And in this space between me and the other lies the erotic élan, lies that movement toward the other. Because sometimes, as Proust says, mystery is not about traveling to new places, but it's about looking with new eyes. And so, when I see my partner on his own or her own, doing something in which they are enveloped, I look at this person and I momentarily get a shift in perception, and I stay open to the mysteries that are living right next to me.
And then, more importantly, in this description about the other or myself — it's the same — what is most interesting is that there is no neediness in desire. Nobody needs anybody. There is no caretaking in desire. Caretaking is mightily loving. It's a powerful anti-aphrodisiac.
I have yet to see somebody who is so turned on by somebody who needs them. Wanting them is one thing. Needing them is a shot down and women have known that forever, because anything that will bring up parenthood will usually decrease the erotic charge.
For good reasons, right?
And then the third group of answers usually would be: when I'm surprised, when we laugh together, as somebody said to me in the office today, when he's in his tux, so I said, you know, it's either the tux or the cowboy boots. But basically it's when there is novelty. But novelty isn't about new positions. It isn't a repertoire of techniques. Novelty is, what parts of you do you bring out? What parts of you are just being seen?
Because in some way one could say sex isn't something you do, eh? Sex is a place you go. It's a space you enter inside yourself and with another, or others. So where do you go in sex? What parts of you do you connect to? What do you seek to express there? Is it a place for transcendence and spiritual union? Is it a place for naughtiness and is it a place to be safely aggressive? Is it a place where you can finally surrender and not have to take responsibility for everything? Is it a place where you can express your infantile wishes? What comes out there? It's a language. It isn't just a behavior. And it's the poetic of that language that I'm interested in, which is why I began to explore this concept of erotic intelligence.
You know, animals have sex. It's the pivot, it's biology, it's the natural instinct. We are the only ones who have an erotic life, which means that it's sexuality transformed by the human imagination. We are the only ones who can make love for hours, have a blissful time, multiple orgasms, and touch nobody, just because we can imagine it. We can hint at it. We don't even have to do it. We can experience that powerful thing called anticipation, which is a mortar to desire. The ability to imagine it, as if it's happening, to experience it as if it's happening, while nothing is happening and everything is happening, at the same time.
So when I began to think about eroticism, I began to think about the poetics of sex. And if I look at it as an intelligence, then it's something that you cultivate. What are the ingredients? Imagination, playfulness, novelty, curiosity, mystery. But the central agent is really that piece called the imagination.
But more importantly, for me to begin to understand who are the couples who have an erotic spark, what sustains desire, I had to go back to the original definition of eroticism, the mystical definition, and I went through it through a bifurcation by looking, actually, at trauma, which is the other side. And I looked at it, looking at the community that I had grown up in, which was a community in Belgium, all Holocaust survivors, and in my community, there were two groups: those who didn't die, and those who came back to life. And those who didn't die lived often very tethered to the ground, could not experience pleasure, could not trust, because when you're vigilant, worried, anxious, and insecure, you can't lift your head to go and take off in space and be playful and safe and imaginative. Those who came back to life were those who understood the erotic as an antidote to death. They knew how to keep themselves alive. And when I began to listen to the sexlessness of the couples that I work with, I sometimes would hear people say, "I want more sex," but generally, people want better sex, and better is to reconnect with that quality of aliveness, of vibrancy, of renewal, of vitality, of Eros, of energy that sex used to afford them, or that they've hoped it would afford them.
And so I began to ask a different question. "I shut myself off when ..." began to be the question. "I turn off my desires when ..." Which is not the same question as, "What turns me off is ..." and "You turn me off when ..." And people began to say, "I turn myself off when I feel dead inside, when I don't like my body, when I feel old, when I haven't had time for myself, when I haven't had a chance to even check in with you, when I don't perform well at work, when I feel low self esteem, when I don't have a sense of self-worth, when I don't feel like I have a right to want, to take, to receive pleasure."
And then I began to ask the reverse question. "I turn myself on when ..." Because most of the time, people like to ask the question, "You turn me on, what turns me on," and I'm out of the question, you know? Now, if you are dead inside, the other person can do a lot of things for Valentine's. It won't make a dent. There is nobody at the reception desk.
So I turn myself on when, I turn on my desires, I wake up when ...
Now, in this paradox between love and desire, what seems to be so puzzling is that the very ingredients that nurture love — mutuality, reciprocity, protection, worry, responsibility for the other — are sometimes the very ingredients that stifle desire. Because desire comes with a host of feelings that are not always such favorites of love: jealousy, possessiveness, aggression, power, dominance, naughtiness, mischief. Basically most of us will get turned on at night by the very same things that we will demonstrate against during the day. You know, the erotic mind is not very politically correct. If everybody was fantasizing on a bed of roses, we wouldn't be having such interesting talks about this.
But no, in our mind up there are a host of things going on that we don't always know how to bring to the person that we love, because we think love comes with selflessness and in fact desire comes with a certain amount of selfishness in the best sense of the word: the ability to stay connected to one's self in the presence of another.
So I want to draw that little image for you, because this need to reconcile these two sets of needs, we are born with that. Our need for connection, our need for separateness, or our need for security and adventure, or our need for togetherness and for autonomy, and if you think about the little kid who sits on your lap and who is cozily nested here and very secure and comfortable, and at some point all of us need to go out into the world to discover and to explore. That's the beginning of desire, that exploratory need, curiosity, discovery. And then at some point they turn around and they look at you. And if you tell them, "Hey kiddo, the world's a great place. Go for it. There's so much fun out there," then they can turn away and they can experience connection and separateness at the same time. They can go off in their imagination, off in their body, off in their playfulness, all the while knowing that there's somebody when they come back.
But if on this side there is somebody who says, "I'm worried. I'm anxious. I'm depressed. My partner hasn't taken care of me in so long. What's so good out there? Don't we have everything you need together, you and I?" then there are a few little reactions that all of us can pretty much recognize. Some of us will come back, came back a long time ago, and that little child who comes back is the child who will forgo a part of himself in order not to lose the other. I will lose my freedom in order not to lose connection. And I will learn to love in a certain way that will become burdened with extra worry and extra responsibility and extra protection, and I won't know how to leave you in order to go play, in order to go experience pleasure, in order to discover, to enter inside myself.
Translate this into adult language. It starts very young. It continues into our sex lives up to the end. Child number two comes back but looks like that over their shoulder all the time. "Are you going to be there? Are you going to curse me, scold me? Are you going to be angry with me?" And they may be gone, but they're never really away. And those are often the people that will tell you, "In the beginning, it was super hot." Because in the beginning, the growing intimacy wasn't yet so strong that it actually led to the decrease of desire. The more connected I became, the more responsible I felt, the less I was able to let go in your presence. The third child doesn't really come back.
So what happens, if you want to sustain desire, it's that real dialectic piece. On the one hand you want the security in order to be able to go. On the other hand if you can't go, you can't have pleasure, you can't culminate, you don't have an orgasm, you don't get excited because you spend your time in the body and the head of the other and not in your own.
So in this dilemma about reconciling these two sets of fundamental needs, there are a few things that I've come to understand erotic couples do. One, they have a lot of sexual privacy. They understand that there is an erotic space that belongs to each of them. They also understand that foreplay is not something you do five minutes before the real thing. Foreplay pretty much starts at the end of the previous orgasm. They also understand that an erotic space isn't about, you begin to stroke the other. It's about you create a space where you leave Management Inc., maybe where you leave the Agile program —
And you actually just enter that place where you stop being the good citizen who is taking care of things and being responsible.
Responsibility and desire just butt heads. They don't really do well together. Erotic couples also understand that passion waxes and wanes. It's pretty much like the moon. It has intermittent eclipses. But what they know is they know how to resurrect it. They know how to bring it back. And they know how to bring it back because they have demystified one big myth, which is the myth of spontaneity, which is that it's just going to fall from heaven while you're folding the laundry like a deus ex machina, and in fact they understood that whatever is going to just happen in a long-term relationship, already has.
Committed sex is premeditated sex. It's willful. It's intentional. It's focus and presence.
In long-term relationships, we often expect our beloved to be both best friend and erotic partner. But as Esther Perel argues, good and committed sex draws on two conflicting needs: our need for security and our need for surprise. So how do you sustain desire? With wit and eloquence, Perel lets us in on the mystery of erotic intelligence.
Psychotherapist Esther Perel is changing the conversation on what it means to be in love and have a fulfilling sex life.
Psychotherapist Esther Perel is changing the conversation on what it means to be in love and have a fulfilling sex life.