Esther Perel is a triple threat. Visionary, beautiful, and ferociously intelligent, the Belgian-born psychotherapist and author best known for Mating In Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, a landmark book that introduced millions of couples to the conflict between intimacy and sex and how to be married and hot at the same time. Perel's TED talk in February attracted more than a million hits in the first month.
In a nutshell, her thesis is this: Intimacy in relationships is frequently -- and inexplicably -- the enemy of sex. The intimacy Perel is referring to is the romantic ideal of semi-conjoined couples who believe that love means quashing mystery in favor of sweet companionship. In order for couples to remain interested in one another, they require distance, transgression, surprise, and play. We must be able to stand back from our partners, to view them as separate, mysterious people, for them to remain objects of our desire.
"Desire is fueled by the unknown," Perel insists when we meet in her high rise New York City office. She's formidable, intense; when she looks at you -- or rather through you -- the experience is unnerving (Perel's jungle cat eyes don't help). "When I work with sexuality in couples, I rarely work on helping them have sex. You can have sex and feel nothing. Women have done this for centuries. I work on the poetics of sex. I work on how they connect to their own erotic self. Basically, I work at how they beat back deadness, which is the prime reason for affairs. "
"The one thing that everyone tells me worldwide is that they feel alive when they have an affair. Many times, it isn't so much that you want to leave your partner as you want to leave who you have become. Often, you're looking for another self as much as you're looking for another person. To reconnect with lost parts of you or to discover new parts of you."
When couples succumb to habit, turning one another into pieces of domestic furniture (every lump and sag familiar to us), desire dies. When we see our partner as 100 percent "other," however, desire has a distance to travel, a secret to unlock, a person to discover. Perel works with couples "to make the partner or spouse someone that you're still curious about."
"I believe that people never fully know the other if they stay curious," she says. "When is the last time you tried to enter into your partner and not by having intercourse?"
Perel believes that marital bed death is a byproduct of the American Dream. "Some aspects of American culture, such as pragmatism, work amazingly well in certain areas but not in others. Organization skills, efficiency, being 'to the point,' blatantly direct, don't really go that well with suggestiveness, mystery, playfulness, seductiveness, and delayed gratification," she says. "Americans don't flirt -- they score. " She smiles at me suggestively. "Flirting means playing with the tip of the sword. It comes from the French word meaning 'to tease'. It's about playing with possibility. It's not about making it happen. Sex is not an achievement. Americans are achievement-oriented, not dream-oriented. That may be great for the business but it doesn't work out so well in the realm of relationships and desire."
She knows the conjugal jungle she speaks of. Perel's been married to her husband, Jack Saul, director of international trauma studies program at Drexel, for 30 years. Nor is frequency of sex the primary issue. "It's about having a certain sexualization in the relationship. It's about a certain gaze. People can have sex once a month -- who cares? It's how they look at each other, how they feel in the presence of each other. It's how connected to how they feel to that part of themselves." The question she asks her clients is not how often they have sex but, "what does sex mean for you and where do you go in sex? What parts of you do you connect to there? What parts of you get expressed in sex?"
She came to her work on erotic intelligence in a roundabout way. One day she asked her husband, "How do you know that a torture victim comes back to life? What does it take for a person to reconnect?" He said, "When they are able to reconnect with creativity and vitality, with the opposite of vigilance."
Perel realized that "you can't play when you're vigilant. You can't play when you're anxious. You can't play when you're fearful. That's when I made the connection. Where I grew up in Antwerp, there were two groups in the community of Holocaust survivors. There were those who were not dead and those who were alive. Those whose lives were gloomy and closed in and those who had reconnected with their vitally and creativity.
"That's when I looked at the couples who complained about the listlessness of their sex lives and saw two groups of couples. I saw couples who were not dead and couples who were alive. Those who are not dead may have wanted more sex, but they mainly wanted to connect with the quality of renewal and aliveness and playfulness that sex used to afford them."
Esther Perel looks directly at me. "That's what most people truly want."
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