An interview with Esther Perel
Go to the italian translation / Leggi la traduzione
Published on La Voce di Romagna (Italy), 3rd-4th
by Simone Mariotti
Can you desire what you already have? Why do we think at the
effort to maintain alive a relationship in a way like it was a job, at the discipline
as a weariness? Why are we going on being entrapped in the sexual spontaneity
myth? Why the sex is so good for our Childs's happiness? And a cheater is always
just "a cheater"?
These are just some of the aspects sexologist Esther Perel treat in her book
Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, international
bestseller translated in more than 20 languages. Dr Perel is one of the most
highly-esteemed marriage and family therapist in USA, works in NY, and a popular
commentator in many radio and TV programmes too, including The Oprah Winfrey
Show. Today she's kindly accepted to have a chat with us.
Let's start from one of the most interesting assumption
of your book: "complaining about the boredom of the sex is easy and conventional.
To cultivate the eroticism at home is an act of clear provocation". How
many people are conscious of the importance of this provocation? Where's our
The institution of marriage has undergone an extreme makeover in the last century.
Marriage has become a romantic arrangement where commitments are built on love.
Our desiderata still include everything the traditional family was
meant to provide-security, children, property, respectability - but now we also
want our partner to be our best friend, our trusted confidante and our passionate
lover to boot. And we live twice as long. Romance and passion are the center
of the marital plot . Not only do we have this endless list of expectations,
which have exceeded the maximum allowance, but on top of it we want to be happy.
Today, our sexuality is a part of who we are, and no longer merely something
we do. It has become a central feature of intimate relationships, and sexual
satisfaction, we believe is our due. For the first time in history, we have
sex not because we want eight kids or because it's the woman's marital duty;
today, in the west, sex is primarily rooted in desire. For many of us bringing
lust home is a taboo, we opt for security on the inside and freedom on the outside.
Some manage to introduce the playful, bold, transgressive nature of the erotic
in the midst of their daily lives. They know how to keep desire alive, to stay
connected to a sense of playfulness, aliveness, and connection.
One of the things I agree most with you is to see in
the "create a distance" a sign of erotic intelligence. Do you however
think that is it an always easily acceptable model, at least in a not anglo-saxon
(or nordic) culture?
Fire needs air. Desire wants to go where it hasn't yet been. It needs otherness,
difference. But to have an erotic Úlan, there needs to be a synapse to
cross. Modern couples strive for oneness, yet eroticism thrives in the space
between self and the other. Because this concept may seem abstract, I routinely
ask the following question: "When do you feel most drawn, most attracted
to your partner?" The answers resonate with a remarkable similarity.
After we've been apart; when he's confident and passionate about something
he loves; When she's unaware I'm watching her; When he is talking with friends;
When he surprises me; When we're at a party and I see others looking at her;
When she's standing on the other side of a crowded room, and she smiles just
for me; When he's playing with the kids (This is the only comment that is gender
specific, for men rarely think that a mother playing with the kids is sexy);
When we're away from home, and have fun together; When we dance; When I ride
on the back of his motorcycle; When I see him play sports...
Whatever the answer, it is never without an element of distance. It is a description
where we look at our partner from a comfortable distance. Not too close because
we cannot distinguish them, and not too far for then they are no longer in our
field of vision. We see a partner who is separate, where difference is magnified.
And this person who is otherwise already so familiar is momentarily once again
somewhat unknown, somewhat mysterious and elusive. More importantly, in none
of these situations, is the other needing us, nor do we need to take care of
him. Caretaking may be very loving, but it is also a powerful anti-aphrodisiac.
In sex, people want to feel wanted, not needed.
American audiences have responded to the questions similarly to all 20 countries
where I have been on book tour. At first they start out with different assumptions,
but then they get it.
Of course this approach contrasts with the dominant emphasis here on transparency,
and the definition of honesty as a kind of wholesale sharing.
Going on with a cultural comparison, you say that the
ability to express you feelings it's not a particularly good quality in the
building up of the American manhood. Even a not desirable one. And also that
generally we minimize the not-verbal part of our communication. In short, too
Well, I don't know, but maybe even in Europe we are on that way. You have been
raised in Belgium, studied in Israel, and now you're working in NY, a privileged
point of view. What do you think about it?
Yes, indeed, the making of manhood shares a similar mandate here and abroad.
We are born a woman, we become a man, says Elisabeth Badinter. In all societies
there are rituals confirming masculinity, there are none for girls. No woods
we go tot o prove that we are not men.
We inculcate fearlessness, competition, competence, instrumentality, self sufficiency
in men in the US as well as in Europe and Israel. But it is a matter of degree.
The boundaries between masculinity and femininity are different. The fact that
Feminism in Belgium was based on complementaritÓ while here
it was build on the idea of sameness also makes for major differences. There
is no war of the sexes in Belgium the way it exists here. But you know these
generalizations can be dangerous and they always lack nuance.
Speaking about parenthood, is it true that one of the
best gift a couple can do to their children is to keep alive the sex tension
between them? And why many parents find it difficult to be aware of that?
Family life flourishes in an atmosphere of comfort and consistency. Yet unpredictability,
spontaneity, and risk are precisely where eroticism resides. In effect, what
eroticism thrives on, family life defends against. Many of us become so immersed
in our role as parents we become unable to break free, even when we might.
In our culture the survival of the family depends on the happiness of the couple.
Cultivating the ideal relationship requires care and attention, and this competes
directly with the "full-contact" parenting many of us embrace. Utopian
romance butts heads with the realities of family life. Many of the couples I
see have stopped factoring their own needs. Simply put, they have not carved
out the time and space they need to unwind and replenish, either as individuals
or as a couple.
No longer focused on one another, they have turned to the children to compensate
for what they are missing. They need us to have our own loving relationship(s),
in whatever form they take.
When we are emotionally and sexually satisfied (at least reasonably so, let's
not get carried away here), we allow our children to experience their own independence
with freedom and support. To get their groove back, couples need to free themselves
from the disproportionate focus on their kids, both emotionally and practically.
On the extensive list of things the children's needs, parents who have sex should
feature as one of them.
Many women struggle to integrate sexuality and motherhood. Ours is a culture
that equates maternal devotion with selflessness: self-sacrifice, self-abnegation,
self-denial. They relinquish freedom and independence-both cornerstones of desire.
Sexual identity changes as the result of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing and
motherhood. In my work with women, we aim shift the focus from self-denial to
self-awareness. We explore how to reclaim a right to pleasure, with its inherent
threat of selfishness, in a way that doesn't leave them feeling like a bad mother.
Children who see their parents at ease expressing their affection (discreetly,
within appropriate boundaries) are more likely to embrace sexuality with the
healthy combination of respect, responsibility, and curiosity it deserves. By
censoring our sexuality, curbing our desires, or renouncing them altogether,
we hand our inhibitions intact to the next generation.
Why the playing (and turning to infantilism also?)
is so important during the sex?
Two images come to mind. For adults sex is their sandbox. If you trust the partner,
If you feel deserving and confident about your desires, then you can play freely
in the sandbox not unlikely children whose imagination goes wild .
Eroticism is the adult version of playing hide and seek. The thrill of hiding,
the relief of being found. The pursuit is key. So many children games are about
running after someone who doesn't want to be caught.
In short, sex gives us a space to let go of the constraints of our adult lives,
we can dream, play, invent, be taken care off, handled, and be safely regressive.
We can be rocked, soothed, licked, tickled, all these wonderful sensual experiences
of life that we discovered as a child.
Let's close with the hot topic of infidelity. Yea,
if a person gets married, than divorce, has sex relationship, than gets married
again, the second divorce, other relationship, than gets married for the last
time, but always true during the marriage, she is considered a true one. If
another one stay 50 years with the same person, but in the middle has a one-night
affair, she is the cheater: "once a cheater, always a cheater", they
said, at least some time ago, but today?
This is my next project. So I have a lot to say, more than you need.
Infidelity has historically been universally condemned, and universally practiced.
What is so compelling about cheating? , about the enormous risks men, and women
in particular are willing to take for a glimmer of passion, freedom, and alivness.
Here in America, infidelity is morally condemned. In Italy I think that the
moral factor has been neutralized. It may not be approved, but it is understood.
Monogamy is the next frontier. Once we have made sex so central in our couples
lives, we may push to grant sex to be important in its own right and thus to
be freed from the constraints of "marriage".
Many people live with the ideal of monogamy, as do those who are not. There
is the dream and there is reality.
Infidelity always carries an element of rebellion, a quest for autonomy, since
in the secrecy of the affair, I know the story belongs to me, this is mine and
for me. But it also is thought of a away to balance the primary relation, to
accept a more compartimentalized view of relationships.
Infidelity puts us in touch with the ambitions of love and their oversized expectations,
followed by disillusions that there may not be one relationship than can give
And finally, what people today long to escape from, is the sense of deadness
that keeps up on them in their busy, stressful, driven lives. Not much can compete
with the energy burst an affair can bring. As one of my patients said recently,
it is anti depressant and a facelift at no cost, far more immediate and cheaper
Thanks Esther, we are looking forward reading your next book!
Covers of the international editions of Mating in Captivity
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