Erotic Intelligence

"Am I happy in my marriage?" When was that ever such an important question?


This week I was listening to some past episodes of the TED Radio Hour podcast, and I stumbled on this interview with Esther Perel. Her book and her TED Talk opened my mind to a new way of thinking. This interview feels like the icing on the cake. I wanted to share it with you because I think it will help you look at your challenges in a different way, or maybe even approach your relationships with a new lens.

I've transcribed the entire interview for you (in case you can't listen to it, or you want to re-visit specific sections). I'd love to hear what you think in the comments!

TED: Do you think love is like a construct or do you think it's a fact?

EP: It's an experience. It's an experience that is mental, emotional, physical, sensual, sensory. It's all-encompassing. That's part of why it's so grand, because it doesn't leave any part of us untouched.

TED: When people meet you and you say, "I'm Esther Perel, I wrote this book called Mating in Captivity." What's the most common reaction you get from people?

EP: Well, the first reaction is usually to the title, "Mating in Captivity." Some people know exactly what I mean. They understand immediately that we don't necessarily like to mate in captivity and so then the next question is, "So, can desire be sustained in the long haul? Can you reconcile the domestic and the erotic in one relationship? Can you reconcile intimacy and sexuality when you're with the same person for the long haul?"

Excerpt from Esther Perel's TEDx Talk:

So, why does good sex so often fade, even for couples who continue to love each other as much as ever? And why does good intimacy not guarantee good sex, contrary to popular belief? Or, the next question would be, can we want what we already have? That's the million-dollar question, right? And why is the forbidden so erotic? What is it about transgression that makes desire so potent? And why does sex make babies, and babies spell erotic disaster in couples? (Laughter) It's kind of the fatal erotic blow, isn't it? And when you love, how does it feel? And when you desire, how is it different?

These are some of the questions that are at the center of my exploration on the nature of erotic desire and its concomitant dilemmas in modern love. So I travel the globe, and what I'm noticing is that everywhere where romanticism has entered, there seems to be a crisis of desire. A crisis of desire, as in owning the wanting -- desire as an expression of our individuality, of our free choice, of our preferences, of our identity -- desire that has become a central concept as part of modern love and individualistic societies.

EP: Desire was never the organizing principle of sexuality for sure in marriage. We had sex because we needed lots of children and we had sex because it was a woman's marital duty. So, desire is very much a concept of our society - of our culture - today... of a consumer society, of a society that has the "I" in the center. And this "I" knows who she is and knows what he wants, and is constantly urged to define it and to want more.

TED: So what does that do? What's the result?

EP: We crumble under the weight of expectation. We've never invested more in love and we've never divorced more in the name of love. We're not having very nice results.

That doesn't mean that when we had less expectations marriages were happier occasions, but people had different expectations of life.

One of the most important things we've done around marriage is that we've brought happiness down from the heavens, and made it first, a possibility, and now today it's a mandate.

Am I happy in my marriage? When was that ever such an important question?

This idea that my marriage is supposed to give me something. That I'm supposed to get something from my partner and that my partner owes me that because somehow it was implicit in our agreement in our joining together that we were going to give each other things like:

I'll never feel alone again! I'll never worry about abandonment! I'll never feel disconnected! I'll never feel unnoticed!

TED: The thing is, marriage is great! I'm speaking for myself here of course. It is that person. That person is your best friend. And that's our expectation. 

EP: In America.

But I can tell you I go to many parts of the world where I don't ever hear people say, "My partner is my best friend."

They HAVE best friends. And it's not their partner. Their partner is their partner. That's a different thing. And frankly, many people treat their partners in ways that they would never treat their best friends. They allow themselves to say and do things that no best friend would ever accept.

Friendship does not operate along the same lines.

Excerpt from Esther Perel's TEDx Talk:

So what sustains desire, and why is it so difficult? And at the heart of sustaining desire in a committed relationship, I think, is the reconciliation of two fundamental human needs. On the one hand, our need for security, for predictability, for safety, for dependability, for reliability, for permanence. All these anchoring, grounding experiences of our lives that we call home. But we also have an equally strong need -- men and women -- for adventure, for novelty, for mystery, for risk, for danger, for the unknown, for the unexpected, surprise -- you get the gist. For journey, for travel. So reconciling our need for security and our need for adventure into one relationship, or what we today like to call a passionate marriage, used to be a contradiction in terms. Marriage was an economic institution in which you were given a partnership for life in terms of children and social status and succession and companionship. But now we want our partner to still give us all these things, but in addition I want you to be my best friend and my trusted confidant and my passionate lover to boot, and we live twice as long.

So we come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide. Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one. Give me comfort, give me edge. Give me novelty, give me familiarity. Give me predictability, give me surprise. And we think it's a given, and toys and lingerie are going to save us with that.

TED: So if marriage has evolved into this thing that's so fraught with potential problems and pitfalls and obstacles, how do we save it and improve it?

EP: Oh yes, I get that question all the time, and I have a different answer every day. It ranges from, you know, the secret to happy relationship -- I don't think in those terms actually. That's the first thing. It's not my language. I don't think about secrets, nor "keys to..." nor 7 ways to..., nor "10 steps..."

TED: You don't have the answer for us -- like the bumper sticker answer?

EP: No. But I do have a sense in the American context, it's often a "can do" question. You know, this is a society that thinks that every problem has a solution. And then one of my answers is that this dilemma between our need for security and our need for adventure, and how we're trying to bring them together under one roof is maybe more a paradox that we manage, and less a problem that we solve.