Book Review: Mating in Captivity

As mentioned in my last post, the author Esther Perel has been one of my current favorites. She grew up in Antwerp as the daughter of Holocaust survivors and her blossoming family therapy practice focused on issues of trauma and cultural conflict. Since then however, her specialty has become couples.

I have read two of her books, her most popular, Mating in Captivity, and the very provocative book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. For reasons of brevity this post will focus on Mating in Captivity. If you are interested in my take on the other book, let me know, I will write something up.

Basically, her premise is that as human beings we have two primary needs in a long term relationship. The first is security, the second is excitement. However, we are an ideal lot and our modern society has began to equate ‘true love’ and relationships with the later. We have really over-idealized the notion. She has a bit of an evolutionary point of view on this: before industrialization marriage was more pragmatic. People married to find domestic roots and economic sustenance, but their emotional fulfilment was found within the community- friendships, religious organizations etc. Then the industrial age hit, we left the home for work, we moved to the cities, and we became more disconnected and lonelier, and ultimately, intimacy became a need. Today we have more choice when searching for our partners in marriage- we want it all, trust, respect, unyielding love, friendship, support, economic benefits, the list seems to go on and on.

Dullness, the absence of sparks, or worse, infidelity, Dr. Perel reassures is not wrong, or that hope should be lost. Instead she says couples should focus on the idea of eroticism. She rejected the long-held wisdom in the professional community that if you fix the relationship through talking therapy, the sex will reignite. Perel does not agree this always works: “I worked with so many couples that improved dramatically in the kitchen, and it did nothing for the bedroom. But if you fix the sex, the relationship transforms.” This is different than just scheduling more intimate nights with your partner mind you, it is psychological.

Here are some of her tips that really resonated with me:

-Find your independence, stick with your hobbies, be a little a selfish and take your guys or girls night. This builds mystery between two partners and helps re-spark your passion.

-Believe it or not, partners don’t need to talk 24-7! I know I know, its shocking to think this, but when communication becomes obligatory, personal boundaries are erased, and fusion replaces intimacy and possession co-opts love.

-Leave your politics outside of the bedroom door! Here in the U.S. we value democracy, equality, compromise, and tolerance (well we used to), but in the bedroom, these features can lead to some very dull sex. Sex is a poetry that thrives on power play, role reversals, unfair advantages, demands, and seductive manipulations. This does not mean we are anti-feminist, or calling for a return of the patriarchy, it just means that they do not best fulfill our needs in the realm of pleasure.

Perpetual beta is a little like her overall hypothesis. Namely, that working out the erotic and the domestic roles in you relationship is not a problem that you solve: “It is a paradox that you manage.” We are all works in progress, we all should be striving to do better in the areas that we need to, but let us also acknowledge it is never 0-100 like Drake says. It is 0-10, then 10-20, then 20-30 and so on. Lets do the work, but lets also be a bit easy on ourselves and our loved ones!


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