While I was reading Sex at Dawn, it seemed like every person I mentioned this to asked: “Have you read Mating in Captivity?” I can finally say yes, and I am better off for it. You may know Esther Perel from her excellent and highly popular TED talk about maintaining desire in long-term relationships; it has almost six million views, and that’s just on the TED website. Obviously a topic many people care deeply about, as it affects most of us at some point in our lives. I’m not in a long-term relationship, so I wondered how this book would apply to me, if at all. I was delightfully surprised that it had a lot to offer single people by way of general relationship advice.
Perel begins the book with the idea that we want both stability and desire in our relationships, but that we often forego one for the other, thinking for some reason that we have to. We don’t, she argues. We can have both if we accept that these things don’t necessarily happen at the same time. She stresses that erotic desire naturally waxes and wanes over the course of a relationship, and that it’s normal to go through periods of intense desire and lowered desire.
Within relationships, a feeling of comfort and security can often lead to boredom; Perel says that in order to rekindle desire, you sometimes have to let go of your security because eroticism is fueled by uncertainty. She says that in order to build erotic desire you need separation — that separation begets connection. “Our ability to tolerate our separateness – and the insecurity it engenders,” she argues, “is a precondition for maintaining interest” (p. 36). Sometimes we need distance in order to become closer; furthermore, maintaining a strong sense of self and personal identity — that “me” rather than “we” — allows our partners to see that they might not know everything about us, and there’s something enticing about that mystery. Sexual desire is fueled by yearning and elusiveness, and constant contact / co-dependence smother that desire. She points out near the end of the book that our partners are not ours — admitting that they are choosing to continue to be with us of their own free will is paramount to preserving our attraction to them.
Some of the takeaways that I got from reading this book are:
- Contemporary intimacy has too many expectations placed on it; we expect our partners to be everything to us, but that’s impossible.
- If you want to fall in love with your partner(s) again, watch them doing what they’re good at doing. Try to see them through a stranger’s eyes.
- We can’t expect spontaneity all the time, and making plans creates anticipation. Being intentional in our sexual lives is healthy and builds connection.
- Sexual power play and negotiation can ignite erotic desire; these things create tension and foster creativity. Being playful is a great tool to help nurture our desire.
- We’re always told to be giving lovers, but being selfish in bed once in awhile isn’t a terrible thing. If we can be selfish sometimes with our partners, it’s a sign that we trust them; moreover, it can be a huge turn-on to acknowledge your own sexual needs to your partners.
- When we view a lowered desire or libido fluctuation as a “problem,” then we try to fix it with sexual band-aids instead of looking at underlying causes, and that doesn’t help anyone. Perel puts it this way: our sexual and romantic connections are a “paradox to manage, not a problem to solve” (p. 81). We need to take the time to reflect on these connections.
- Our communication patterns stem from how our parents communicated with us when we were children, and our childhoods “shape our beliefs about ourselves and our expectations for others” (p. 107). The way we balance between autonomy and dependence depends a lot on the way we were raised.
Hands down, the biggest and most important takeaway I got from this book regards communication style. Perel devotes an entire chapter to verbal vs. non-verbal communication; she points out that intimacy based on talking has a female bias, and that men are at a disadvantage at times because of this. That society values and expects verbal communication, but men are socialized to do rather than say (and to be invulnerable), so when they don’t verbalize their feelings, their partners are often offended. “The pressure is always on the non-talker to change,” says Perel (p. 42), not on the verbal communicator to adapt to a different style of communication. She emphasizes that we need to honor ALL of the ways we connect — by doing things for each other, doing things together, touching each other, smiling at each other, spending time in the same room quietly — not just saying how we feel. She goes even further to say that sometimes the sharing of intimate feelings can be seen as coercive if there is an expectation that the partner returns those sentiments verbally. As someone who is a very verbal communicator and easily expresses myself with words, I have been guilty so many times of not seeing the value in my partner’s non-verbal communication. This book has changed that and will shape the way I communicate with partners in the future.
In addition to all these incredibly valuable points, Mating in Captivity includes chapters on parenthood, erotic fantasy, non-monogamy, finding sexual desire inside of a partnership in addition to finding it outside of a long-term partnership, and the Madonna-whore complex. The book is filled with real-life examples to support her theories and case study conversations with clients she’s had as a relationship therapist. This is a useful book even if you’re not in a long-term relationship; the central ideas that run through the text alone are worth reading it for. It’s beautifully-written and both deeply thought and felt. Also, it’s just really fun to read. One-click it now!
(P.S. Esther Perel is hot, y’all!)