cecilia-ford-phdCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. Today she reviews a book that “illuminates the question of why sexual boredom is so common in marriage.”

 

Why is marriage so deadly to lust?

 

Mating-In-Captivity-paperbackFrom the ironic title to the final page, this small book stands out as a gem among the tired field of books that promise to put some spark back into “married” sex. For those that are weary of being told that the key is “intimacy,” or “communication,” psychologist Esther Perel offers not just a different angle but a deeper perspective, and her book, filled with vivid case histories, illuminates the question of why sexual boredom is so common in marriage. Along the way, tools for how to combat it are offered as well. 

Why is marriage so deadly to lust? Perel and her patients ask. Why are so many “cherished spouses  . . . famished lovers,” and why is it so hard for couples to break out of the sexual rut many marriages become? Focusing on the mechanics of sex, as so many therapists do, can backfire. According to Perel, “in my experience, a treatment that places a premium on performance often exacerbates the very problems it purports to solve.”  As the brilliant analyst Adam Phillips put it, “In our erotic life, work does not work   . . . trying is always trying too hard.” The most provocative of her ideas is that couples therapy emphasizing closeness, communication, and togetherness may be even worse.

I know—how can intimacy be bad for your marriage? It’s not, according to Perel, but it’s murder on your sex life. Lust is sparked by distance, mystery, and even aggression, all of which have little place in our daily lives. Everything about “mating in captivity” conspires to promote closeness and minimize conflict. The problem is that eroticism flourishes in an atmosphere of uncertainty—in fact, how much uncertainty you can tolerate may be commensurate with the amount of passion in your relationship.

From the moment we marry, our identities are merged, and “comfort love,” in the words of sex therapist Dagmar O’Connor, competes with and overtakes “sexual love.” Modern marriage emphasizes the building of security and safety, and yet it is those very feelings that may endanger passion in marriage. Perel makes the point that sex that is erotic is often both “transgressive” and “aggressive,” at least psychically. Aggression is not, as we might assume, purely a negative valance in marriage. Stephen Mitchell, one of the most innovative and influential analysts in recent years, pointed out in his book Can Love Last? that while containing aggression is a precondition to love, we must integrate it, not eradicate it. The trick, says couples therapist Virginia Goldner, is to maintain a balance, seeking not the “flaccid safety of permanent cozinesss” but the “dynamic safety” of a succession of breaches and repair.

Esther Perel: The secret to desire in a long-term relationship, TED Talk

According to Perel, the key to “erotic intelligence is about creating distance, then bringing that space to life.” Finding, or more aptly “refinding,” the other is the adventure that makes sex exciting. But how can distance be created without an excess of conflict or intolerable insecurity? Besides the importance of breach and repair (a.k.a. constructive fighting and makeup sex), partners must be able to cultivate separateness during marriage; they have to continue to develop an independent sense of self in the context of the intimacy that coupling provides.

With many detailed case histories as illustration, Perel shows how she has helped couples overcome “the anti-hedonism of domesticated sex.” Demonstrating again and again that the mind is truly our most important sex organ, her cases reveal how changing the dynamic and psychic equilibrium can be crucial to sexual passion.  She rails against the modern-day “Cult of Children” that has taken us far from the days when they were part of the family’s struggle for economic survival to their current status as tiny despots that rule their own small kingdoms. “We no longer get work out of our children,” she writes. “We get meaning.” Parents labor to make perfect lives for them, but without the benefit of the support network that the extended family once provided.

Perel’s thesis sheds light on why fantasies and vacations energize the erotic tension in a relationship. Mystery, adventure, and novelty all can add spark to the dynamic. She also includes a very insightful chapter on the role that affairs play as well. Married sex, laboring under the burden that it must always be an expression of tender, abiding love, can be energized by the “shadow of a third” person in the picture. The distance created by seeing your mate through the eyes of another, not to mention the instant sense of “distance” created when there is an affair, both bring about the paradoxical re-energization of a married couple’s love life.

“Sex matters,” Perel asserts, and marriages with sexual passion are experienced as not only more rewarding but are also more durable. She frees her patients sexually by giving them permission to create what she calls the “gentle imbalance” that is essential to eroticism. And the good news is that uncertainty is already there—security is the illusion that we try so hard to maintain in our family life. “Introducing uncertainty sometimes requires nothing more than letting go of the illusion of certitude. In this shift in perception, we recognize the inherent mystery of our partner,” she writes, and the “real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Like Dorothy in Oz, the power is within us, ours to discover, but we must be willing to step out of our comfort zone. The trip is worth it.