DID YOU SEE: Esther Perel interviewed in The Sun

Belgian-born sex therapist Esther Perel is an expert on the subject of sex, intimacy, love, and desire in long-term relationships. The author of Mating in Captivity and the subject of a very smart and widely-circulated TED talk on desire, she was recently interviewed by Mark Leviton in The Sun, an excellent literary magazine renowned for its in-depth Q-and-As with remarkable thinkers.

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I’m a tough customer when it comes to speaking and writing in this field, I suppose because these subjects are near and dear to my heart, and I hate the amount of misinformation, bad advice, and stale thinking that goes out under the rubric of relationship counseling. But Perel passes my bullshit-detector with flying colors.  I found myself completely engrossed in this article (“A More Perfect Union”) and in agreement with her almost every step of the way. I particularly like the way she talks about fantasies and also how she addresses the subject of parenting in contemporary life. Since I’ve quoted those passages online already, I’ll offer an excerpt here in which she talks about the subject of infidelity:

I don’t abide by the perpetrator-victim model of infidelity, in which the cheater is criminalized and the victim is given all the empathy. I also don’t believe an affair automatically means the relationship is bad. Here’s the usual view: If we, as a couple, have everything we want from each other, there’s no reason for either of us to go elsewhere. Hence, if one of us goes elsewhere, there’s something missing between us; infidelity is a symptom of a problem in the relationship.

That’s sometimes the case, but affairs often have more to do with the unfaithful individual than with the couple. People go elsewhere for sex not so much because they want to leave their partners but because they want to escape who they themselves have become. They are looking for parts of themselves that they’ve lost because of the relationship. But many adulterers are reasonably content in their marriage and monogamous in their beliefs. In my experience most have been faithful for ten or fifteen years before they’ve cheated.

If you see adultery only as a symptom, you sometimes take good relationships that have worked well for decades and make them look like failures. I don’t think that’s right…

I’ve seen couples in which I’m convinced there’s an affair going on but no one wants to talk about it. I’ve seen couples in which one person keeps asking the question and the other keeps denying it, or one keeps dropping hints and the other doesn’t want to pick up on them. I’ve had clients who are resisting having an affair, and others who can’t talk clearly about their marriage because they are intoxicated by an ongoing affair and everything else pales in comparison. Or they are irritable and don’t want to go home because of their guilt or because they don’t like their partner at the moment. Other clients might want to be in the relationship, but their partner has Alzheimer’s and can’t recognize them, and they need a way to rejuvenate themselves so they can spend an hour every day with their partner at the nursing home. I hear about kinds of infidelities that never existed before now, but infidelity itself is timeless. At all four corners of the world, at any moment, someone is either betraying a beloved or being betrayed. Infidelity: historically condemned, universally practiced.

You can read the entire interview online here. Check it out and let me know what you think.

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LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: The Gift of Desire

“Ask for what you want” is advice that’s easy to give but often strangely difficult to practice. What gets in the way of identifying our desires and sharing them with others? Growing up gay, we probably learned early on to view our deepest desires as shameful, socially unacceptable, or at the very least subject to other people’s negative judgments. No wonder we’re a little gun-shy when it comes to letting others know what we want, especially in the realm of love and erotic play.

As a gay sex therapist, I spend a lot of my working hours listening to people talk about the nitty-gritty details of their sex lives. I meet a lot of smart, soulful, intelligent men frustrated at their inability to find love and connection.

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Many gay men live with the nagging feeling that they missed that day in school when everybody else learned to identify their desires, to inhabit them, and to express them to others. Mostly, as gay kids, we were shamed for our erotic desires. We absorbed the message that our hunger for touch and affection, wanting to see and hold other guys’ bodies (or, let’s be honest, their penises) were bad or wrong and we should keep them hidden away. Sometimes we learned that lesson overtly by being punished, harassed, or bullied for showing our desires. But sometimes we picked them up indirectly from the absence of positive expressions of same-sex desire. Either way, we developed a hyperawareness as a defense mechanism. Any hint of desire can feel like a threat to survival: am I going to be okay, or am I going to be rejected, or beat up?

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LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: Cruising and Choosing

Is it possible to choose what thoughts you think? I’m not sure you can choose what thoughts float through your mind any more than you can choose what you’re feeling at any given moment. If you could, we’d choose to be happy all the time, right? I do believe, though, that you can choose what thoughts you give weight to. That’s probably the biggest benefit of learning to meditate – getting quiet and still enough to notice the obsessive/brutal/anxious thoughts that occupy your monkey mind and to practice turning down the volume or replacing them with thoughts that create serenity rather than suffering.

Is it possible to choose what kind of people you find attractive? That’s the tougher question that came up today in my therapy session with Roger (not his real name). He’s a fit, perky, reasonably attractive middle-aged guy whose consulting job requires him to spend a lot of time on conference calls. The other day he met in person someone he’d only previously encountered as a disembodied voice. Matthew turns out to be an extraordinarily handsome young guy in his early thirties, and Roger’s crushing out on him already.

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We had an interesting conversation about the rules of attraction and what body types gay men are trained to idealize. Roger tends to prize men who are young and handsome, and when it comes to dating, he tends to rule out men who are older and heavier than he is. I know that many gay men of a certain age were socialized to have that specific taste in men, which I consider somewhat tragic – tragic because 1) most people aren’t young and handsome, 2) the ones who are don’t stay that way very long, and 3) if you’re only turned on by young, pretty guys, the pickings get slimmer as time goes by. Maybe I’m a bit of a pervert (“Maybe?” I can hear my friends saying) but I never bought into the classic gay stereotype of drooling over hairless skinny young twinks or muscle-bound guys with six-pack abs. A pot belly and a receding hairline have always been more likely to turn my head, and I think I’m far from alone in that predilection.

We talked about how gay culture has expanded over the years to acknowledge a wider spectrum of physical attractiveness and a richer diversity of erotic affinity groups – daddies and daddy-hunters (noting that “Daddy” no longer connotes “Sugar Daddy” who pays for everything), white guys and men of color who are drawn to each other, bears and their various sub-subcultures, the many flavors of kink. We talked about Bob Bergeron, the New York City-based psychotherapist who wrote a book about gay men aging gracefully — and then committed suicide on the eve of its publication, a victim of the toxic belief that you have to “stay young and beautiful if you want to be loved.” And by contrast we talked about the great gay poet James Broughton, the subject of the new documentary film Big Joy, who lived to be a juicy old man. We talked about how one of the roles for elders in any community is listening carefully to and bestowing blessings on younger people, and how challenging it is to give blessings when you don’t feel that you have received as many as you would have liked.

We cycled back to Roger and his thoughts about Matthew, which vacillated between “He’s so handsome – I wish I were that handsome – I’ll never be that handsome” and “He’s so handsome – I wish I had a partner that handsome – I’ll never have a partner that handsome.” Neither of these trains of thought left Roger feeling very happy. I proposed an alternative: “He’s so handsome.” Period. Bestow a silent blessing. What happens if you give weight to that thought?

Choosing what has meaning to you and choosing where you want to put your energy and awareness is also the subject of a famous commencement speech given by novelist David Foster Wallace (another suicide, for what that’s worth) to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College. Check it out and let me know what you think. What thoughts plague you, and what other choices are available to you?

Quote of the day: DESIRE

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God gave us desire. Letting go of desire is not the way to peace or godliness. Rather desire is God’s way of making sure we join the parade rather than watching from the curb.

It’s okay to want a bigger TV but no one ever made a movie about a man who finally bought a Volvo. So embrace your desire but ask yourself whether your desire saves lives or whether it all goes with you to the grave.

The problem with your desires may be lack of meaning. Love is a common, but not the only, factor that adds meaning to otherwise boring desires.

— Don Miller

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