What is and has been a most perplexing question about marriage that concerns millennials is how to reconcile sexuality with domesticity. Ester Perel, a couple’s therapist in private practice, writes eloquently and in depth about maintaining a vibrant sexual relationship in long-term marriage in her book, “Mating in Captivity” (love the title). Take a look at her 2013 TED talk, “Secret to Desire in a Long Term Relationship”.
One of the first thing she says in her book is that focusing on frequency and quantity of sex misses the point on the story of dwindling sexual desire and interest in modern-day marriages. Perel’s thesis is that a committed marriage is about the psychological feeling of safety and security we get from being together. We foster this togetherness by creating rituals, habits, and pet names (for example), all of which bring the reassurance that we are loved and valued.
At the same time we want adventure and excitement in our lives which is a testament to our autonomy and independence. It is the seeking of adventure and excitement that is expressed through our erotic experience, which is characteristic of romance. We want the riskiness of sexual adventure and excitement while also wanting the safety and security inherent in a long-term commitment.
The graphic demonstrates the idea of the simultaneously desire for closeness and connection and the desire for risk of adventure. What the graphic shows is that if either you or your spouse is drawn too much to the safety and security of closeness, the willingness to take risks with each other will be compromised, showing up as being less interested in the erotic. At the same, if either spouse is overly concerned and interested in the erotic, the closeness of commitment is frightening because of the fear that the familiarity of closeness will lead to boredom in the bedroom.
While sexuality thrives on excitement and risk, commitment thrives on comfort and stability. As Parel says, the need for the adventure and excitement is hard to generate with the person you look to for comfort and stability.
Parel talks extensively about the pitfalls in marriage that will have a negative effect on maintaining an erotic sexual relationship in long-term, committed marriages. Such pitfalls, which affect our ability to maintain our simultaneous interest in commitment and erotic excitement include:
- Gender stereotypes of men and women in which women are cast as longing for love, essentially faithful, and domestically inclined and men are cast as biologically non-monogamous and fearful of intimacy
- The residuals of our Puritan heritage, which is deeply suspicious of pleasure and moralizes about anything that strays from heterosexual, monogamous, marital, and reproductive sexuality. While today there is a blatant marketing of sexual images that seem so anti-Puritan, the central idea that sex is dirty still thrives in us.
- A major thesis for Parel (and many others she cites) is that our difficulties in creating a wonderful sexual relationship that thrives in long-standing marriage is often grounded in our own personal issues or insecurities. Since both people have such insecurities, a negative dynamic between spouses will play out in the couples’ sexual relationships.
Perel’s book is worth taking a look at because she takes an in depth, psychological approach to understanding the how and why a rich, vibrant sexual relationship is at risk in a long-term commitment like marriage. She presents a number of stories about couples with whom she has worked, eloquently explaining the societal and personal issues that prevent them from having the sexual relationship they want. You can click on the thumbnails below to get a sample of the stories about couples with whom she has worked.
Another good read is “How to Think More About Sex” by Allain de Botton. This is a very readable book in which de Botton argues (like Parel) that 21c sex is a balancing act between love and desire and adventure and commitment. de Botton is a Swiss philosopher, who founded The School of Life in London, England. This is a ground-breaking enterprise that aims to make academic learning applicable to real life. You can sign up for The School of Life Newsletter at (https://us-mg4.mail.yahoo.com/neo/launch?.rand=7r6p0cn3qhr29).
deBotton, Alain. (2012). How to Think More About Sex. New York: Picador.
Perel, Esther (2007) Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. New York: Harper.
Dominus, Susan. “The Sexual Healter”. New York Times. Jan.25, 2014 (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/26/fashion/Sex-Esther-Perel-Couples-Therapy.html?_r=0)