Last week I did NOT want to have sex with my wife.
Here's what I learned...
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?"
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.
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.
Mike and Becky seem almost too good to be true... and that's why I love them.
One thing that stood out to me as I re-listened to this interview is the attitude Mike and Becky have towards each other, and the respect and esteem they have for their marriage.
Their marriage inspires them to be the best version of themselves.
I believe they feel so lucky to have each other and have so much respect for their marriage that it has completely changed how they experience life. They don't want to threaten or jeopardize something they deem so sacred, so they put an incredible effort to preserve and nurture everything that is good within their relationship... and they find ways to turn the trials into blessings.
It takes a special kind of person to be grateful for the good in life along with the bad. During the interview Mike mentioned how one of their biggest trials was when his wife was diagnosed with diabetes... then not 10 minutes later, Becky talks about what a blessing her illness has been, and how she's been able to use it to help, serve, and uplift other people struggling with the same disease.
There is a level of love that remarkable couples tend to reach that sets them apart from others. It's a realization that their relationship with each other extends beyond personal satisfaction. Their love carries beyond their partner. It even spreads beyond their children and immediate family.
Truly incredible couples realize that they way they love each other, and they way they respond to their trials and challenges can have an impact on their community and the world. They use their marriage as a catalyst to inspire and uplift others. They set themselves as examples and role models. They see the value in sharing their struggles, and uplifting those who are hurting and suffering.
The lesson I learned from Mike and Becky is that life is what you choose to make it.
What did you learn from this week's podcast? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
I hope you enjoyed our conversation with Mike and Becky. Here are some of the things we talk about in this episode, as well as some of the resources that were mentioned:
Waiting till marriage to have sex.
Burn the ships. Don't use the "Divorce" word.
Be grateful for each other and the work you do for each other
Child rearing conflicts. Good cop vs. Bad cop
The Love Monkey (holds love notes, and they'd hide him from each other)
When Becky got diabetes
Talking about sex with kids on their level
If you make it through one trial, you can be better prepared and stronger for the next one. There are no back doors.
Being grateful for the good and the bad
How much joy and excitement marriage can bring into your life
Finding your love language
(Excerpt from the podcast)
The price of sex has dropped from, in our grandmother’s generation, it was probably a year of dating, in my generation it was 3 dates. We had a thing called the 3-date Rule in the 80’s. Now the price of sex has dropped down to the barrel-bottom price of one well-worded text.
What it takes to grow a long term bond isn’t sex. It’s everything else! It’s communication skills, conflict resolution skills, empathy, compassion. It’s really hard to develop those when your brain is being assaulted with a dopamine rush not unlike the one you get from heroine that you get from a new sexual relationship.
Men can have sex with the same woman every week for 6 months and not like her any more after 6 months than they did on the first day.
Just because you're having sex, doesn't mean you're in love.
Dr. Wendy Walsh is internationally renown as the “Love Guru.” She was nominated for an Emmy Award for her work as co-host on The Dr. Phil spinoff, The Doctors TV show. She also hosts Investigation Discovery Network’s “Happily NEVER After,” as well as being part of Dr. Drew’s Behavior Bureau on HLN Network. On CNN and 9 Network, Australia, she breaks down the psychology of sex, love, gender roles, divorce, parenting and other human behaviors.
Check out Dr. Walsh's book here:
Intro music: Daft Punk - Digital Love
To enter a relationship is to court pain.
If we truly desire to experience deep, soul-shaking, life-changing love, we have to drop our shields, tear down our walls, and let people into our hearts. To love is to constantly run the risk of being hurt. Loving is staring potential pain in the face without flinching.
Sadly, people who live this way - and love this way - sometimes get hurt. The hurts of the heart are often the most painful. That pain can be dangerous if you don't have the right knowledge and tools to help you recover from these hurts. Many people have opened their hearts to love freely and passionately only to be hurt, and react by building new walls twice as thick as before.
There is a secret tool available to us that will help keep us out of our Fortress of Solitude. That tool is Forgiveness.
Too many people withhold forgiveness because the person who wronged them hasn't suffered enough, or even acknowledged that they've done something wrong. They hold on to the emotionally-cancerous grudge as it slowly eats away at their happiness and consumes their lives. They don't understand the true purpose of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is allowing yourself to move on. Forgiveness is letting go of the burden of a grudge. Forgiveness is not allowing someone else's choices to ruin your life. Forgiveness is acknowledging the imperfectness in us all, and chalking up mistake after mistake to being human. Forgiveness is a fresh start. Forgiveness is a clean slate. Forgiveness is a newly opened heart... a heart receptive to love and resilient to the inevitable pain that life unexpectedly hit us with.
Forgiveness is not fair, which is what makes it so beautiful.
Forgiveness is mercy winning over justice. It's love conquering hate. It's new life rising victorious over death.
Forgiveness, like love, is often irrational and counter-intuitive. It works when put into practice by the shamelessly optimistic. Forgiveness is often mistaken for a feeling, when in fact, it's a choice.
Those who never learn forgive will never have hearts open enough truly love... because, one forgives to the degree that one loves.
Who do you need to forgive? How can you forgive more freely? Can you forgive somebody even if the emotions of pain are still present? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments!
Here are some of the books referenced in the podcast:
Most religions throughout the world ask their members to follow a model of sexual purity. The rules and consequences vary in their intensity from church to church, but I believe the overall intention is typically good and pure. However, anything - including good things - if taken to an extreme can be damaging.
Self-confidence if taken to an extreme can become self-absorption. An optimist can quickly become unrealistic. Loyalty can become blindness. Honesty can become rudeness. Courage can become recklessness.
Virtue and chastity, if taken to an extreme, also possess a dark side. When sexual purity is celebrated, sexuality tends to become demonized. Sex, and even feelings of pleasure, begin to be associated with extreme feelings of guilt and shame. People develop a fear of their own bodies.
Unintentionally, we create a culture of unhealthy sexual beings. Religious individuals get married and are so scared of sexual arousal that they don't have sex for weeks or even months. Or, when they do have sex, it's associated with guilt and feelings of evil and darkness.
Many couples never have good, enjoyable sex because they never explored their own bodies to understand what makes them feel good. Nor do they feel they have a right to feel good. Sexual pleasure has been portrayed as something evil.
How sad that something so beautiful, and intimate - when taken to an extreme - can tear an otherwise healthy relationship apart.
Sex should be something that brings couples together. It is the ultimate act of unity. It is foundation of the creation of family, and the most physical manifestation of love and vulnerability.
Good sex requires work, communication, openness, selflessness, and a willingness to be in the moment and experience pleasure.
If religious-types want to raise informed and sexually healthy individuals (which I believe most do), it might be time to reframe some of the ways we teach virtue and chastity.
The following is a great start, developed by Kristin Hodson and Alisha Worthington, the guests on today's podcast. If you want to learn more about the BE HEALTHY process, and hear a bit more about how to find a healthy sexual balance for yourself, check out the podcast (at the top of the screen).
Embrace your growth edge (based on trust and Risk not safety) Have realistic expectations on range of experiences (how sex is like dining, good enough sex) Engaging your partner (being deliberate, increase the eros, flirt, desire to desire) Authenticity (be present in your sex—emotions, sensations - wanting to known and be known as you/they are) Learn how your body works and your partners (this also includes knowing your sexual history) Take time and treat it like a skill (schedule it – make it matter) Have conversation and negotiate You know best (sexual agent - trust your experience, not looking to other sources to be experts on you)
[jbox title="Show Notes:" border="5" radius="15"] Thanks for listening! Remember, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and get them delivered for free on a weekly basis!
Here are some of the resources we talked about in the podcast today. If you want to learn more about finding a balance between virtue and sexuality, this is a great place to start.
Real Intimacy: A Couple's Guide to Healthy Genuine Sexuality was written by today's podcast guests, Kristin Hodson and Alisha Worthington. Check out their website, The Healing Group, for counseling, support and hope.
The Danger in Demonizing Male Sexuality, by Alyssa Royse discusses how the current "predator/prey" model of sexual relationships is harmful to both men and women alike.
The Secret To Desire In A Long-Term Relationship is a TED Talk by Esther Perel that talks about the conflicting needs within a healthy sexual relationship. The need for security and the need for surprise. The need predictability and the need for spontaneity. The need for independence and the need for vulnerability and closeness. Communication is key to a healthy sexy life.