The passion pit: how intimacy can be a passion killer
The closer the couple, the better the sex? Not according to Esther Perel, a bestselling author and one of America's leading relationship counsellors. She tells Jane Mulkerrins why intimacy can be a passion killer – and why adultery isn't always something to confess
New York: where the therapy and self-improvement industry is as booming a business as finance or fashion, and throwing thousands of dollars at emotional issues is the norm. Whether all the sharing and soul-baring is actually efficacious, however, is another question entirely.
"I kept seeing people coming out of couples therapy, and everything else in their relationship had improved, but nothing had changed in the bedroom," says Esther Perel, herself a couples therapist in Manhattan.
Received wisdom teaches that intimacy and openness lead to satisfying sex, yet Perel was witnessing plenty of low libidos and sexless marriages even among the closest of couples. "It led me to begin an exploration of the nature of erotic desire in long-term relationships," she says.
The result of her explorations was a book, 'Mating in Captivity', and a somewhat counterintuitive conclusion: that intimacy can often impede desire; and closeness, rather than fanning the flames, can quash the sexual spark. An uncomfortable proposition though that may be for anyone in a long-term relationship, the book, published seven years ago, rapidly became a bestseller and catapulted Perel into the public spotlight.
She has become the go-to speaker on sexuality and marriage at conferences and festivals across the world, and her TED talk on the topic last year received a million hits in its first week, and more than four million to date.
Across the kitchen table in the Tribeca loft she shares with her husband, Jack Saul, the Belgian-born Perel is at pains to explain she isn't against intimacy per se.
"It's not that I don't value intimacy or security – of course I do. What I say is that secure attachment and erotic desire are two different experiences."
Love and desire, she says, are not one sexual strand, but "parallel narratives", and ones written relatively recently at that. "Our definition of intimacy is not that of our grandparents, who lived together, worked the land, had a partnership and shared the vicissitudes of everyday life," says Perel, who is not one for fluffy platitudes. (She speaks seven languages, and treats clients in all of them.) "Intimacy as we define it today is about transparency, sharing everything and being known, and transcending our existential aloneness by the shared connection with one other. We still want everything we wanted from traditional marriage – a family, companionship, social status, economic support – but we also want that person to give us mystery and transcendence."
In the past we derived our sense of security and of self not just from marriage, but from our bonds with the wider community, she says. Consequently, marital intimacy has become burdened with expectations, some of them highly contradictory. In short, love and security need closeness; passion and desire need space.
"This wholesale sharing and constant transparency deprives us of a certain mystery, of an ability to remain curious about one another," says Perel. "It is a real experiment to try to bring together two fundamental human needs – our need for security, and our need for adventure – in one relationship; to ask the same person to make us feel safe and stable, and make us feel playful, mischievous and adventurous."
So, are the two fundamentally incompatible? "Not incompatible, no. It is a tension, a finely calibrated balance. It is a paradox to be managed, not a problem to be solved."
Furthermore, we have come to see sex as the barometer of the health of a relationship – for the first time in history it has become not a function for procreation, but a defining factor in marital happiness. "And happiness has, in turn, become the defining feature for staying in a marriage or not. Before, happiness was in the afterlife," she says.
Perel's European upbringing gives her a certain perspective on her subject matter. She observes, as probably only an outsider can, that cherished American values, such as egalitarianism, directness, pragmatism and intolerance of ambiguity, are of benefit in the boardroom, but not in the bedroom. "They make for good business, but I don't know that they are the best skills in the erotic realm," she asserts.
I strongly suspect that Perel would have no trouble with seduction. Blonde, petite and glamorous, she is 55 but could easily pass for a decade younger.
Although she has been heralded as a game-changer in her profession, Perel remains humble about her thesis. "There is nothing I say that people don't tell me: 'You just put words to something I have always felt, or known, or sensed,'" she says. "I didn't invent a thing."
The only real backlash over the book – which has been published in 25 languages – concerns her assertion that infidelity doesn't need to be confessed. "There is a moralistic aspect to infidelity in America, that is not universal," says Perel. "There is more emphasis on the lying, on the definition of honesty as confession."
She is currently researching another book, all about infidelity. How she approaches it with patients sounds unorthodox. "Several times already this week I've asked [male] clients, 'Why did you tell her?' They say, 'I wanted to be honest,'" she cries, slapping her palm on the table in frustration. "I say to them, 'For what? Who benefited from this? You? Your conscience? Your marriage, which is completely in shambles? Couldn't you just finish this [infidelity] off and move on?'"
Our increasing life expectancy, Perel believes, also raises questions about whether lifelong monogamy is a culturally constructed ideal. "It is something we have never had to consider before: 60, 70, 80 years with someone," she says. "Many of us are going to have two or three marriages in our lives. Either we will reinvent ourselves with the same person, or we will reinvent ourselves with another."
Perel grew up in Antwerp, the daughter of Polish Jewish parents who had survived the Holocaust. They were taken from their homes in 1939, and both were the sole survivors in their families.
"My father was in 14 camps, my mother in nine. My mother spent one year in the woods and four years in the camps; my father was five years in the camps," she tells me, matter-of-factly. The family lived among a community of other survivors in Antwerp. "They fell into two groups," says Perel. "Those who lived tethered to the ground, afraid, untrusting: the world was dangerous, and pleasure was not an option. Then there were those who came back to life, who understood eroticism as aliveness, as an antidote to death."
Her parents were in the latter group. "They loved life; they loved to live."
Perel studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, before travelling to America 30 years ago to take a masters degree in expressive art therapy. "I came for one year, and then I stayed a second, and then I met my husband, and then I didn't use my return ticket," she says with a laugh.
Until a decade ago her specialism was interfaith and intercultural relationships, then she changed tack, partly thanks to an interest in the work of her husband – he is the director of the International Trauma Studies Programme at Columbia University. "I would wonder, 'When do you know that you have reconnected with life after a traumatic experience?' It's when people are once again able to be creative and playful, to go back into the parts of them that invite discovery, exploration and expansiveness," she says.
Of her own marriage she says: "We are very different as people, we come from very different cultures, we speak completely different languages, but we have a very good, rich, intellectual exchange which, for me, is very important."
Saul arrives home halfway through our interview and, when Perel warns him that he will end up in print, hurries to the safety of the bedroom. I ask whether or not she practises what she preaches, making sure there is some space and distance in their relationship. "Yes, but I don't have to work hard at it – it comes rather naturally to me," she says.
She and Saul have two sons, aged 17 and 20. The younger is at boarding-school in Massachusetts, the elder at university. They used to be embarrassed by their mother's work: the eldest spent his teenage years begging her to cover up her books about sex when his friends came over. Now, she says, they are proud, and send her newspapers cuttings in which she is quoted, as well as regular statistics of her TED talk's reach.
In spite of her public profile and her lecturing and speaking commitments, Perel still spends 25 hours a week seeing patients, for a relatively modest (by New York standards, at least) $350 (€256) per hour. Much of the practical advice she gives is to parents, to help them reconnect with their playful sides and "step out of Management Inc", as she puts it, "to understand that if all the Lego pieces are not put in the box tonight, they are not going to be judged for it. It isn't the kids that extinguish the fires, it is the adults who fail to keep the spark alive."
And while she emphasises that she does not spout tips on putting the sizzle back into sex lives, she does have some simple suggestions about how space and closeness can co-exist within a relationship. Go to the cinema solo, to see the films you want to see, not only those that both of you agree on, she advises. If your partner loves to stay longer at parties than you, take two cars, or let him arrange a lift home for later.
"It is about not being threatened that if you don't do everything together, then it means you're not close, that you are not intimate. If you start to feel that you have given up too many parts of yourself to be with your partner, then one day you will end up looking for another person in order to reconnect with those lost parts."