Everybody’s talking about happiness these days. Books like What Happy Working Mothers Know, and the Happiness Project have captured the country’s imagination and lots of media attention. But Esther Perel, psychologist /sex therapist and best-selling author of Mating in Captivity told a crowded group at In Good Company Workplaces in New York City the other night that the notion of happiness within the context of marriage is quite new. Historically, passion and marriage rarely had anything to do with one another. Marriage offered companionship, children, financial support, etc., but the expectation for happiness within that union is fairly recent. And the difficulty, Ms. Perel maintains, is that the needs addressed through marriage- reliability, predictability, dependability, grounding, etc. are diametrically opposed to the needs passion embodies: excitement, mystery, timelessness, unpredictability. According to Ms. Perel, no amount of aphrodisiac candles or lingerie from Victoria’s Secret will fix that. “What eroticism thrives on, family life fights against,” claims the Belgian-born , multi-lingual therapist.
Ms. Perel’s interest in learning more about the dynamics of desire in this country, particularly within the context of the family, was sparked by Bill Clinton. Though there have been numerous scandals since then that have made infidelity a government agenda, she wondered why it is that in the United States, we seem to talk about sex only in the context of health, or infidelity.
As more and more of her clients were declaring that though they still really loved their partners very much, they were no longer having sex, Ms. Perel decided to dig deeper. What was keeping these couples from maintaining an erotic life after marriage? The old notion of ‘if you fix the relationship, sex will come,’ is just not true. It turns out that passion comes together with the amount of uncertainly one can tolerate. It’s the tension of the unexpected and the ability to live in the unknown that promotes a healthy sex life. She found that in order to keep desire alive, both partners have to feel a sense of freedom- to feel free to be who they are authentically, and to do what they want without being made to feel like their freedom is diametrically opposed to the other’s sense of well-being.
We were asked to think about the one situation that makes us feel most attracted to our mates, a question Ms. Perel has been posing to audiences around the world. The answers ranged from when one’s partner is: away, asleep, doing or saying something unexpected and involved in something they’re excited about to “when he’s playing with the kids.” Ms. Perel has found that the answers do not differ across a cultural or gender divide. Most people, men or women, often point primarily to the times when they can see their partner as ‘another,’ someone outside themselves, whose actions and behaviors are not completely predictable or controllable. Ms. Perel found that the only answer that is not shared by both genders is ‘when he’s watching the kids.’ Apparently, men do not find that watching their wives taking care of kids is a turn-on (what a surprise).
At the end of the day, it is hard to have sex with someone who feels too familial. In this short one hour talk, Ms. Perel was unable to give us all of her recommendations for bringing desire back into a stable relationship, but she does offer workshops for couples and the book goes a long way with great insights and suggestions. The group was encouraged to recognize their part in shutting down desire, whether it’s getting into bed with the computer for a few quick emails before lights out, gaining 20 lbs., or throwing oneself into work. When we shut down, it’s extremely difficult for someone else to turn us back on. Ms. Perel stated very clearly that in order for desire to thrive, there has to be life inside. Despite the advice found in myriad articles, which she cites as always located on magazine pages 107/108, maintaining a vibrant life with interests of your own- and encouraging your mate to do the same- may be the one most important aspect of keeping erotic desire alive.