“Mating in Captivity” (2017) deals with the interconnection between intimacy and sexual dynamics in couples.
Esther Perel, the author, states that eroticism within couples teeters -or suffers- between two opposites: the need for security, which nudges us towards committed relationships, and the need for adventure and excitement, which is the bedrock of eroticism.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Esther Perel is a couple therapist, author, and speaker.
I haven’t found much about her academic background, and what type of therapy she focuses on.
- Key Ideas
- The Two Opposite Needs: Intimacy/Eros Paradox
- The Intimacy/Eroticism Paradox Only Applies to Some Individuals
- Sexual Excitement Requires Abandon – and some selfishness –
- The Feminist Challenge: Sexual Arousal Might Need Some (Male) Aggression
- The Male Challenge: Accepting Sexual Cravings for Submission With Dominatrix
- Accepting Natural Flow, Letting Go of Efficiency
- Vulnerability And Dependency Are Required for Good Intimate Sex
- Sadomaso & Dominance Can Be Overcompensation
- Acknowledge “The Third” to Strengthen Relationships
- For some people, there is a paradox between wanting intimacy and closeness, but losing sexual attraction when they lose their separateness
- Sexual excitement and enjoyment require a minimum amount of selfishness and “ruthlessness”
- For a great erotic life in the relationship, we must accept the dark side which includes aggression, power dynamics, and attraction for others,
The Two Opposite Needs: Intimacy/Eros Paradox
Love rests on two pillars: surrender, and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other.
Now the problem is that with too much distance, there is no connection. But too much merging (can) harm sexual tension and attraction.
“Eroticism requires separateness”, she says, and “eroticism thrives in the space between us and the other”.
Perel says that “modern romance” tells us that it’s possible to have both security, and excitement.
But the author seems skeptical on the issue.
A similar paradox takes place in long-term relationship, where the opposing needs are commitment and freedom.
The author says that these are not “problems to solve”, but paradoxes to manage.
The Intimacy/Eroticism Paradox Only Applies to Some Individuals
Well, to be clear, she says that “for some of us, love and desire are inseparable, but for many more, emotional intimacy inhibits erotic expression”.
For the latter group of people, what makes a great intimacy inhibits sexual desire.
Stop looking at a relationship to satisfy all your needs
Many people today look at relationships to get all their social needs met.
But that’s the wrong approach, and besides your relationship, you should probably also have colleagues, friends, and various social circles based on your passions.
Sexual Excitement Requires Abandon – and some selfishness –
The author talks about a man who feels that intimacy means worrying and caring about his partner.
But, says the author, “sexual excitement requires the capacity not to worry, and the pursuit of pleasure demands a degree of selfishness”.
Almost an ability to be ruthless, says the author later on.
Some people are so absorbed with the well-being of their partner, that they can’t allow themselves that minimum requirement of selfishness.
The female partner of this man compounded the issue by dropping all her activities and seeking more one-ness and union.
When the couple followed the author’s suggestion to create some more separateness, the couple grew stronger.
This is another paradox, to merge, while in total self-absorption to be inside another, and inside ourselves at the same time.
The Aggression Ingredient of Sexual Eroticism
When we generally mute our “darker” side of our personality, we lose out on eroticism:
The author instead recommends containing, and integrating our aggression rather than eradicating it.
Aggression, as a human emotion, cannot be purged from human interactions. Especially not among those who love each other.
Aggression is the shadow side of love. It’s also an intrinsc component of sexuality and it can never be entirely excised from sexual relationships.
The Feminist Challenge: Sexual Arousal Might Need Some (Male) Aggression
Sexual dynamics are politically incorrect.
The author says that arousal feeds on aggression, power imbalances, and domination.
American men and women, shaped by the egalitarian ethos of the feminist movement often find themselves challenged by these contradictions.
That’s a challenge for some feminists -and some men- who fear that playing with power imbalances within a sexual relationship of two consensual adults risks overthrowing the respect that is essential to human relationships.
The author says that feminism and egalitarianism were a step forward, but that they brought some unintended consequences:
I do believe that the emphasis on egalitarian and respectful sex purged of any expression of power, aggression, and transgression is antithetic to erotic desire for men and women alike.
I agree with that.
The Male Challenge: Accepting Sexual Cravings for Submission With Dominatrix
For men who enjoy being sexually submissive it’s probably even more challenging.
She says of one of his clients:
Marcus is a classic type-A man (…) The word “power” is attached to many of his activities (…), and in his free time, he likes a good spanking.
With a sexually powerful woman, he gets a rest from having to be in control.
Marcus fears surrender as much as he craves it (…) his fantasy permits a bounded passivity, a safe but masked return to the mother’s arms.
However, the author says that the freedom to be submissive is the ultimate power expression:
To my thinking, being able to play with roles goes some way towards indicating that you’re no longer controlled by them
From my end, I would advise men who enjoy this to:
- Keep it under wrap (don’t say it to other people)
- Avoid becoming dependent on one single dominatrix (the law supply/demand and dependency applies to this realm as well: the more options you have, the less needy and dependent you are to a specific individual)
Accepting Natural Flow, Letting Go of Efficiency
Perel says that the Western world prides itself on efficiency and hard work.
But eroticism is inefficient, it squanders time and resources, and “work doesn’t work, trying is always trying too hard, eroticism is an imaginary act and you can’t measure it”.
We glorify efficiency and fail to recognize that the erotic space is a radiant interlude in which luxuriate indifferent to the demands of productivity.
I agree with this, and that’s why I was critical of what I had labeled as the “geek” approach to female orgasm by Tim Ferris.
Vulnerability And Dependency Are Required for Good Intimate Sex
The author takes on the “hook-up culture” of some campuses.
She says that it might not really be “genuine liberism” and open-mindedness, and wonders if the “hit and run sex” is a defense against sexual discomfort -getting drunk to have sex-, and a fear of vulnerability and dependence.
This chapter a bit more opinion-based, the case study is an interview with a friend’s daughter.
It’s interesting, but I wonder if the author has ever come across attachment styles, because she seems to be describing avoidant behavior.
Sadomaso & Dominance Can Be Overcompensation
Darrol’s wife complains: he cannot even decide on a restaurant, and he wants to tie me up? What’s that about.
The author says that her patient’s difficulties in asserting himself are remediated in his domination fantasies.
Acknowledge “The Third” to Strengthen Relationships
“The Third” is anyone who is attractive outside the relationship.
Couples who live pretending they are not attracted to anyone else are often lying to their partner, or even lying to themselves.
For those who live in a fantasy without “thirds”, the admission of a third, even in fantasy, can be shocking.
As in the Stanley Kubrick movie, that the author references:
However, albeit this is a good example of “the third”, I feel that Kubrick’s example is neither the most realistic, nor the most common.
Rarely the simple sight of someone can be as powerful as Kidman describes.
The author says that knowing, or joking, about “the third”, or about attraction to others, is a way of “accepting the third”, which in turn weakens its power.
Says the author:
When we validate one another’s freedom within the relationship we are less inclined to search it elsewhere. In this way, inviting the third goes contain its volatility, not to mention its appeal.
This is something I’ve often done with former partners, talking or joking about whom they find attractive. However, in my experience and contrary to what the author seems to suggest, some women who want commitment will not appreciate that talk about “the third”.
Physically Inviting The Third
I think this example was enlightening.
It’s enlightening because, to many men, allowing a spouse sexual freedom means “being a cuck”.
Yet, to some men who don’t care, or who have higher priorities, it might not matter much what she does.
Or, as in the author’s example, it can be a way to keep an attractive partner.
And albeit that might show neediness and weakness, it’s not necessarily so, and it can be win-win as the man keeps staying with someone he likes.
When intimacy collapses into fusion it’s not a lack of closeness, but too much closeness that inhibits desire
When demands for intimacy turn into coercion:
Demands for intimacy when taken too far can resemble coercion.
I see couples that demand admittance to their partner’s interiority, as if they are entitled to unrestricted access to the private thoughts of their loved ones.
Intimacy becomes intrusion, rather than closeness.
Intimacy with an injunction, “you have to listen to me”, “take care of me”, “tell me you love me”.
A funny skit, but also a reminder that good listeners -and maybe therapists- shouldn’t jump to conclusions in feeding people what we think they want to say:
It makes me feel like… Like a slut, I ask her? No, I don’t think there is anything wrong with being a slut, I’ve been a slut for a long time, it just makes me feel less desirable.
On men grossed out by birth:
I know it’s supposed to be this magical moment, the miracle of life and all of that, but no one seems to want to acknowledge that watching his wife give birth can be gross
On gay strategies for pick-up (might explain why so many gay men brag about “turning” heterosexual men: they’re being conned themselves):
These days I only play straight when it helps get me laid. Luckily for me, so many gay men get off in turning a straight man that I get laid all the time.
The book has some great, deep, enlightening concepts.
Yet, there is one major con that permeates large chunks of the book:
Yet another cultural determinist, tabula-rasa feminist who ignores science and logic
Sometimes I almost feel bad being so direct and strong in my criticism.
Yet, I don’t know how else to put it.
It’s either I cushion it out of politeness and just so that nobody might think I’m confrontational or… I say it how I feel.
By now I’ve seen so much feminist-based and tabula rasa-based nonsense written by self-styled “expert” that I’m starting to feel isolated in this small minority camp that upholds proper logic and reason.
Just one quote as an example:
Gender differences and their ensuing taboos and prohibition have long been viewed as categorical imperatives, biologically rooted, and therefore immutable.
Feminism showed that these undisputed truisms and characterizations were in fact social constructions that reinforced a long-standing gender order that obviously favored men.
“Feminism showed”… ?
How’s that supposed to provide any evidence?
The author fails to even note that there indeed are some important, proven, and even obvious biologically-rooted differences between men and women.
Does it mean that they are insurmountable, or that one gender is “inferior”, or that any single individual can never be the exception?
Of course not!
But there are biological differences between genders.
Another staple of feminist obtusity, the author also negates -or fails to understand- the evolutionary basis of the Madonna-whore dichotomy, ascribing it instead to “patriarchal society”.
And yet another one is when the author conflates the value/request/caring for fidelity as a “mainstay of patriarchal society”.
Just for the record, fidelity is about ensuring paternity, something any sexually-reproducing animal who invests in his offspring cares about.
Weak on Evidence
There are plenty of therapists who have written books.
Some of them, I found enlightening, and some therapists did seek to a more evidence-based approach either within their practice -see Shirley Glass– or within the existing literature -see Shawn Smith-.
Now, I believe that science is only one of three pillars of knowledge.
Still, if you wanna make claims as an authority, it’s an important pillar. The author’s references sometimes seemed weak to me.
There are no studies quoted, but there are “psychoanalyst Steven Mitchell”, “motivational speaker Anthony Robbins”, “Italian historian Francesco Alberoni”, “Proust”, and a host of other psychoanalysts.
It doesn’t seem to cross the author’s mind that what people say or think doesn’t carry the same validity of scientific evidence.
She says that “feminism” proved the biological fallacies wrong. And she lists the “collective work of philosophers and clinicians” -Focault was one of them- to overturn our understanding of sexual fantasies.
The Evidence is Biased, Scientific Method be Damned
Sometimes it feels like the author doesn’t grasp some basic concepts of the scientific method.
For example, she says:
Breakdown of desire appears to be an intentional consequence of the creation of intimacy. I can think of many couples whose opening line in my was “we really love each other, we have a good relationship, we don’t have sex”.
So the author extrapolates that the problem is very prevalent.
However, she cannot draw any conclusion on her sample, because she only gets the couples who have that intimacy/sex issue, but rarely does she get the couples with both intimacy and good sex life.
So she lacks the ratio between the sample/issue group, and the whole population. In simpler words, her sample is highly biased (self-selection bias) and you can’t draw population-level conclusions from it.
Very Freudian / psychoanalitc
While that’s not necessarily a “con”, Freud and the psychoanalytic approach tend to be un-scientific, so when it goes too far, you get into the realm of heavy speculation.
The author sometimes presents those speculations as facts.
For example, she says that “all desires to dominate or submit have their psychological roots in the fact that we were all once little children with big parents”.
And when she seeks to go to the root causes of some patients’ issues, her main tool for analysis and solution is also very Freudian-style: looking for childhood patterns, issues, and traumas.
She ascribes all sexual international tensions of her case studies to childhood, and she says that “it takes some psychological sniffing to spot them”, but it never dawns on her that “psychological sniffing” might not uncover existing childhood issues, but completely make them up.
All too often psychoanalysis becomes an exercise in storytelling, connecting dubious dots that might otherwise be unconnected.
Is This Old Wisdom In New (Misleading) Packaging?
A good chunk of self-development content is new authors repackaging old wisdom.
I think what the author is talking about might not be a self-standing “new” concept, but a consequence of the player-relationship continuum, plus the attachment style personalities.
It’s the more player-like personalities, more often men, who experience the loss of attraction and eroticism within committed relationships.
And, with attachment styles, it’s the avoidant personality that loses attraction and grows restless when intimacy increases.
The author might not so much describe a general model that applies to the whole population, but a valid model that applies to certain specific categories, as a consequence of their larger personalities.
And that’s why the author herself, in spite of her biased sample, says that her paradox only applies to some individuals.
- Audiobook narration voice with an accent
The author narrates her own book, and her accent and voice might or might not be your thing.
I had a slight feel of “hear me out how smart I am” while listening to this book.
From the beginning, the author says that “she speaks 8 languages, some she learned at home, some school, some during her travel, and one or two due to love” (and in her bio on her Amazon and website, the languages became nine, and she is “fluent” in them).
In her practice, “she is called to use her multicultural proficiency, as well as her skills as a polyglot”.
To me, it felt unneded, and a bit of a social climb and status power move towards the (largely American) readers.
Also, I must question the veracity of that proficiency. I haven’t met a single person who picks up languages just by traveling -unless she was into the “ultralearning challenge“-.
- A very “active” therapist
Reading the dialogues she quotes, Perel seems like a very talkative therapist.
Sometimes she debates blow by blow with her clients, adding or even feeding information to reach certain conclusions -with one client who sometimes strongly rejected her conclusions-, and even imposing her frame.
For example, she tells to a male client after she asked her wife if she is “open to other men flirting with her”:
I’m not suggesting tit for tat here, but your wife is a very attractive woman. And if you can’t see that, why can’t she hear it from someone else.
That sounded rather strong, I don’t know how I’d have taken that if I were in the client’s shoes.
In another case, she mocks a client:
I hope the irony isn’t lost on you (…) oh yes, I forgot, there is a double standard
The client might have been demanding a double standard, but isn’t the author herself who says that love is not about rationality?
It sounds a lot like she’s pushing moral judgments on her clients.
- Some left-wing, libertine opinion presented as “best approaches”
The author says of a customer that “she never saw her mother naked from when she was three, and never saw her father naked”.
She goes on to explain that we are socialized to keep our pleasure life secret is “part of our socialization”.
But to begin with, I don’t see anything wrong with not seeing your parents naked -as much as I don’t see anything wrong in not seeing my friends naked, so I don’t see why I should see my parents naked-.
And keeping your “pleasure life” secret isn’t just socialization, but pretty much what all societies do.
Some really deep insights, including the ones listed above.
Relevant to this website:
- S&M can be overcompensation, or felt as overcompensation if the male partner is perceived as low power
- The “let your partner free to sleep around” can be a good arrangement if one has other priorities or doesn’t care much about the sexual aspect
First off, lemme list my personal biases:
I had a negative feeling listening to this author, and I created an image of her that was not very flattering. And that has probably affected my review.
Keeping that in mind, here’s a quick review:
Esther Perel is a popular “relationship expert” who’s been doing the rounds in various podcasts, talks, and YouTube interviews.
The limitations of this book are that the author seems to believe that the two genders are biologically equal, and that much of the book is based on observations on a biased sample, opinions, and little science.
Furthermore, the author might be describing larger personality types such as avoidant and “player-type” personalities, rather than the whole population, but the book doesn’t link the two together.
On the plus side, “Mating in Captivity” has great and deep insights, including the various paradoxes of intimacy and, very relevant to this website, the “overcompensating” component that can be part -or perceived part- of sadomasochism.
Some of that can be eye-opening for many readers.
And I also personally learned from Perel and will be quoting and referencing her again across this website.