MEDIA: Esther Perel interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air”

Esther Perel is a Belgian-born sex therapist who has become widely known for her speaking and teaching about sex, intimacy, and relationships. Her first book, Mating in Captivity, examined and overturned a lot of preconceptions about how to sustain emotional and sexual intimacy in a committed relationship. Her TED talk on desire (“The secret to desire in a long-term relationship”) has gotten over 11 million views online. And her new book, The State of Affairs, inspired another juicy TED talk distilling the essence of the book, “Re-thinking infidelity.”

Perel has achieved media stardom partly because she’s a strikingly attractive blonde woman with a charming European accent — I mention her photogenic personality to make the point that it combines with a sharp intellect and a gracious sense of humor to get across some very provocative and challenging ideas in a remarkably accessible way. She was recently interviewed about the material in her book on NPR’s “Fresh Air” by the ever-appealing Terry Gross. Few therapists in the public arena have impressed me so much with their sensible approach to the subject of sex and relationships.

In particular, I was struck by how Perel talked about a subject that I encounter frequently in my own practice, which is the situation where there is a big difference in libido: one partner wants sex and the other doesn’t.

Terry Gross: How do you deal with relationships where one partner desires something that the other partner isn’t willing to give? Doesn’t enjoy sex, doesn’t want it frequently, therefore they’ve become sexually incompatible. What’s your position for the partner who desires something that partner can no longer get within the marriage?

Esther Perel: If you ask about what to do with the discrepancy around desire for sex within the relationship, thinking that what people miss is the act of sex, you fail to understand what people are really asking for. Sexuality is often a pathway for connection, for intimacy, for tenderness, for sensuality. For playfulness, for power, for curiosity, for relaxation. When people are deprived of sex, it’s this whole set of feelings and experiences they are deprived of. They can have sex in various places. What they want is everything that the connection gives them. When they are deprived of that, what they experience is a depletion of energy, of vibrancy, of aliveness, of vitality. That’s what they’re yearning for. So the conversation begins not with sex but with loss. Loss on both sides. The person who is no longer interested is not so happy about that, either.

To me, this was the most interesting part of the interview:

Terry Gross: When someone no longer feels sexually aroused by your partner, is that something you feel they can get back?

Esther Perel: Arousal is one thing, desire is something else, and willingness is a third. We do not start sexually only because we are aroused and turned on. We sometimes start to be involved sexually because there is willingness. You’re not always hungry. But then there is food in front of you, and it looks beautiful, and it smells really good, and you have a little taste, and you think, “Hmm, after all, I wouldn’t mind a little bit more.” And even after you ate, you may say, “That was delicious, I wasn’t really hungry,” and you still enjoyed it. So we have multiple doors for entering into an intimate engagement with our partner. Excitement is just one of them. Sometimes you are desirous but you don’t have an arousal, you’re not turned on physiologically yet. But you have the idea, you have the wish for it, you’re in the mood. And sometimes you are excited and turned on but you’re not necessarily in the state of desire. I think we need to separate these concepts and these entry points, first of all.

Second of all, I think the more important question sometimes is: “I turn myself off…how? I shut down my desires…how?” That’s not the same as “You turn me off when…” and “What turns me off is…” That puts the responsibility only on the other person: if only the other person did amazing things it would move me. The fact is, if I’m shut down, if I’ve closed the door, you can do a lot of things but there will be nobody at the reception desk. There needs to be receptivity, an openness, a willingness, and that is the fundamental sovereignty of desire. That is something that I own. I decide if I want to open that or not. What they’re talking about is the ways they have closed themselves off from possibility of touch, of connection, of sensuality, of pleasure, of surrender, for a host of reasons that range from sexual trauma to self-criticism to lack of self-worth to negative body image to issues of self-esteem. It is those things that make us close ourselves down.

Terry Gross: Is that something you can help fix?

Esther Perel: Yes, many times. That’s the work. The work is about helping people often to reconnect with parts of themselves they’ve neglected or they’re in conflict with or that they despise. Or that they feel loathsome about or don’t feel deserving of because they gained too much weight or they haven’t performed well enough at work, because their mother left them for another man so they decided they would be all mother and they killed the woman inside of them the day they had a child. Or because their father was violent and aggressive and they don’t know how to bring together love and lust. Those are the deeper conflicts around desire and intimacy and sexuality that I work with in my practice.

I encourage you to listen to the entire half-hour interview yourself online here.  Check it out and let me know what you think.

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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.

MEDIA: TED talk by Esther Perel on “the secret to desire in a long-term relationship”

Esther Perel is a Belgian-born psychotherapist and writer who specializes, like I do, in sex and intimacy for couples and individuals. We did a little bit of training together many years ago, and I like and respect her very much. She made a big splash with her book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. In fact, her TED talk is pretty much a digest of her book’s main ideas delivered in less than 20 minutes. She asks provocative questions: can we desire what we already have? does good intimacy always make for hot sex? She empowers people in long-term relationships to understand that it’s asking a lot of your partner to fulfill every single one of your relational needs/wants/desires. Every relationship requires a tricky balancing act between the solidity of love (all about having) and the excitement of desire (all about wanting), between autonomy and connection, between stability and adventure. Of all the ingredients that add up to what she calls erotic intelligence — mystery, playfulness, novelty, curiosity — she prizes imagination above all. I like the way she encourages people to investigate deeply and honestly how they actively turn themselves on and turn themselves off. The language forces you to reclaim the power of erotic imagination, rather than making it your partner’s job to turn you on. My favorite thing she says: “Desire requires selfishness in the best sense — to hold onto yourself in the presence of another.” Check out the video and let me know what you think.