The secret to desire in a long-term relationship | Esther Perel


Translator: Joseph Geni
Reviewer: Morton Bast 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. You know, this is the first time
in the history of humankind where we are trying to experience
sexuality in the long term not because we want 14 children, for which we need to have even more
because many of them won’t make it, and not because it is exclusively
a woman’s marital duty. This is the first time
that we want sex over time about pleasure and connection
that is rooted in desire. 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. (Laughter) 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. (Laughter) (Applause) So now we get to the existential
reality of the story, right? Because I think, in some way — and I’ll come back to that — but the crisis of desire
is often a crisis of the imagination. So why does good sex so often fade? What is the relationship
between love and desire? How do they relate,
and how do they conflict? Because therein lies
the mystery of eroticism. So if there is a verb, for me,
that comes with love, it’s “to have.” And if there is a verb that comes
with desire, it is “to want.” In love, we want to have,
we want to know the beloved. We want to minimize the distance. We want to contract that gap. We want to neutralize the tensions. We want closeness. But in desire, we tend to not really want to go back
to the places we’ve already gone. Forgone conclusion
does not keep our interest. In desire, we want an Other, somebody on the other side
that we can go visit, that we can go spend some time with, that we can go see what goes on
in their red-light district. You know? In desire, we want a bridge to cross. Or in other words,
I sometimes say, fire needs air. Desire needs space. And when it’s said like that,
it’s often quite abstract. But then I took a question with me. And I’ve gone to more than 20 countries
in the last few years with “Mating in Captivity,”
and I asked people, when do you find yourself
most drawn to your partner? Not attracted sexually,
per Se, but most drawn. And across culture, across religion,
and across gender — except for one — there are a few answers
that just keep coming back. So the first group is: I am most drawn to my partner
when she is away, when we are apart, when we reunite. Basically, when I get back in touch with my ability to imagine myself
with my partner, when my imagination comes
back in the picture, and when I can root it
in absence and in longing, which is a major component of desire. But then the second group
is even more interesting. I am most drawn to my partner when I see him in the studio, when she is onstage, when he is in his element, when she’s doing something
she’s passionate about, when I see him at a party
and other people are really drawn to him, when I see her hold court. Basically, when I look at my partner
radiant and confident. Probably the biggest
turn-on across the board. Radiant, as in self-sustaining. I look at this person —
by the way, in desire people rarely talk about it,
when we are blended into one, five centimeters from each other. I don’t know in inches how much that is. But it’s also not when the other person
is that far apart that you no longer see them. It’s when I’m looking at my partner
from a comfortable distance, where this person that is already
so familiar, so known, is momentarily once again
somewhat mysterious, somewhat elusive. And in this space between me
and the other lies the erotic élan, lies that movement toward the other. Because sometimes, as Proust says, mystery is not
about traveling to new places, but it’s about looking with new eyes. And so, when I see my partner
on his own or her own, doing something
in which they are enveloped, I look at this person and I momentarily
get a shift in perception, and I stay open to the mysteries
that are living right next to me. And then, more importantly,
in this description about the other or myself — it’s the same — what is most interesting
is that there is no neediness in desire. Nobody needs anybody. There is no caretaking in desire. Caretaking is mightily loving. It’s a powerful anti-aphrodisiac. (Laughter) I have yet to see somebody
who is so turned on by somebody who needs them. Wanting them is one thing. Needing them is a shot down and women have known that forever, because anything
that will bring up parenthood will usually decrease the erotic charge. (Laughter) For good reasons, right? And then the third group
of answers usually would be: when I’m surprised,
when we laugh together, as somebody said to me
in the office today, when he’s in his tux, so I said, you know, it’s either the tux or the cowboy boots. But basically it’s when there is novelty. But novelty isn’t about new positions. It isn’t a repertoire of techniques. Novelty is, what parts
of you do you bring out? What parts of you are just being seen? Because in some way one could say
sex isn’t something you do, eh? Sex is a place you go. It’s a space you enter inside yourself
and with another, or others. So where do you go in sex? What parts of you do you connect to? What do you seek to express there? Is it a place for transcendence
and spiritual union? Is it a place for naughtiness
and is it a place to be safely aggressive? Is it a place where you
can finally surrender and not have to take
responsibility for everything? Is it a place where you can
express your infantile wishes? What comes out there? It’s a language. It isn’t just a behavior. And it’s the poetic of that language
that I’m interested in, which is why I began to explore
this concept of erotic intelligence. You know, animals have sex. It’s the pivot, it’s biology,
it’s the natural instinct. We are the only ones
who have an erotic life, which means that it’s sexuality
transformed by the human imagination. We are the only ones
who can make love for hours, have a blissful time, multiple orgasms, and touch nobody,
just because we can imagine it. We can hint at it.
We don’t even have to do it. We can experience that powerful
thing called anticipation, which is a mortar to desire. The ability to imagine it,
as if it’s happening, to experience it as if it’s happening, while nothing is happening and everything is happening,
at the same time. So when I began to think about eroticism, I began to think about the poetics of sex. And if I look at it as an intelligence, then it’s something that you cultivate. What are the ingredients? Imagination, playfulness, novelty, curiosity, mystery. But the central agent is really
that piece called the imagination. But more importantly,
for me to begin to understand who are the couples
who have an erotic spark, what sustains desire, I had to go back
to the original definition of eroticism, the mystical definition, and I went through it
through a bifurcation by looking, actually, at trauma, which is the other side. And I looked at it, looking at the community
that I had grown up in, which was a community in Belgium,
all Holocaust survivors, and in my community,
there were two groups: those who didn’t die,
and those who came back to life. And those who didn’t die lived
often very tethered to the ground, could not experience
pleasure, could not trust, because when you’re vigilant,
worried, anxious, and insecure, you can’t lift your head
to go and take off in space and be playful and safe and imaginative. Those who came back to life were those who understood
the erotic as an antidote to death. They knew how to keep themselves alive. And when I began to listen to the sexlessness
of the couples that I work with, I sometimes would hear people
say, “I want more sex,” but generally, people want better sex, and better is to reconnect
with that quality of aliveness, of vibrancy, of renewal, of vitality, of Eros, of energy that sex used to afford them, or that they’ve hoped
it would afford them. And so I began to ask
a different question. “I shut myself off when …”
began to be the question. “I turn off my desires when …” Which is not the same question as, “What turns me off is …”
and “You turn me off when …” And people began to say,
“I turn myself off when I feel dead inside,
when I don’t like my body, when I feel old, when I haven’t had time for myself, when I haven’t had a chance
to even check in with you, when I don’t perform well at work, when I feel low self esteem, when I don’t have a sense of self-worth, when I don’t feel like I have
a right to want, to take, to receive pleasure.” And then I began to ask
the reverse question. “I turn myself on when …” Because most of the time,
people like to ask the question, “You turn me on, what turns me on,” and I’m out of the question, you know? Now, if you are dead inside, the other person can do
a lot of things for Valentine’s. It won’t make a dent.
There is nobody at the reception desk. (Laughter) So I turn myself on when, I turn on my desires, I wake up when … Now, in this paradox
between love and desire, what seems to be so puzzling is that the very ingredients
that nurture love — mutuality, reciprocity, protection, worry,
responsibility for the other — are sometimes the very ingredients
that stifle desire. Because desire comes
with a host of feelings that are not always
such favorites of love: jealousy, possessiveness, aggression, power, dominance, naughtiness, mischief. Basically most of us will get turned on
at night by the very same things that we will demonstrate
against during the day. You know, the erotic mind
is not very politically correct. If everybody was fantasizing
on a bed of roses, we wouldn’t be having such
interesting talks about this. (Laughter) But no, in our mind up there
are a host of things going on that we don’t always know
how to bring to the person that we love, because we think love
comes with selflessness and in fact desire comes
with a certain amount of selfishness in the best sense of the word: the ability to stay connected
to one’s self in the presence of another. So I want to draw
that little image for you, because this need to reconcile
these two sets of needs, we are born with that. Our need for connection,
our need for separateness, or our need for security and adventure, or our need for togetherness
and for autonomy, and if you think about the little kid
who sits on your lap and who is cozily nested here
and very secure and comfortable, and at some point all of us
need to go out into the world to discover and to explore. That’s the beginning of desire, that exploratory need,
curiosity, discovery. And then at some point they turn
around and they look at you. And if you tell them, “Hey kiddo, the world’s a great place. Go for it. There’s so much fun out there,” then they can turn away
and they can experience connection and separateness
at the same time. They can go off in their imagination,
off in their body, off in their playfulness, all the while knowing that there’s
somebody when they come back. But if on this side
there is somebody who says, “I’m worried. I’m anxious. I’m depressed. My partner hasn’t taken care
of me in so long. What’s so good out there? Don’t we have everything
you need together, you and I?” then there are a few little reactions that all of us can pretty much recognize. Some of us will come back, came back a long time ago, and that little child who comes back is the child who will forgo
a part of himself in order not to lose the other. I will lose my freedom
in order not to lose connection. And I will learn to love in a certain way that will become burdened with extra worry and extra responsibility
and extra protection, and I won’t know how to leave you in order to go play,
in order to go experience pleasure, in order to discover,
to enter inside myself. Translate this into adult language. It starts very young. It continues into our sex lives
up to the end. Child number two comes back but looks like that
over their shoulder all the time. “Are you going to be there? Are you going to curse me, scold me? Are you going to be angry with me?” And they may be gone,
but they’re never really away. And those are often the people
that will tell you, “In the beginning, it was super hot.” Because in the beginning, the growing intimacy wasn’t yet so strong that it actually led
to the decrease of desire. The more connected I became,
the more responsible I felt, the less I was able to let go
in your presence. The third child doesn’t really come back. So what happens,
if you want to sustain desire, it’s that real dialectic piece. On the one hand you want the security
in order to be able to go. On the other hand if you can’t go,
you can’t have pleasure, you can’t culminate,
you don’t have an orgasm, you don’t get excited
because you spend your time in the body and the head
of the other and not in your own. So in this dilemma about reconciling
these two sets of fundamental needs, there are a few things that I’ve come
to understand erotic couples do. One, they have a lot of sexual privacy. They understand
that there is an erotic space that belongs to each of them. They also understand
that foreplay is not something you do five minutes before the real thing. Foreplay pretty much starts
at the end of the previous orgasm. They also understand
that an erotic space isn’t about, you begin to stroke the other. It’s about you create a space
where you leave Management Inc., maybe where you leave the Agile program — (Laughter) And you actually just enter that place
where you stop being the good citizen who is taking care of things
and being responsible. Responsibility and desire just butt heads. They don’t really do well together. Erotic couples also understand
that passion waxes and wanes. It’s pretty much like the moon. It has intermittent eclipses. But what they know
is they know how to resurrect it. They know how to bring it back. And they know how to bring it back because they have
demystified one big myth, which is the myth of spontaneity, which is that it’s just going
to fall from heaven while you’re folding the laundry
like a deus ex machina, and in fact they understood that whatever is going to just happen
in a long-term relationship, already has. Committed sex is premeditated sex. It’s willful. It’s intentional. It’s focus and presence. Merry Valentine’s. (Applause)

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