Cultivating Erotic Intelligence in Couples Therapy

Reconciling Sensuality and Domesticity

Esther Perel

America, in matters of sex as in much else, seems to be a goal-oriented society that prefers explicit meanings, candor, and "plain speech" to ambiguity and allusion. In America, this predilection for clarity and unvarnished directness, often associated with honesty and openness, is encouraged by many therapists in their clients: "If you want to make love to your wife/ husband, why don't you say it clearly? And tell him/her exactly what you want."

But I often suggest an alternative with my clients: "There's so much direct talk already in the everyday conversations couples have with each other," I tell them. "If you want to create more passion in your relationship, why don't you play a little more with the natural ambiguity of gesture and words, and the rich nuances inherent in communication."

Ironically, some of America's best features—the belief in democracy, equality, consensus-building, compromise, fairness, and mutual tolerance—can, when carried too punctiliously into the bedroom, result in very boring sex. Sexual desire doesn't play by the same rules of good citizenship that maintain peace and contentment in the social relations between partners. Sexual excitement is politically incorrect, often thriving on power plays, role reversals, unfair advantages, imperious demands, seductive manipulations, and subtle cruelties. American couples therapists, shaped by the legacy of egalitarian ideals, often find themselves challenged by these contradictions.

What I'd characterize as a European emphasis on complementarity—the appeal of difference—rather than strict gender equality has, it seems to me, made women on the other side of the Atlantic feel less conflict between being smart and being sexy. In Europe, to sexualize a woman doesn't mean to denigrate her intelligence or competence or authority. Women, therefore, can enjoy expressing their sexuality and being objects of desire, and enjoy their sexual power, without feeling they're forfeiting their right to be taken seriously as professionals and workers.

Of course, American feminists achieved momentous improvements in all aspects of women's lives. Yet without denigrating those historically significant achievements, I do believe that the emphasis on egalitarian and respectful sex—purged of any expressions of power, aggression, and transgression—is antithetical to erotic desire, for men and women alike.

So many of the couples who come to therapy imagine that they know everything there is to know about their mate. In large part, I see my job as trying to highlight for them how little they've seen, urging them to recover their curiosity and catch a glimpse behind the walls that encircle the other. Eroticism is the fuel for that curiosity, the experience of desire transfigured by the imagination.

As Mexican essayist Octavio Paz has written, eroticism is "the poetry of the body, the testimony of the senses. Like a poem, it is not linear, it meanders and twists back on itself, shows us what we do not see with our eyes, but in the eyes of our spirit. Eroticism reveals to us another world, inside this world. The senses become servants of the imagination, and let us see the invisible and hear the inaudible."

In our newest webcast series—The Changing Face of Marriage—Esther explores the fundamental changes marriage is undergoing in our contemporary world. With a captivating breakdown of the different ways that Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, and Millennials are interpreting everything from marital traditions to sexual exploration to divorce, our interview with Esther sheds light on what every therapist should know when facing these issues in the consulting room.

Topic: Couples

Tags: couples therapist | couples therapists | divorce | imagination | SPECT | TED | therapist | therapists

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014 1:20:57 AM | posted by Susan
I also want to be sure to add that when Esther speaks of role reversals, this can certainly mean
the male as both sex subject and object, same as females. It would be helpful if Esther clarified that---although I think it is implied. A case though where less mystery in her own talk would be helpful perhaps. I don't think women are encouraged in America to see men through the female gaze. Way too often things are seen through the male gaze (our movies, books, politics, really most everything)...the female gaze is critical and yes, needs to be talked clearly about, so people know what that is exactly.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014 1:10:30 AM | posted by Susan
I've heard Esther Perel speak, read her books and articles. I don't think she is suggesting
a move in the direction of pornography at all. Nor do I think she is doing away with the idea of trust in a relationship. In fact, I think she emphasizes only when trust IS there, can there be an edginess that is so often lost in domestic relationships. I've never read or heard her say that any person should do any sexual anything that they do not want to do. She suggests other things though. The idea that intimacy is maybe not so great for erotic sex as we have thought. American couples (especially those who have been in couples therapy) often are too talky. There also is in marriage a forgetting of the "relationship" and a sense of ownership, of "knowing" the other so well, and foregoing mystery. She is a clear voice to me in sex therapy these days. She is about as far from "Shades of Grey" as one could get, for example.

Thursday, October 2, 2014 6:15:08 PM | posted by David Williams
In her assertion that "sexual desire doesn’t play by the same rules of good citizenship that maintain peace and contentment in the social relations between partners," Esther Perel seems to be encouraging a sexuality that is incompatible with trust and thus, with healthy emotional intimacy. Of course it is true that, for many, "sexual excitement is politically incorrect, often thriving on power plays, . . . unfair advantages, imperious demands, seductive manipulations, and subtle cruelties." Indeed, these themes are very common in the pornography and even the entertainment industry. But do they engender trust? Emotional safety? Closeness? Do we really want to establish some kind of aggression-based sexuality as a model for healthy sexual expression? Putting our personal preferences aside, do we really have any evidence that such practices actually strengthen and enliven -- not just temporary sexual pleasure, but also the relationship as a whole? It has been my experience that sensitivity, gentleness, communication, and playfulness are much more likely to create not only a satisfying sexual experience, but one that grows and sustains that central desire in all of us -- to love and be loved.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014 4:04:57 PM | posted by Question Du Jour | Uncouth Reflections
[...] Esther Perel is another brainy woman with a sensible, worldly view of sex. Here’s her fabulous book; here’s her latest column. [...]

Tuesday, September 30, 2014 3:54:45 PM | posted by Avrum Nadigel

Really? My experience - echoed by Schnarch and others - is that spouses map each other pretty well. They know what their partner wants, they're simply too anxious to go there.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014 3:42:55 PM | posted by Michele Weiner-Davis
Although I completely agree with Esther about the power of the mysterious, I am a card-holding therapist who asks couples to get more specific with each other when their sexual needs aren't being met. I wish I had a dollar for each time a woman in my practice has said to me, "I don't want to have sex, I want to make love." The expression on husbands' faces is priceless. They're clueless. So, step-by-step, I have women unpack their idiosyncratic meaning of "making love" in behaviorial terms. And voila, their men are relieved and willing "love-making" participants in their next rendezvous. Sometimes innuendo is just a bit too sketchy.