If you live long enough, you kind of figure out that lust, love, and marriage might be three very different experiences. Think of it this way: Love is when nobody else matters; lust is when nobody else knows; and marriage is when everybody else matters and you don’t care who knows.
Most marital veterans will chuckle at this, no doubt finding some truth in this unfortunate joke. One who will both acknowledge these truths and not suffer them is Esther Perel. In her savvy and controversial international bestseller Mating in Captivity, this New York therapist tells us straight out: “What makes for good intimacy does not always make for good sex.”
Furthermore, she contends that there is an essential paradox afoot in our intimate and sexual lives. “Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness.”
Perel makes a bold claim that in order to keep things jiggy in the bedroom of long-term couples, there is a necessity for tolerating separateness and the “insecurity it engenders.” She writes in her book, “Instead of always striving for closeness, I argue that couples may be better off cultivating their separate selves.”
This is actually pretty radical stuff for a marriage counselor. As one, I know that we tend to promote the virtues of closeness, open and honest communication between intimate partners, and more involvement, not less.
One of the things I find most interesting about Perel’s theories is that they will actually appeal to men, the half of the intimate equation who are usually not so crazy about a lot of this love talk. Perel points out that our need for intimacy has become paramount in recent history, yet the way we conceive of it has narrowed. “We have come to glorify verbal communication. I speak; therefore I am.” Marriage counselors hear it all the time: “We’re not close. We never talk”-and usually, it is the female in the marital equation saying this.
This need to tell all-encouraged by pop psychologies, people wailing and confessing all on daily television shows, and what Perel calls the “feminization of intimacy”-has also had the impact of putting men at a disadvantage. Men are traditionally (and still) trained to perform, not process, feelings. “Talk intimacy,” writes Perel, leaves many men at a loss for how to express themselves effectively in a relationship.
I asked Perel if she had struck a chord with men with her book. In an email, she agreed that men have responded positively to her perspective that sexuality is intimacy, not one or the other. They also seem to appreciate her giving importance to separateness in creating an erotic bond since men are socialized more this way. “Men respond very positively to the idea of the language of the body as a primary language to express tenderness, vulnerability, and emotional connection.” In other words, talk is not the only route to intimacy.
I was curious. Does Perel see the same thing that I do so often in couples I work with: the inexorable desexualization of marriages over time? “I do not think that the degradation of desire is inevitable,” she wrote back. “I think that desire ebbs and flows in the best of relations; it goes through intermittent eclipses, and some couples know how to reengage each other erotically and resuscitate desire when they see it flagging.”
She also added the following, which offers some insight into why the revitalization of desire is so rampant in our current marital culture: “The sexualization of marital love is fairly recent and a challenge. So is the challenge for modern couples to negotiate our dual needs for security and stability with our pursuit of excitement and passion. We are trying to reconcile two fundamental human needs with the same person and we live twice as long!”
What is the answer? Perel thankfully doesn’t reduce these complex issues to 10 “keys.” Instead, she encourages something called “erotic intelligence,” which requires “knowing your partner while recognizing his persistent mystery; creating security while remaining open to the unknown; cultivating intimacy that respects privacy.”
Esther Perel: Thu., May 8, 7:30 p.m.; workshop (open to public and professionals for Continuing Education Credits): Fri., May 9, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and Sat., May 10, 9 a.m.-noon. All events at Victoria Hall Theater (33 W. Victoria St.). Call 569-2272 x111 or visit FTISB.org.
Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa Barbara. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his Web site/blog at HealthspanWeb.com for more information.