While the diversity in the couples I work with is infinite, one complaint rings true across all cultures: couples who describe themselves as loving, trusting and caring complain that their sex lives have become dull and devoid of eroticism.
Why is it that great sex so often fades for couples who claim to love each other as much as ever? Can we want what we already have? Why does good intimacy not guarantee great sex? Why is the forbidden erotic? Why does the transition to parenthood deliver such an erotic blow? And when we love what do we feel and when we desire how is it different?
These are some of the questions that occupied me when I set out to the nature of erotic desire in long-term relationships for my book Mating In Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic. I wanted to look at the obstacles and anxieties we experience when our quest for secure love clashes with our pursuit of passion.
After traveling to 20 countries in the last two years (the book has been translated into 25 languages), I kept wondering whatever happened to the generation that experienced the sexual revolution, or its beneficiaries, who have contraception in their hands, who can count on premarital sex as a given. They view sexual satisfaction as central to relational happiness, they can do what they want, and they have no desire to do it, or at least not at home.
It is commonly viewed that sexual problems are the result of relationship problems--namely, lack of communication. Find out about the state of the union first; see how it manifests in the bedroom second. The premise is that if sexual problems are the consequence of the relationship, fix the relationship and the sex will follow.
In my experience, I'd helped many couples improve their relationship--they felt closer, laughed together, they communicated more. But this did nothing for the bedroom. Emotional fulfillment does not necessarily translate to sexual excitement.
Sex is not a metaphor for a relationship, it's a parallel narrative. It speaks its own language. Love and desire are two different languages. We would like to think that they flow from each other. While love and desire relate, they also conflict. Love thrives in an atmosphere of reciprocity, protection , and congruence. Desire is more selfish. In fact, at times, the very elements that nurture love: comfort, stability, safety, for example, can extinguish desire.
Love seeks closeness, but desire needs space to thrive. Here's a question to illustrate my point.
"Tell me about a moment when you find yourself particularly drawn to your partner." All over the world, the answers resonate with a remarkable similarity.
When I seem him play sports... When she's unaware I'm watching her... When he is talking with friends... When she's confidently speaking with a colleague... 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... When he makes me laugh, when she surprises me... When I watch him do something he is passionate about.
Whatever the answer, it is never without an element of distance. The separateness is accentuated and difference is magnified. We look across this distance and what we see is different than the view up close. We create a bridge of things unknown by making a perceptual shift, and it is on this bridge, in the space between each other, that we can meet and play with the erotic.
My work with couples is to illicit strivings, longing, and novelty-- to make interesting what is sufficiently available .
So how do we begin to better ourselves in the language of sex? First of all, stop thinking you're trying to improve "sex"--it's a limiting definition, too enmeshed in mechanics, necessity and numbers. Think about improving your relationship with eroticism; if that's too big a leap, think play.
Esther Perel is giving a workshop entitled "Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence" at the New York Open Center on Friday, October 24th and on February 20, 2009 will team with the Huffington Post and the Open Center for an evening roundtable called "Rethinking Sex in America." Click here for more information.